“This is the circle of life, but it’s not like the song” said Mac after witnessing a lioness hunt and kill a baby gnu then feed it to a group of cubs. For the better part of an hour we watched and followed a single lioness hunt along the shores of an alkaline lake in the Ndutu Region of Tanzania, just outside of Serengeti National Park. Moments before, we had watched as she left three cubs and two of her sisters to collect dinner for them all.
We spotted the lioness from over a kilometer away, just an unmoving dot on the barren land, yet clearly visible as something different. Our Chakra guides, Godlisten and Agray, bring us closer so we could get a better view. The lioness lay on the dirt, scanning the area to identify a gnu or zebra that is old or injured or for a mother not paying attention to where her young offspring are. As a lone hunter, it is too difficult to take down a healthy animal so instead she waits for one to show a sign of weakness or inadvertently get separated from the herd. We park behind her as she faces into the wind, the main herd behind all of us. There is a solitary gnu walking along the lakeshore. She waits and watches. The gnu sees her, but knows that she is far enough away to not present a threat as lions can run fast, but not far. She knows, however, that she is between the gnu and the herd so she waits. We wait too, not sure what to expect. The gnu is grazing absently, but is still too far away. The lioness rises and slowly creeps closer, freezing any time the gnu looks her way as gnus have poor eyesight and cannot discern an unmoving lion from a stump or rock. The tension builds as we are witnessing something that we have only seen on television. As she creeps closer, the gnu sees her and startles but does not run away. Her cover blown, the lioness gives a half-hearted chase, but the solitary gnu is still too far away. She gives up and resumes her place in the dirt; the gnu joins the herd behind us.
The minutes pass without other prey in sight when suddenly a mother gnu and a newborn scamper directly towards the hunter. They are easy prey. She doesn’t even have to move – the unaware gnus canter within striking distance. The lioness seizes the opportunity. Kicking up alkaline dust, she sprints towards the baby, separating it from its mother. In less than 30 seconds, the hunt is over and the lioness has captured the baby gnu. But she doesn’t kill the baby immediately. The big cats (cheetahs, leopards, and lions) typically kill their prey before they eat it, unlike hyenas which will eat their prey as soon as it is subdued. Lucia says that this type of behavior is “barbaric”, but the lioness seems to be waiting for something, perhaps so that she can teach the cubs how to make the kill themselves. Maybe we were in the way. We will never know because as she drags the catch towards the bushes, the baby gnu goes limp and we feel relief as the suffering has ended.
She hides the quarry in the tall grass then summons the cubs and the other lionesses. The mother gnu paces in the distance, unsure what to do. The lionesses greet each other as the cubs jockey for the tastiest bits of the catch. We watch from five meters away and listen to the incongruously deep growls of the cubs establishing dominance among the group fascinated by how something so small could make a sound so resonant. The mother gnu continues to pace in the distance. Eventually she too joins her herd and will have to wait until next year to reproduce. Such is the circle of life on the savannah.
We spent eight days exploring the Serengeti, a vast open plain of 30,000 square kilometers straddling the border between Tanzania and Kenya. In February, the wildebeest (gnu) and zebra migrate to the short grass sections of the Southern Serengeti to give birth. They come here because it is easier to spot a predator in grass that is only a few inches tall. But the predators know that, despite the lack of cover, the odds are still in their favor. Numbering in the millions, the herds of zebras and gnus move in long serpentine lines on the horizon and congregate in to massive clouds of stripes, dust, and braying. The young are born mobile, but naïve and slow to react so are “easy” prey. The lions don’t have to conceal themselves much to separate a newborn from its mother.
The sheer quantity of life present on the plains is astounding. For an area that is semi-arid, the grasses that grow during the wet season support an immense population of grazers. At times, we would see a line of zebras or gnus stretch from one end of the horizon clear across to the other side, literally “as far as the eye can see”. The gnus would move en masse, the herd taking on a morphing life of its own that stretched and congealed without an obvious leader, but always on the move.
