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Elephant Killers

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Lions Kill Elephants

“Do lions develop a taste for specific prey species?” I was asked this question during a safari, while we watched a pride of lions feeding on an elephant carcass. The elephant had probably died of old age and the lions, known for their scavenging, had picked up the scent of the carcass.

I’ve observed lions feeding on elephants on numerous occasions. In most of these incidents the elephant had been an adult.

At the time, this led me to presume that the elephant had died of old age, but was this really the case? A much more intriguing question lay at the heart of this encounter. Could the Savuti pride have potentially brought down an adult elephant?

Hunting and scavenging

Throughout the wilderness areas of Africa there are lion prides that specialize in killing certain prey species. This specialization has developed over time, arising from the availability of prey, terrain, adaptability and the effects of different seasons. Some prides will specialize in buffalo, some in smaller antelope, and other prides will rely mostly on scavenging for their food.

In most parts of Africa, elephants will generally chase lions when they come across them. There is one notable exception. In Botswana there is a pride of lions that hunt and kill adult elephants!

David hunts Goliath

In some areas, lions have been recorded preying on young elephants. When it came to adult elephants, however, it was always believed that they were too large to be preyed on by lions. So how did this Savuti pride develop the technique to kill adult elephants, and why did this technique develop in the first place?

Lions scavenge when they get the opportunity, often stealing prey from other predators. At a large carcass such as an adult elephant, lions will spend more than a week feeding. I have personally witnessed a pride feeding on an elephant carcass for eight days.

The Savuti region of Botswana is home to many bull elephants of varying ages (including some very old ones) and it was not uncommon for a weak and elderly elephant to fall down, unable to get back up.

Lions scavenge when they get the opportunity and at a large carcass such as an adult elephant they will spend more than a week feeding.[/p]

Death of an elephant

Journal entry, 1995

An old elephant bull went down near Pump Pan, in Chobe, early yesterday. Not long after, a pride arrived on the scene. The elephant had been trying to get up but was too weak. With the pride’s arrival the old bull’s attempts became increasingly frantic and panicked. Other elephants attempted to chase the lions off but each time the pride would back off a little only to return. The lions began to eat the still-living elephant from the rear end.

The drama continued through the night and into the next day until eventually, after many ever-weakening attempts at getting up, the elephant died. The lions had gorged themselves while the elephant was still alive.

Answers

My response to the initial question regarding the development of taste for prey, is simple. Lions specialize in killing certain prey because, circumstance and survival dictate this change. As predators, they adapt to available prey. It’s not so much a matter of taste as a matter of survival

With respect to the Savuti pride, I propose the following theory. Could the above incident be the explaining catalyst for the present hunting methods of the Savuti pride?

Perhaps the the elephant’s death throes brought to the surface memories of ancient predatory behaviour. Alternatively, the elephant death could merely have become an opportunity for the pride to realize that they had the means to hunt elephant?

Insects and Wildlife

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During the days of the colonial expansion in Africa the wilderness, and in particular the wildlife, came under severe pressure from agricultural practices. Vast tracts of land were cleared of bush and game to make way for stock and crop farming. Game was wiped out without much hesitation, because of the dangers predators posed to domestic stock and further concerns over diseases such as anthrax and rinderpest,

Little wonders

The clearing would have been complete was it not for two small insects, the mosquito and the tsetse fly. The mosquito carried malaria to humans and the tsetse fly carried sleeping sickness to humans, and the nagana disease to cattle. There was no cure for either disease at the time, in the areas where they occurred. The insects couldn’t be eradicated and so they were left undisturbed. Attempts were made to clear out the wildlife and burn the bush in these areas but this proved to be much too great a task.

The debt owed to white rhino

The white rhino was saved by the occurrence of malaria and sleeping sickness in Zululand, South Africa. The population had been hunted to around 40 individuals, and they would have been wiped out had it not been for the occurrence of malaria and sleeping sickness in their last stronghold. Conservation measures were put in place to protect the remaining individuals and the whole white rhino population in Africa today owes its existence to this conservation.

Both killer and cure

Many areas in Africa owe their continued existence as wilderness areas to the mosquito and the tsetse fly. The Okavango Delta in Botswana is one such area. In a country where cattle ranching is big business, the floodplains of the Okavango were looked upon as prime grazing land, but with the twin dangers of malaria and sleeping sickness the cattle were kept out. An attempt was made to clear the area of tsetse fly but the value as a tourist destination had already been realized and the Okavango Delta was saved.

History in the mutating

In the 1950s the great physician, Albert Schweitzer stated that by the year 2000 malaria would be part of history. Not only have the incidents of malaria increased but the virus has mutated, adapting to all medicines used to control it. Malaria is still the biggest killer in Africa each year with more than two million succumbing to the virus annually. Sleeping sickness has been brought under control in most areas except for some very remote regions and war-torn areas where aid cannot get through.

The African wilderness, and its big game, truly owes its continued existence to two small insects!

Killing for survival

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The lioness got up from the elephant carcass and walked towards the waterhole. She was soon followed by two others. As the first lioness reached the water she charged the flock of turtle doves drinking at the waterhole, managing to snare one as the doves scattered in flight.

The other two lionesses ran at their companion and a game ensued that lasted for a few seconds. Stuffed on elephant meat the game soon became too much effort. The dove-killer plucked at the feathers before eating the bird. She then had a drink and slowly walked back to the elephant carcass where she lay down to rest.

Reflections on the dove-killer

I reflected on the above-mentioned incident for a number of days. ‘Why had the lioness killed and eaten the dove after having fed on an elephant carcass?’ ‘What made her then return to the elephant carcass after eating the dove?’

Although lions have been known to eat a variety of species in times of hardship it was obviously not through hunger that this lioness killed the dove. Lions have been observed feeding on termites and other insects, birds, rodents and rotting carrion but in most cases the behaviour was simply fuelled by hunger.

Questions answered

“Man is the only animal known to kill for fun.” The phrase popped into my mind whenever the idea surfaced that perhaps the lioness had killed the dove for sport. I have often seen examples of lions killing just because prey happened to cross their paths; it seems man is not alone in his thirst for bloody fun.

On a few occasions, I have witnessed lions killing mongoose. In each of these observed incidents, I watched the members of the pride play with the carcass for some time before finally rejecting it; the uneaten carcass was then left to rot.

I watched the members of the pride play with the carcass for some time before finally rejecting it.

Obsessive killing disorder

A pride was feeding on a buffalo carcass in the Chobe region of Botswana when one of the lionesses moved off to the water to drink. As she approached the water, the lioness noticed a slow-moving buffalo cow lagging behind the herd , her new-born calf alongside her.

Without hesitation, the lioness ran at the buffalo calf and killed it. A few lions left the first carcass and attacked the mother, quickly bringing her down. The calf-killing lioness then walked back to the first carcass. After a few licks of the skin she settled down alongside the others.

Why had the lioness attacked the calf when it was already full from the original carcass? I observed the scene for over an hour. The lions had still not eaten any of the meat; both dead mother and child were left uneaten.

We do, because we can

Despite my strong feelings about trying to rationalize and explain nature, the dove and buffalo incidents intrigued me, almost demanding explanation. From gorging on the carcass of the world’s largest land mammal to killing a harmless dove, the behaviour seemed completely obsessive. The only explanation I can propose is that sometimes lions kill, simply because they can.