Deadly enemies

Half of the Marsh Lion pride was still on the “& Beyond ” conservancy in front of the Kitchwa Tembo camp adjacent to the north-eastern end of the Masai Mara national park. This part of the Marsh pride included four Lionesses, seven cubs and the coalition of four large males – “Scar” and his three coalition partners.

“Wild animals have few rights afforded them by humans, but they have every right to be here”.

– Unknown

This was the third day we had seen the pride which seemed to be methodically working clockwise around the fringe of the open grassland area of the conservancy. Interestingly, the pride did not seem to overwork one particular area. Each day we found the pride further around the conservancy long the edge of the treeline.  It had rained hard the night before and the pride must have had a decent meal because it seemed to be altogether more vital, unlike its listless demeanour the day before.

A world without the distant roar of lions at dawn as the mist starts to lift is too terrible to contemplate”.

Dereck Joubert

Our sighting started with a few Lionesses and a couple of the sub-adults lying on top of an anthill. They were alert and carefully watching the goings on around them.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

The light remained low due to very overcast conditions. There was a haze which looked like smoke but was in fact moisture. This haze played havoc with the pin-sharpness of our images. Photographing the Lions created depth of field challenges forcing us to push up our camera’s ISO to maintain higher shutter speeds. I was using a 600mm lens with a 1.4 times converter and, using our rule of thumb of 3x the focal length, I needed a minimum shutter speed of around 1/2500 per sec.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

After watching this group for about half an hour, around mid-morning the Lionesses began to wander down along the treeline towards the Mara river. One vital aspect about wildlife photography is that photographers need to understand and be able to read animal and bird behaviour. This is vital to be able to better anticipate the shot and improve the resulting image. We were  following the pride slowly along the treeline when our ranger excitedly pointed out that the Lions had surprised a Leopardess and her cub on the ground just inside the treeline.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

“It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.”

―  Bill Bryson

The Lionesses were just wandering through the trees and bushes along the edge of the open grassland when they surprised the Leopard family. Without hesitation the Lionesses attacked the Leopards. The Leopard cub was caught and the Leopardess given a hard paw swipe but she managed to escape up the tree.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

One Lioness immediately mauled the Leopard cub. It died quickly with its mother watching from the tree above. Apart from being upsetting to watch, the incident clearly had a dramatic effect on the pride. The Lionesses were flehmening after having killed the cub and the whole pride was very edgy and kept looking up the tree at the Leopardess.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

The Leopardess was helpless and greatly out numbered so stayed up the tree while the Lions were around.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

She was clearly upset by what she was watching.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

After the Leopard cub had been killed, one of the sub-adults picked it up and began to wander out of the trees into the grass fringe on the edge of the open area.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

“Here the ancient spirit of Africa still dwells, crying out for protection so that it may help mankind in this long, often perilous journey to the understanding of the earth and ourselves.”

 -Dr Ian Player

This was certainly one of the more difficult incidents we have witnessed. There was no attempt to eat the Leopard cub but the Lion cubs and sub- adults seemed to be spellbound by what they had just experienced.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

The pride followed the sub-adult who had wandered into the open with the Leopard cub. The next image shows just how hyped the pride was by the incident.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

The sub-adults were intrigued by the limp Leopard cub and one by one came to smell it. Interestingly, the sub-adults did not exhibit the flemen response only the adults. Perhaps this is a learned response.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

The one sub-adult who had wandered into the open with the dead Leopard cub was protective about its catch. At no point did the sub-adult attempt to bite the Leopard cub further or try to eat it.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

Perhaps half an hour after the incident, the Lions moved off leaving the dead Leopard cub lying in the grass. This seemed to be a classic example of dispatching the competition. The Leopardess remained up the tree long after the Lions had left the area.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.”

Ed Abbey

Eventually and very warily, the Leopardess descended the tree to search for her cub.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

The Leopardess could not see her cub so started to wander around in the grass fringe.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

Humans are hardly aware of the “scent picture” left at the scene. There must have been heavy mixed Lion scent all around this area. Watching the Leopardess, it seems the scents lingering around the scene create what must amount to a mental picture of what had just happened.

Photographic safari in Masai Mara,Kenya

The leopardess could not see her cub and could not identify, scent wise, exactly where it was lying.  We could see her cub lying in the open behind large tufts of grass. The Leopardess was not prepared to risk moving further into the open grass after what had just happened. After around ten minutes she melted back into the trees. We assumed she would come later, perhaps when it was dark to remove her dead cub. Female Leopards have been known to eat their dead cubs to remove the evidence to prevent Jackals, Hyaenas and vultures from feeding on them.

We went back the next morning to see what had happened and the dead Leopard cub had not be touched. We were surprised as there were many Hyaena and Jackals around. We later heard from other rangers that the Leopardess returned to her cub.

As wildlife photographers we stand by the principle of not interfering with or manipulating the natural behaviour of the wildlife to achieve more dramatic images. The more time you spend in the bush watching wildlife, the better you get to understand its behaviour and marvel at its natural intelligence. This respect and knowledge is the best way to improve the quality of your images – not behavioural manipulation.

I have been into the bush regularly over the past 50 years and have never seen this type Lion-Leopard interaction. I am immensely grateful for the privilege. It is only the human condition which applies a moral judgement to nature’s outcomes.

“Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.”

 – Ed Abbey

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


5 thoughts on “Deadly enemies

  1. Stunning images and narration Mike. Very sad about the cub, but I suppose if a Leopard comes across some lion cubs the tables will be turned. Who knows, these Lions might be holding a grudge for a past injustice. Well done.

  2. You are amazing in every way Mike..your photography and your narration and story telling makes everything you write about take people right to that very spot. Your passion for the bush is so real. Thank you.

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