Giraffes, the most improbable of all animals, saunter like moving sky-scrapers across the plains and through the trees. Despite their size, they are often somewhat difficult to spot if they are not moving because of their excellent camouflage. Leopards and lions spend their days in the dappled shade of trees, waiting for the cool of the night for their hunt. Like giraffes, they are difficult to spot if not moving. Thry are so difficult to spot that we literally almost ran over a group of young lionesses because we did not see them until we were almost on top of them.
Similar to our experience in the Galapagos, the proximity of the animals on the Serengeti is remarkable. A pride of lionesses and a half-dozen or so cubs were not bothered by us watching them from a mere six-foot distance. They know that they are the king of the animals and have nothing to fear from us so are not upset by our presence any more than they would be a bird observing them from a tree. Despite the size of our vehicle (an 8 person Land Cruiser with a pop-top) and the loudness of both the engine and the people inside, they go about their day as if we are part of the landscape, not something separate from it.
The same evening as the lion kill, at the opposite end of the lake, the animals congregated in a small dense valley creating something that looked as if it should be in a “Land Before Time” movie – elephant, giraffe, gazelles, baboons, eland, antelope, wildebeest and zebras calmly milling about in the cool of the late afternoon. If there ever was a quintessential picture of African wildlife, this scene was surely it. The mental images will stay with us forever, but wrapped up in the scene as we were, we did not take any pictures which is just as well because a picture would not capture the cool of the evening, the smell of the wetlands, or the sounds as they moved about and called out.
Staying mostly in tented camps instead of lodges allowed us to be closer to the wildlife. Each night we would have different visitors milling about our camp – one night it was elephant, another zebra, and another giraffes. You don’t walk anywhere alone after dark unless the perimeter is secured with a fence, and even then we did not let the kids out by themselves. Each camp employed one or more young Maasai warriors escort you to and from your tent after sundown and who stands watch all night for dangerous intruders. They are posted outside of your tents, a respectful distance away yet close enough for quick access should anyone hear or see something of concern (which we never did….even the elephants were amazingly quiet – the only evidence was a large pile of fresh dung on the road in to camp). The lodges we stayed in provided wonderful views, swimming pool entertainment for the kids and the ability to have a spot of laundry done (necessary as standing up driving around all day looking for wildlife is a dusty proposition) but did not have the ambiance or intimacy of the tented camps.
The other remarkable experience we had while on safari was spending a morning with the Wa’Hadzabe bushmen tribe near Lake Eyasi. The Hadzabe are a modern day hunter/gatherer society who are keenly aware of the utility of running water, subsistence agriculture, and permanent housing yet voluntarily choose to maintain the hunter/gatherer lifestyle. They are a small band, perhaps 30 or so members, where the men hunt in the bush for small game, birds, or baboons with hand made bows and arrows while the women gather nuts, fruits, and other products from the forest.
If they catch game, they can either make a small fire (without matches or a lighter) and cook it in the bush or sometimes they will just eat it raw right there. We did our best to keep up with them but were frequently caught up by having our clothes snagged in the acacia thorns, stumbling over the rocky terrain, or needing to stop to catch our breath. They didn’t wait for us and continued on their hunt because if they do not catch anything, there is nothing to eat today. Our translator would help us find them again, calling out in the click language or with a whistling sound. The end of our visit included trying our hand at shooting their bows (harder than you’d think) and sharing a farewell dance together.
Our preconceived images and knowledge of the Serengeti were acquired solely through visits to the zoo or watching David Attenborough or Marlin Perkins show us via television or film. When we found ourselves in the truck racing across the Savannah with animals on all horizons, we found ourselves to be somewhere we never imagined possible. Spending time with the Maasai and Hadzabe as they went about their daily life brought all of our anthropology and sociology lessons to life. For Lucia and Mac, their experience will be flipped from ours; they have experienced these things early in their lives and will be able to have a context for further learning when it comes up in school. Our whole time in the Serengeti area felt as if we were part of an old-style National Geographic Expedition (but with many more comforts) or somehow part of a movie. We all felt more alive and further away from home than we have anywhere else. It was truly an experience of a lifetime.