At Tintswalo, we are fortunate to experience some of the most spectacular displays of lion hunting in Africa. It’s true that lions hunt buffalo in many reserves in Africa, but in the Manyeleti they seem to take this unique and impressive skill to the next level!
One of our resident prides, the Mbiri Pride (made up of 5 lionesses) are particularly effective buffalo hunters. As guides, we’ve seen the Mbiri lions hunt in the daytime and at night, open areas, thick woodland and in rivereen. All over!
They are masters of the chase, and for them, it’s all about the opportunity that’s presented. When all of the Mbiri females are combined, they are unstoppable, and you can see the significant change in their confidence on the hunt.
I remember on one occasion during the 2016 drought, the Mbiri’s killed seven buffalo in two days around the same waterhole. Unbelievably, with full bellies, while they were feeding on the buffalo already, killed they would hunt again if the herds of buffalo came back to the pan. The weakened demeanour of the buffalo spoke for itself, their heads were hanging low on the ground when they walked. They simply didn’t have enough energy due to the lack of nutrients in the grass and available water.
Its completely the opposite during the summer, the buffalos endurance during a fight lasts much longer when they fight for their lives.
So, how and why do these epic battles take place so frequently at Tintswalo? Read on!
How do the lions execute a hunt?
Lions are believed to feed every three or four days, and need on average between 5kg and 7kg of meat a day to live. But they can go without food for more than a week and then tear into prey, eating up to 50 kg of meat at a time—that’s almost a quarter of the animal’s body weight.
In a successful hunt, the prey is knocked off balance, dragged down and then killed with a bite to the back of the neck or the throat. In some cases, a kill can be a bloody, drawn out procedure. Buffalo have been known to fend off lion attacks for hours, before succumbing to loss of blood and energy.
The Mbiri lionesses will do exactly the same. Most of the hunts we’ve witnessed where when the lionesses ran together toward the buffalo in an attempt to isolate a calf or another individual from the herd. Buffalos are deadly when they remain as a unit, but not so when isolated. Most of the time the herd of buffalo is so startled that the calves will be trampled by one of their in an attempt to escape. If caught, the buffalo will utter a deafening distress call that could make the herd turn around and come charging back to push the lions off. One of the lionesses will usually then close the muzzle of the animal to eliminate the audio, also depriving it of oxygen while another lioness will bite over the throat area to close the windpipe killing the animal as quickly as possible.
The stomach is usually the easiest point of entry into the carcass, and this is the route most often taken by lions. It also gives them direct access to some of the most nutritious parts of the body, such as the kidneys and liver of the prey. Lions usually rest after an initial feed, lying a short way away from the carcass so that they can still defend their kill against scavengers.
I’ve noticed that these lionesses will sometimes open up through the rib cage to get to the heart and lungs. This area is also full of blood, blood contains 80% moist with also will quench their thirst and no need for them then to head off to the water if its to far.
Why are Manyeleti lions so successful?
There are a few factors that make the Lions of Tintswalo some of the best buffalo hunters in Africa.
Lions favour open woodlands and thick scrub—the type of landscape that allows them to get as close to their prey as possible without being seen
Soil is the growth medium for plants that serve as food and provide habitat for a variety of living organisms. Game species are also associated with certain vegetation communities (habitats).
The majority of our top lion sightings have been in areas where the clay and cotton soils dominate. When weathered, these areas develop into extremely nutritious soils where your acacias and your highly palatable grasses are growing! Hence the reason for the grazers like buffalo zebra and wildebeest being prominent in these areas.
African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) have a large distributional range across the savannas of Africa. Their habitat selection and foraging ecology have been relatively well studied. The large absolute food demands of buffalo, which is a function of their large body size , combined with their inability to efficiently crop short grass constrain them to foraging in vegetation with sufficient height and biomass of forage . Buffalo generally avoid heavily grazed regions of short grassland , preferring woodlands dominated by tufted and leafy perennial grasses during the wet season and often relying on more productive riverine vegetation during the dry season
In some of the more denser areas of the Manyeleti the grazing potential is still great due to the clay soils thats richer, poorly drained and dark. As mentioned above, buffalo doesn’t mind moving in these denser ares due to their size and their ability to fend off predators. But for the predators like lions, it simply means that there is more concealment to be able to get within the right striking distance.
