Friday, September 12, 2008

Brutal or Amazing. You Decide...

NOTE - I have done a follow up post on this story. To read the update click here! (May 2009)

You never know what's going to happen.

That is the mindset we normally have when we head out on drive or on a walk. That is what keeps it exciting. It's what makes you want to learn more. See more.

The wonders of nature keeps you captivated at the best of times but once in a while you see something that makes you realise that there are no scripts in nature. Things happen that surprise you. Shock you.

I had a moment like this two days ago.

These moments make you realise that no matter how many books you read or how many times you see the same event play out, we can never truly understand what goes through an animals mind as they live out each day in a struggle for survival in the African bush.

On Thursday afternoon we headed down to the southern part of Madikwe to try and pick up on lion tracks that some of the guys had early that morning. We drove around the area for a while but did not find any tracks. As we moved on, a few minutes later we found a dead Red Hartebeest in a dried up pan.

The female antelope has not been opened up yet and upon further investigation we found a female lioness on the opposite wall of the pan. She was still out of breath and must have just finished killing the Hartebeest. Lions kill by strangulation and takes quite a physical toll on them - hence the heavy breathing.

As the lioness got up and moved towards her prey we settled in to watch the scene unfold. Lions are normally quite methodical in how the open and start feeding on a carcass but what followed blew our minds.

As she reached the carcass she started opening the antelope from the stomach area. Nothing unusual so far.

The first goal is normally to open the belly area and pull out the stomach.

So far everything was going pretty much 'by the book'. Adele joined me on the drive and was watching the scene unfolding through the binoculars. My guests were also watching the scene through their video camera and binoculars.

As she continued, the lioness got hold of what we thought was the stomach ans started pulling it out. As she stood up to get a little more leverage Adele said "That is not the stomach!"

The Red Hartebeest that got killed was heavily pregnant!

Now I have seen a lion kill where the prey was pregnant but normally they would just carry on feeding as if nothing was wrong.

This is where the scenes that followed had us all dumbstruck.

Once out of the mother the lioness very gently placed the foetus on the floor and spent quite a bit of time smelling and investigating the unborn Hartebeest.

Her body language was strange for a lioness in her situation and it seemed that she was clearly perturbed by what has just happened and kept on looking around as if to look for help.

After a while she kept on feeding and started removing the stomach contents, all the while seeming to make a concerted effort to stay away from the foetus.

After a while, and not feeding at all, she returned her attention to the foetus and very gently picked it up by the nose.

She stood, with the foetus in her mouth, for quite some time looking around in all directions as if checking for something. After a few minutes she started walking off towards a thicket very close to her kill.

She stopped again and very gently put the foetus on the floor. All the time looking around and looking quite tense and nervous. She then proceeded to nudge the foetus with her nose, gently rolled it over and picked it up on the back of the neck as if it was one of her own cubs.

She continued looking around and slowly moved towards the thicket.

She carefully walked towards the thicket where she proceeded to place the foetus very carefully at the bottom of the thicket. She nudged it a few times with her nose still looking around all the time as if she was expecting either help or danger.

After another few minutes she slowly returned to the carcass where she did not continue feeding but in stead looked around again and then slowly laid down where she fell asleep.

This was definitely one of the most extraordinary moments of lion behavior I have ever witnessed. What was she thinking? Why did she react the way she did?

We always have to be careful of projecting our own emotions onto the animals we are watching but this situation made this extremely difficult. Did her 'mother instincts' kick in? Was there still a heartbeat that she could feel? Was she trying to protect the unborn Hartebeest?

It is questions like this that always make you realize we do not know everything. These questions makes you realise once again the special privilege we have of being able to witness the things we do. You can read as many books or watch as many videos as you want but you never know what will happen when you are out in the field.

This sighting was something that caught us all off guard and will stay with me for quite some time. I do not know if I will ever understand exactly what happened but in a cruel, beautiful way we witnessed a piece of African magic.

It is moments like this that you truly feel how special nature is. There are no laws or rules in nature that is set in stone. Nature will carry on in it's own way whether we are there to play witness or not.

Let's hope we can have the privilege to share this magic for many years to come.

As always I look forward to hearing from you.

Until next time.


PS: I have added a post which links to the video footage that my guests got of this event. Click here. G.


Mike said...

Now that is nature at its worst/best and that looks like a full and content Lion, I suppose its only shots like this that show you how wild it is there and nothing that can be eaten is safe, great post in my opinion.

Schmanda said...

wow. absolutely amazing. i never would have imagined that! wonderfully photographed, too...thanks for sharing this, with your narration and pictures i feel like i got to experience this amazingly unusual moment too. thanks!

SAPhotographs (Joan) said...

This is another WOW post Gerry. What a fantastic piece of nature to witness. As you say, there are sometimes no answers to what we see in the wild. It is all fascinating and absolute magic and no matter how long we live in the bush, we never stop learning something new.

AmandaLii said...

Gerry, this reminds me of the Animal Planet Channel bit on a lioness that adopted a baby oryx. Very strange behaviour, explained as "The maternal instinct kicked in." I was reading online that she has since adopted 5 baby antelopes to date. Incredible that you caught this behaviour in photographs.

