The scene was a picture of peace: three giraffes browsing leisurely next to a Kruger waterhole. But neither the photographer nor the giraffes realised that danger was lurking in plain sight.
The Kruger National Park’s Leeupan is a waterhole where the unexpected has been known to happen. On 21 July 2017, on the H1-2 between Skukuza and Tshokwane, a solitary lioness was on the prowl. She settled in at Leeupan, her sights firmly set on an adult giraffe and two calves. Would the trio escape unscathed?
Wild Card travellers Anja and Riaan Kruger were caught completely unawares when the lion pounced. “Everything happened so fast. We had never witnessed a giraffe kill before. At first, we did not even notice the lion. There was so much wildlife around, all grazing peacefully. We had no idea what was about to happen,” says Anja.
When hunting giraffes, lions that fare best have developed highly cooperative hunting techniques or operate in big prides, with pride males playing an active role. – Shaping Kruger by Mitch Reardon
“After witnessing several unsuccessful lion hunts in Kruger – we visit the park at least four times a year – we truly thought the lioness would walk away empty handed. I was trembling with excitement,” Anja recalls.
“The adult giraffe and remaining calf stood in silence a few metres away. At no point did they approach the lioness to try and save the calf. After 20 long minutes, the lioness had finally suffocated the calf and started to move her kill to a secure location.”
Common or crazy?
Dr Francois Deacon, lecturer at the University of the Free State’s Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Science, describes the sighting as incredibly interesting. “I have taken photos of many instances where lions patiently wait at waterholes to hunt. But when giraffes are present, they show very little to no interest.”
Thanks to their sheer size and powerful kick, giraffes can overpower most predators. According to Francois, giraffes fall prey to lions when the big cats have successfully learnt how to hunt them. “In the Kgalagadi for example, lions have not adopted this strategy and cases where lions kill giraffes are rare. Young, sub-adult lions, however, will try their luck and risk injury when attempting to bring down a giraffe.”
Are the two calves perhaps twins? “No. They form part of a daytime nursery: all the calves remain at the side of a single adult while other adults search for food.”