When a lioness encountered a stray donkey in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park (now the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park), it got a lot more than it bargained for. By Clem Haagner, originally featured in Custos magazine

Just after sunrise one morning, I witnessed a most unusual and exciting drama, but because one of the characters in the drama was a donkey, and virtually defenceless, one was filled with a sense of horror. Let me fill you in on the background so you can understand how it all came about.

The western portion of the Kalahari Gemsbok Park across the Nossob River, which forms the international boundary between Botswana and South Africa, is a vast tract of land without roads, and although it is a reserve, it is impossible to patrol regularly and effectively. People living on the borders of the reserve make regular incursions to hunt animals which they cure as biltong for themselves or which they sell. They use pack donkeys for their transport. Occasionally a donkey strays or gets lost during a hunting expedition and as it is a very hardy animal, usually remains alive for a long time, even without water, until it finally falls prey to a predator.

I had spent the previous night at Gemsbokplein on the Auob River trying to get sound recordings of Cape foxes which had a den nearby. The Cape foxes were uncooperative so I packed up early to return to Twee Rivieren. The first thing I saw when I got down into the Auob riverbed was a donkey standing immediately to the north of a large trassiebos (Acacia hebeclada). The thought struck me that this donkey had wandered a long way from whichever direction it had come.

As I passed the trassiebos, I noticed puffs of dust being kicked up from the riverbed. It took me a few moments to realise that it was a large lioness running up the riverbed towards the donkey, hidden from it on the opposite side of the trassiebos. I immediately reversed my vehicle to where the donkey was standing and waited for the lioness to appear from behind the bush some 20 metres from the donkey. A “sitting duck” I thought, but this was not to be. The wind was blowing from the direction of the lioness and as the donkey picked up the scent, it swung around to face the bush. Instead of charging from behind the bush as I had expected, the lioness cautiously emerged and stood staring at the donkey.

Pictures from Custos vol 11 no 7 (1981)

Pictures from Custos vol 11 no 7 (1981)

The lioness and the donkey stared at each other and crabbed sideways across the riverbed. I followed not too closely for fear of disturbing the tense drama. When they got to the opposite side of the bed where the riverbank sloped up gradually, to my astonishment the donkey charged the lioness, which turned tail and ran up the slope with the donkey after it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In all the donkey chased the lioness for about 150 metres.

I wish the story had a happy ending, but unfortunately this was not to be. The donkey, thinking it had put the lioness to flight permanently, stopped and started walking back to the riverbed. Here it made a fatal mistake, for as soon as the donkey turned around, the lioness stopped and ran towards the donkey at a fair pace and leapt, grabbing the donkey’s hindquarters with both paws. I expected the lioness to go immediately for the throat or muzzle to suffocate the donkey, but it seemed to be afraid of the “biting end”. Who knows what dangers those teeth might hold.

The lioness was biting chunks out of the donkey’s hindquarters. This was all happening about 100 metres from me and as I approached to photograph it all, the lioness was disturbed and let go.

The lioness walked slowly over the rise, grunting in “lion language” as it went.

Custos-donkey-lioness-2

Custos-donkey_lioness

Instead of leaving the scene as I had thought, the lioness had gone to call her companion and cubs. A second lioness appeared and attacked the donkey again at the hindquarters. It also seemed to be afraid to go for the throat to finish it off. The first lioness then appeared with five cubs and immediately went to the aid of its companion. Only then did one of the lionesses go for the throat and put an end to the donkey’s misery. The cubs came in to feed and so ended the drama which, quite by chance, I had witnessed. All very gruesome one thinks, but one must remember that nature in the raw can be gruesome and that carnivores don’t get their food all neatly packaged in a supermarket like we human beings do.

This article originally appeared in Custos magazine vol 11 no 7 (1981). The last issue was published in September 1998. The full set of Custos magazines have been collected onto DVD by the SANParks Honorary Rangers.