So these denser areas are actually the main battle grounds for the lion and Buffalo.
Time of day
Lions tend to hunt mostly by night or in the early mornings, and for much of the rest of the time are the embodiment of lassitude. However, being opportunists they’ll hunt whenever the chance arises and that could be the middle of the hottest day.
Most of the kills that we find on average are buffalo that was hunted at night. I’ve noticed that the lions will also tend to persist when it’s cooler, its obvious because they expend less energy whilst burning the midnight oil, hence the higher success rate at night. Their eyesight is also 8 times better then our own at night.
The size of the pride
When the lions are separated, they are certainly more careful. This in turn leads to a lower success rate when hunting and the size of the prey; is smaller at times for ex, buffalo calves vs adult buffalo bulls. We have seen the three younger Mbiris chase after adult buffalo bulls and failing miserably, so bad that it almost turns out to be life threatening for the lions.
There are a few factors that influences their decision to ignite a hunt. The size of the pride; the mbiri lionesses consists of five. The two older lionesses and the mothers of the three younger lionesses. When all of the females are combined they are unstoppable, and you can see the significant change in their confidence. When they are separated they are with out a doubt more careful .Thus in turn leads to a lower success rate when hunting and the size of the prey; is smaller at times for ex, buffalo calves vs adult buffalo bulls. We have seen the three younger mbiris chase after adult buffalo bulls and failing miserably, so bad that it almost turns out to be life threatening for the lions.
Male and female lions
Kruger researchers suggest male and female lions may also have different prey preferences, with males being more disposed towards hunting buffalo, while lionesses prefer zebra or wildebeest. Another fact not commonly appreciated is that lions are not just hunters, but scavengers as well, often chasing smaller predators – like cheetah – off their kills. In some instances, up to 50% of a lion’s diet can come from scavenging rather than hunting live prey.
During periods of drought, lions sometimes go on a killing spree when they come across herds of weak animals. During the particularly bad drought of 1964, a pride of lions killed 15 buffalo near Punda Maria – far more than they could have eaten.
The territorial behaviour of lions is complicated because prides split up and re-unite, and hunting grounds shift as the seasons change and the game moves around. At any one time, a pride’s territory in Kruger measures approximately 10 square kilometres. Territories may be defended vigorously by both males and females, but there are instances when prides share the same overlapping hunting zone yet deliberately avoid confrontation.
Although there is no perennial systems or permanent flowing rivers in the Manyeleti Game Reserve. The amount of water available is more then enough to attract the big herds of buffalo that moves through. And here we not even talking about the grazing potential, but sometimes, because the Kruger is so massive (about 3 000 000hc in total + the greater kruger), the big herds of buffalo could be elsewhere. Then its up to the lioness to try and hunt the smaller species that could present a bigger challenge. During these times of ‘buffalo drought’ it seems that the lionesses do less stalking and more ambushing. Prey like kudu and zebra for instance is much faster and much more in tune with their immediate surroundings, their senses like eyesight and hearing being much more acute. One of the most popular points for the Mbiri pride is at manor house. Surrounding MH pan is dense woodland savannah which offers the lions a lot of concealment to hide from the herds moving towards the water. This strategy has proved quite successful for the Mbiri’s during the times that buffalo has been scarce.
Of some significance here is the fact that they’re not very fast animals, while by contrast, the animals they hunt are some of the fastest on the planet. A wildebeest can achieve a top speed of somewhere around 80 kph and maintain it effortlessly and even a humble wart hog can manage almost 50kph.
Lions favour open woodlands and thick scrub, the type of landscape that allows them to get as close to their prey as possible without being seen. In Kruger, the best chance of lion sightings is where the big game herds are. As a rule, they hunt mostly at night and rest during the day but are often active at dawn and dusk and on cooler days. During the day they rest in thorn thickets, often near water holes.