TK glanced at the shivering group in his open-sided Land Rover, then took the wheel. “African massage,” he shouted back at his swaying passengers as the jeep rocked and rolled over the rutted dirt road this early morning. His head hung over the windowless door, eyes focused on the ground. He stopped the jeep, stepped down, and picked a small bloody twig from the ground.
We were off-road in Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve with our safari guide TK driving and the community watchdog named Innocent riding shotgun to make sure he didn’t off-road unnecessarily. TK reminded me of an adolescent boy––nothing thrilled him more than to mow down three and four foot trees and shrubs with the jeep, looking for animal tracks in the sand. I hung on and wondered where the vehicle’s fuel tank was located, as the stumps and branches scraped and klunked against the undercarriage.
TK had seen fresh leopard tracks––“fresh” because the edges were sharp and no insects tracks were on top of the fat paw prints. We drove round and round and finally saw where the kill had taken place––in a grassy area, TK showed us a fresh drop of blood on the dry straw. “An impala, or maybe a steen buck. Definitely something small,” this man of few words offered.
The fresh feces and still-wet urine next to it clued TK in, and showed us the poor creature had been scared. But where was the kill? We saw no carcass, no bone fragments, not even any vultures in the trees. Nothing.
TK and Innocent laughed a little and shook their heads at how capricious nature could be, then told us the story: another set of prints nearby showed them that a hyena had snatched the prey after the leopard had killed it, but before he could eat it. The hyena had scurried off with the dead animal, leaving the hungry leopard to continue his hunt.
First we saw the three cats, female lions sleeping off a meal too big to feel comfortable. They panted and rolled from side to side in their sleep, unable even to raise their heads. You could almost hear them groan, “Ohhh, I ate too much.” One of the lions appeared to be in distress, her desperate panting and discomfort felt worrisome to us. Pregnant, her stomach was being squeezed by unborn young.
Then a fourth lion walked around from behind the shrub and lay down close to the other three. She rested, too, but held her head up periodically and looked around. Maybe she was on sentry duty. The nine of us in the jeep didn’t move or stand up – with the jeep we made an image too big to be prey and not a threat from her experience; she ignored us.
We were parked a few feet from the kill––a zebra with a good bit of its body missing
and its black-and-white striped hide discreetly pulled over the remaining flesh, half-way hidden in second bunch of shrubbery. The head was twisted and wrenched into an awkward position from the initial suffocating clamp of a lion.
Vultures patiently sitting in a nearby tree would wait several more hours before they could get their share. Our safari guide told us that the pride, not knowing when they would eat again, would finish off the zebra by evening.
A jackal walked slowly up to the shrub behind the sleeping lions. He paced to the right of the bush, stopped, paced to the left of the bush, stopped. The sentry lion raised her head and looked around. Maybe she saw him, maybe she didn’t. The jackal couldn’t be sure. He couldn’t find the kill. He smelled it, he knew there was something in the vicinity, but where was it? To see the zebra from where he was, he would have to walk right in front of the lions. Three times he paced and stopped.
It wasn’t worth the risk. He sauntered off.
Date of travel: Sept. 2013. Tour: OAT’s Ultimate Africa