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safari 101
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baobab trees
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania; Oct 20, 2004

a view to a kill

After a long morning of trundling about the Northern Serengeti, we were on our way back to Migration Camp for lunch. We had woken up extra early (6:30) and hadn’t seen much the whole morning. Tired and slightly dejected, we were considering taking the afternoon off to rest for a while.

As Thomas took the Land Cruiser through a long, lazy curve headed back to camp, he suddenly perked up. We have learned to recognize when Thomas spots something exciting. He doesn’t like to tell us right away in case he’s mistaken, but he’s rarely mistaken. “Lions,” he whispered, a moment later. He coaxed the 4x4 slowly closer, getting as near as possible without going off the road. He pointed, and we saw them: three lionesses about 100 meters away. Usually lions are sleeping (or at least very lazy) during this time of day (it was about 11:30 in the morning), but these three seemed unusually alert. And why not – there was a big ol’ pile of food nearby. With the wildebeest migration getting into full swing, there was plenty of good eatin’ to be had and the lionesses were attentively watching the nearby grazing group of wildebeest.

We had seen quite a few lions by this point, so at first we didn’t realize that this was going to be something special. Thomas turned off the engine and we assumed our usual positions, heads popped out of the top of the Land Cruiser, me struggling with the zoom lens waiting for a good shot (and also using it as magnification), Susan checking things out through binoculars. Meanwhile, Thomas is whispering our own personal version of Animal Planet while scanning for other nearby wildlife (Thomas is crammed full of interesting facts and knowledge and he’s always excellent about teaching us about the animals and environment).

lioness after the take down

Luckily, we had arrived not a moment too soon; one of the lionesses changed from a slow walk to a much more slinky stalk. Thomas sat upright in his seat and said, “She’s hunting!” Susan desperately fumbled with the camcorder and I kept an eye on the lioness through the camera. She looked just like our cat Chloe back home when she’s about to ambush a piece of string behind the couch. The lioness started to trot with the other two following more slowly behind. Thomas started the engine as we realized that she was going to move out of sight soon. Very fortunately for us, however, her trajectory was basically parallel to the road. Just as Thomas got the truck moving, she broke into a full sprint. Thomas gunned the engine and we bounced around like rag dolls, trying to keep an eye on the star of the show. (quick side note: I have no idea how the Discovery Channel guys get this stuff on film. It’s like trying to sip hot coffee while you’re going 40 miles an hour over potholes and speed bumps, all without looking down – see our lion kill in the Serengeti video for a hoot).

At this point, the wildebeest had figured out that something was wrong. They bolted in several directions, causing a giant dust cloud, making it even harder to see what was going on. But Thomas had somehow managed to keep us basically even with the lioness. She descended out of sight momentarily down a hill but then emerged again on the other side, bearing down on her chosen prey.

It was all over in an instant. She tackled one of the smaller wildebeest, and got her teeth into its neck in a strangle hold. Soon, the wildebeest was down, with the lioness calmly holding on. Over the next few minutes, the wildebeest would jerk a few times, even trying to regain a standing position, but the lioness’s jaw held firm. The wildebeest finally stopped moving completely, and the lioness let go.

little one coming to lunch

As if this all wasn’t interesting enough, we continued to watch in awe as the pride was summoned. The two accompanying lionesses didn’t help with the kill at all (it obviously wasn’t necessary), but they did assist in summoning the family. After they trotted up and examined the kill, they slinked off behind the hill, to return a few minutes later. To our great delight, we spotted a little cub struggling up and down the small hills, making his way to the dinner table. Then another, and another. All in all, there were ten cubs! The smallest of which took quite a while to arrive, but eventually made it.

Thomas theorized that they had all eaten fairly recently since they weren’t diving into the meal. They casually gnawed here and there and slowly loosened up some good pieces to chew on. We even spotted poppa observing from afar; he obviously wasn’t hungry at the moment.

the whole family having a feast

We watched in amazement for about two hours as 4 lionesses (another younger one had arrived) and 10 cubs jockeyed for position around the wildebeest and had a nice, relaxed lunch. A relatively uneventful morning had transformed completely. Thomas said that in his 7 years as a guide, he has only seen 5 such kills, so we felt very fortunate indeed. We headed back to Migration Camp for a very late lunch, totally energized and excited.

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