National Geographic : 1994 Aug
Yet Cape buffalo are among the favorite quarry of the region's lions. While elsewhere in Africa lions are known to tackle and bring down Cape buffalo only occasionally, these cats will actually go out of their way to do so. Once we were following lions that had been stalking giraffes for about two hours. When they heard a distant buffalo, they abruptly broke off the hunt and immediately switched targets. Why? With those long legs, giraffes can run very fast with out tiring. We witnessed about 200 giraffe hunts by lions, and only six of them were success ful. Of roughly the same num ber of buffalo hunts we saw, only three failed. SHADOWING the hunters in the night are the lions' ancient rivals, the hye nas. For three years we suspended our work on lion predation to study this rela tionship intensely. We found that in Savuti there are differ ences in the ways lions and hye nas interact compared with elsewhere in Africa. Much confusion has existed about each animal's role. It was long believed that lions were purely hunters and hyenas purely scavengers. The lines began to blur when it was observed by biologists, includ ing Hans Kruuk and George B. Schaller, that lions sometimes steal carcasses from hyenas. In Savuti the behavior of both animals spans the spectrum. Lions and hyenas are skilled hunters in their own right, and each species steals kills from the other. But to us the most important thing is the constant conflict between lions and hyenas. Although disputes sometimes arise over competition for food, they often spring out of pure aggression. In Savuti this may be heightened by high densities of both animals. We have often seen hyenas inflict vicious wounds on a lion ess that has become separated from her pride, with no kill present to quarrel over. And lions will deliberately hunt down hyenas and kill them without bothering to feed on the remains. Twice we have seen Ntwadumela charge directly into a hyena clan and kill the ruling female. One day the lions win. The next, the hyenas. Why? After watching a skirmish, I won dered if the outcome of individ ual battles could be predicted. Could the combined weight of each side be the determining factor? A pride of Savuti lions comprises about ten animals, while a hyena clan varies between 18 and 40. An adult lioness weighs approximately 300 pounds and a hyena as much as 175 pounds. But in a clash, each side is rarely at full strength. For various reasons, there are always absentees. From our field notes I totaled the number and weight of all the contestants on each side in the battles we had witnessed. The results supported my theory. If an entire pride of lions met up with a full clan of hyenas, the combined weights were so even that the outcome could not be predicted. But some mem bers were always missing, and that tipped the balance. The side with fewer absentees-the heavier side-always won. We remember one particu larly exhausting evening. It started, as always, at sunset, as vehicles full of tourists depart ing for their camp pulled away from the sleeping lions of Maome's pride. For us, work began. The pride awoke and throughout the night led us on a grueling chase as they made a series of kills. First they downed a small hare, then a young zebra; then they fought a three-hour marathon to kill a buffalo. As the lions began their buf falo feast, they were charged by a clan of hyenas. Badly outnum bered, the lions abandoned their hard-won meal and climbed the dead trees nearby. We had followed the lions for 11 hours, zigging and zagging for 45 miles through the Savuti grassland. Now we stayed until the horizon turned orange and we could see the lions' silhouettes against the dawn. With the hyenas gone, the pride eventually came down and walked over to the little fringe of trees that promised the only shade during the heat of the day. They chose their favorite tree and lay down. Soon, the first tourist vehicle pulled up, bringing visitors who had been there the day before. "These lazy lions haven't done a thing since we left," one remarked in disgust. We were just too tired to correct him. [ NationalGeographic EXPLORER will air "Lionsof Darkness" in two parts, on August 21 and 28 at 9 p.m. ET on TBS Superstation. At daybreak a long night of hunting ends for Ntwadumela and his pride. Now Savuti's lions will curl up in the shade, awaiting sunset and the darkness that they rule.