Jason Anderson said...

OH my Gosh! What an amazing story, and the imagery only adds to how powerful a scene it must have been. Fantastic!

Michael Palmer said...

Excellent imagery with an amazing story of nature! One of your best posts!

Anna Simpson said...

Your blog is absolutely fantastic. Your photographs are amazing.

I'll be back to visit your blog again for sure.

Keep up the fantastic work.

Enigma3 said...

Incredible story nicely documented.

Vernon said...

One of the most amazing wildlife encounters that I have ever heard of.

Anonymous said...

Great report. An unique chance shots.
That´s Nature.

2sweetnsaxy said...

Amazing story and photos. I wonder what was going on in her mind. It made me think that only humans seem to kill beyond the need for survival. Was it that she felt it was beyond the scope of survival? Was it her mother's instincts? Then I thought, wouldn't I have reacted the same way? i think yes. Whatever the case, I think I'm going to post about this on my blog and link to this post. It's so worth sharing.

The Birdlady said...

What a beautiful story and photos.

Anonymous said...

Looking at your photos again it was like I was back in your jeep. I have been looking at my photos and video footage of the event and we are both still amazed by what we witnessed. We feel very lucky that we were able to see nature both at its most very raw and at the same time tender.

Thanks again for a fantastic few days.

Luke & Sarah

SBC said...

So glad I was able to find this blog entry, as we arrived just after you guys. For more shots of what happened afterwards, see

Thank you for sharing your shots and the story. It was so amazing to see.

Anonymous said...

Great series. How wonderful for you to have been on hand to shoot these shots and share them with all of us. Every venture into the 'wild' is a new adventure, with amazing things to see. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

good story. My wifes comment was- Animals do all kinds of weird stuff that we don't witness. They could be playing poker in a cave for all we know.
Did you witness what the Lioness did when she woke up?

Photo-Africa said...

Thanks for all the comments.

As far as I know, once we left the lioness continued feeding on the carcass, leaving the foetus in the bushes.

The next day two male lions joined her on the kill and after that the crows and vultures moved in.

We did not see the foetus again. I think the best bet is that the vultures, crows and jackals must have taken it.

SaraCura in Dinkytown said...

Maybe the lion has personal experience with a dead fetus, maybe her own. She could be feeling compassion, though I know that most people don't believe animals have compassion. Or maybe the fetus was rotten and she knew better than to eat something rotten or sick. It is interesting how we want to project human emotions.
Nonetheless, the photos and experience are amazing. Thank you for sharing.

Unknown said...

Wow, that was absolutely amazing. I have never seen anything quite like that before. Very touching.


Anonymous said...

One word "AMAZING". Why would anyone think that was Brutal? Nature is Nature. Keep up the good work!!

Anonymous said...

Mother's instinct or not, even animals can appreciate that they need the young of their prey if they are to survive. If only for a meal later.

Anonymous said...

the only reason this is "magic" is because people want to believe it is.

Since humans are animals that evolved from animals of arguably lesser intelligence/emotional capacity, there's no reason to think that ONLY humans have any intelligence/emotional capacity, therefore making something like this seem like, "magic."

Evolution by means of natural selection is a gradual process. The only way we as humans could get to where we are is by building off of species that already had these traits, just to a lesser or different extent. The capacity for emotion and intelligence must exist within all or most mammals.

If you consider how much we kill each other, as well as other animals, simply as a percentage or proportion, it could be argued that we as humans are of lesser, more aggressive, emotional capacity than, lets say, chimpanzees.

Photo-Africa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Photo-Africa said...

Interesting comment and something to think about. Thanks!!

I still believe the scene we witnessed was magic - whatever evolutionary, instinctive or emotional labels we might give it.

Attaching an 'emotional capacity' to any animal that cannot explain their behavior is probably a mistake we all make and for that reason these actions and behaviors are open to our own interpretations. Therein lies the mystery and a large part of what attracts us to nature.

Yes. All mammals must have a certain emotional capacity which, depending on their environmental and other factors, will evolve over time.

By trying to view nature and these emotional manifestations objectively, or at the very least just sit back and watch it unfold, whatever your viewpoint, is magic in itself.

'Magic' can be something as simple as a zebra grazing in the grassland or something more 'intricate' such as this lioness and her kill.

The 'magic' of being able to share nature's story is something that, I hope, will keep on fascinating us for many years to come!

Thanks again for all the comments!!

Anonymous said...

Isn't it obvious? She suddenly became a vegetarian!

Anonymous said...

Is there video footage of the event available online?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

If you were hunting for survival and killed an animal, as you begun to eat found a foetus inside the uterus, I believe you would react the same way.

This just shows how similar humans and animals really are.

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Anonymous said...

Great photos. I better away from those lions or your next for dinner. Wildlife photography is really cool specially when the subject is in action.


Unknown said...

that was really AMAZING
did the fetus came out alive ?
did the lioness die beside her prey at last
U know, these are stories which are circulating as an email between Iranians and i would be thankful if u telling me the real ending of this story
Farid A.

photo afrique said...

C'est vraiment incroyable. je n'aurais jamais pu imaginer d'aussi belles photos d'afrique et de natures sauvages.