Eternal dance of life around death on the plains

This post is about a hunt we watched in the Mara. For those who are particularly sensitive, please do not read further. Some of the images of the hunt and take-down are graphic.

We were lodged at &Beyond’s superb tented camp, Kichwa Tembo which is located on its own conservancy immediately north of the Mara triangle in the Maasai Mara. In was mid-February so sunrise was at 6h55 as this area is almost on the equator. Most of the game was in the Mara North which was the directly north  and the other side of the Mara river to Kichwa Tembo. The only bridge in that area across the Mara river is on the access road north of the National Reserve against the Oloololo escarpment. The road is in a terrible state which meant that every time we travelled on it, which was daily, we got what was politely called an “African massage”.  Each morning we were up at 4h45 to leave camp at 5h30 and travel the 50 minutes on the access road outside the National Reserve to get to the Mara North via the Musiara gate by 6h45.

“If you want people to to think, give them intent, not instruction.” ~ L. David Marquet

At 6h45 it was still dark but the skyline was undergoing a magical transformation from twilight blues to spectacular pinks, oranges and yellows. Dawn in the Mara has a beautiful yellowish hue to it which is unique to the Mara and Serengeti area. We do not see this yellowish hue to our sunrises in southern Africa.

“The universe doesn’t give you what you ask for with your thoughts – it gives you what you demand with your actions.” ~ Steve Maraboli

Once through the gate now it was a race against time to find our lion prides. The lions seemed to be active for about an hour or so after sunrise, thereafter they either became “flat cats” or retreated into the shade of a few glades of trees which followed various drainage lines. Lou Coetzer, our guide and mentor from CNP Safaris, had been photographing this area for the previous two weeks so had a good idea of where the prides were operating. The “double-crossing” pride worked in a localised section in Mara North so we knew the general area in which we might find them. The pride inevitably moved around and did most of its hunting at night so the chances of finding them where we left them the day before are low, especially if they were hungry when we left them the evening before.

“Next time a sunrise steals your breath or a meadow of flowers leaves you speechless, remain that way. Say nothing, and listen as Heaven whispers, do you like it? I did it just for you. ~  Max Lucado

The sun was now rising fast bathing the vast open grass plains of the Mara in a warm, soft clear early morning light, perfect for wildlife photography. Now all we had to do was find the lions. Next minute between Lou and our &beyond guide/driver Akatch things started to unfold quickly. Lou pointed out that the Topis had stopped and were staring at something. This usually meant they were staring at a predator. Akatch, who had incredible eyesight said that hyaenas, not lions, were in the process of catching what we thought at first was a wildebeest because of its dark colour. We quickly moved into position with the sun behind us and began to watch the drama unfold. As the entourage got closer we realised the victim was a buffalo calf, not a wildebeest. In my fifty years of going regularly into the bush, I had never seen this kind of drama.

“Intent reveals desire; action reveals commitment.” ~ Steve Maraboli,

We missed the first part of the hunt as this buffalo calf was on its own and the herd was nowhere to be seen, which in itself was unusual. Buffalo are known to protect their own. A pack of spotted hyaenas were chasing this calf biting at its tail, flanks and back legs.

At any point there were five to six hyaenas around the calf taking turns to bite it.

The calf just powered on.


“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in tenacity.” ~ Louis Pasteur

The hyaenas at no point tried to take on this calf from the front.

A human perspective does not add any value at this point.

A buffalo’s hide is thick and tough so even these hyaenas, with one of the strongest bite forces in the natural world, were struggling to stop and bring down this calf. All the cackling from the hyaenas attracted a few Black-backed jackals who skirted around the periphery of the action, never daring to get into the fray, being such lightweights.


The drama intensified as more hyaenas joined the biting and tugging frenzy. All of us in the photographic vehicle could hardly breathe and were dead quiet intently looking through our viewfinders.


The strength and tenacity of this buffalo calf are of what legends are made. Despite being mobbed by hyaenas and having chunks bitten out of its backside, hide legs and flanks, it carried on trying to get away from its attackers, dragging five or six hyaenas along at a time.

In my book, this buffalo calf was brave and strong beyond anything I would have expected. It just would not go down.

The calf pulled these hyaenas in wide circle three times, despite being progressively wounded and losing much blood, judging from the scarlet-pink faces, necks and forelegs of the hyaenas.

Slowly and progressively the hyaenas started to eat into the left side flank of this calf but undeterred the calf would not stop and carried on dragging these blood-frenzied hyaenas along.


From a human perspective, it was chilling scene and difficult to watch these hyaenas relentlessly overwhelm this tenacious calf. From nature’s perspective, this is a drama which unfolds time and again on these plains and has done so for centuries.


“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” ~Charles Darwin

Despite their strength in numbers the hyaenas never dared to try to tackle this calf from the front.

This method of hunting by hyaenas is effectively the only way they can bring down their prey. While they have claws, they cannot grip their prey with their paws so have to bite and grip it with their enormously strong jaws. A lion’s retractable claws are like grappling hooks which enable it to attack  and hold on so bring down their prey quite differently. At the first opportunity lions will go for their prey’s throat to suffocate it before feeding on it. Hyaenas cannot do this so effectively eat their prey alive.

Hyaenas are highly cooperative hunters and they execute a coordinated  relay of attacks to bring down their prey.



“The most critical time in any battle is not when I’m fatigued, it’s when I no longer care.”
~ Craig D. Lounsbrough

Eventually, the hyaenas managed to overwhelm the calf and it stopped. This was the first time a hyaena moved in front of the calf during the hunt and started to bite its front legs. By this time the calf’s eyes were wide and glaring, probably in deep shock.

The calf finally went down and within seconds the hyaenas were ripping furiously at its side stripping off large chucks of flesh. The hunt went on for about seemed to  be 15 to 20 minutes.

Within three or four minutes of the calf going down, the hyaenas had eaten all of its insides and about twenty percent of its muscle, such is the speed at which they eat.

The hyaenas knew only to well that the prolonged hunt accompanied by all the their cackling and whooping reinforced by the high-pitched barking by the jackals was bound to attract  attention, and it did.


The hyaenas were well aware of the eternal game played on the plains and never kept their heads down for long.


The hyaenas would dig in to their hard-won kill for a few mouthfulls before looking up to make sure  lions were not approaching.

All the while, the “double-crossing” pride had been watching the hyaenas taking down the buffalo calf from their vantage point on a rise. It seemed that the lions waited until the hyaenas had done all the work before moving in. Initially, the lionesses came down the hill toward the buffalo calf carcass. The lionesses did not rush in as they were outnumbered by hyaenas. This was very exciting because we were about to see an enactment of another epic tangle between eternal enemies.


Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a large blond maned male lion racing into the pack of hyaenas to steal the kill, with complete disregard for the lionesses or the number of hyaenas, such is the power and aura of a large male lion.


“I don’t follow dreams, I hunt goals!” ~Unknown

I was so focused on this male rushing in that I did not see the reaction from the lionesses, who I gather from animated discussion afterward were very annoyed by the insolence of these two young males rushing in to steal the kill. These young males were probably part of the pride at one point and were kicked out by the coalition of dominant males. Although effectively nomads they must have stayed in the area close to the pride. They saw the hyaenas taking down the calf and had not seen the dominant males about and  decided this was a perfect opportunity to barge in and steal a meal.


Emboldened by his size and strength this young male thundered in directly to the calf’s carcass, sending hyaenas scattering.

He was so intent on the carcass he did not go for any of the hyaenas and we know that large male lions make it their business to kill hyaenas.

“There is an eternal dance of life around death on the Mara stage, where cooperation and domination are choreographed to the natural rhythms of the dotted plains.” ~ Mike Haworth

One male lion versus nine hyaenas on the kill,  and they all scattered.

Not one of the twelve or thirteen hyaenas directly around the carcass tried to defend it.  That would have been a death sentence.

The hyaenas scattered to a safe distance but did not move too far away



The hyaenas together with the jackals  wandered around the periphery of the kill zone looking for scraps of meat which might have been dropped during the frenzy.


You can see from the openness of this area that any action on the plains could be seen from a distance. There was not another buffalo to be seen as far as the eye could see.


Initially, I did not see the second male but it looked like he worked in concert with the first male securing the carcass and the second male securing the periphery. 

The two nomads settled down to a hearty breakfast of buffalo calf at around 8h00 in the morning. They finished off the calf leaving nothing for the lionesses and their cubs.

For a wild life photographer watching this kind of predator interaction in early morning light is as good as it gets. Lion prides and hyaena clans have overlapping territories. Both are good hunters and both do most of their hunting at night. What makes the Mara predator behaviour different, is that there are few places to hide during the day and the grass in February was relative low, so both sets of predators could see each other. A hyaena clan  posts sentries all over the plains. A single hyaena will lie in a drainage line, a pool of water or large tuft of grass. Each hyaena waits and watches all the goings of the herbivores and other predators in their area. Both lions and hyaenas watch the vultures to see where prey has fallen. They will hunt at any time if the opportunity arises. If a good feeding opportunity arises, such as lions killing a buffalo, then the lone hyaena will whoop for reinforcements. Once enough sentries converge, and if there is no male lion around, then the hyaenas will mob the lionesses trying to force them off the kill.

“Your soul awakens your mind. Your mind makes your choices. Your choices manifest your life. Your life is your lesson. Your lessons create wisdom. Your wisdom enriches your soul.” ~ Karen A. Baquiran

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

Have fun,


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