Ten days into the course we watched a lioness (Panthera leo) painstakingly stalk a herd of Plains Zebra (Equus quagga boehmi) before a clumsy sub-adult lion alerted them of the impending danger. We could not believe how close we had come to witnessing a complete hunt. However, it was merely a day later that we got lucky and saw the whole thing, but in circumstances completely defying the textbooks.
We were driving back to camp after another successful morning practical guiding activity. It was around 9:30 and all our layers for the chill of dawn were peeled off, the temperature was climbing rapidly and sunscreen had already been applied at our coffee break an hour earlier. Our camp came into view as we entered the grove of fever trees (Vachellia xanthaphloea) that marked the edge of the main Lewa swamp.
“Stop, stop, there’s a lion over there!”
“Where? I can’t see it.”
“It was walking, from right to left. It’s behind those sandpaper trees” (Cordia monoica)
Sure enough, the keen eyed student had spotted a blonde-maned lion making a steady march towards the swamp, about 50m away from us.
We kept up with the lion and positioned ourselves around 100m from the Zebras to watch the drama unfold. Upon reaching a small open patch, the lion slowed down to a momentary stalk. The waterbuck had noticed him. In a panic they split and ran towards the river that feeds the swamp. Crucially, they never sounded the alarm and the stallions continued to buck, kick and bite each other.
“Go, go, go!” I urged. ‘Silke’, our guide for the day, moved the vehicle to a spot parallel to the struggle, which was happening less than 30m from the road.
The lion manoeuvred into a position where he could hang off the stallion’s neck with his jaws and front paws, trying to pull him down to ground. The Zebra, over twice the lion’s weight, did his best to stay on his feet. This fight was not over. Their bulk, powerful kicks and vicious bites are usually enough to deter lone lions from hunting adult Grevy’s Zebra stallions. But again, there was nothing ‘typical’ about this hunt.
After approximately four minutes, the Zebra collapsed and the lion adjusted to finish suffocating him. It took another three or four minutes before the twitching and kicking stopped and the lion sensed he had succeeded.
The lion lifted his head to pant and almost ironically it was only then that the waterbuck began snorting in alarm. They and the surviving stallion were now gathered around the lion and his kill, keeping a good eye on the predator, ensuring he knew the element of surprise was gone, just in case he considered making another daring hunt!
Whether the surviving stallion was the original territory holder or fighting to take it over, we will never know. However, satisfied the lion was no longer a threat, he proceeded to prance in circles, bellowing his territorial claim.
The lion eventually moved to the Zebra’s rump, where the skin and flesh are easier to tear open, and began to feed.
We left the lion to his breakfast to attend to ours.
We returned to the scene for the next three days. The following morning the male had been joined by two more lions - a gruff, but much larger black-maned lion, and a young female. This older lion had a heavy limp but still dominated the kill. He refused to let the blonde male near the carcass or the female. Eventually the female headed for the swamp for a drink. The old male growled in protest, carefully following her, ensuring he kept between her and the blonde male until they reached and disappeared into the reeds. The blonde male took his chance to resume feeding.
The lions abandoned the kill after the second day and over the course of the next week, scavengers had reduced the carcass to a skeleton.
Despite the amazing events we had the privilege to witness, we were able to appreciate another context to the kill. Grevy’s Zebras are critically endangered, with numbers hovering around 3000 left in the wild. Conflict with pastoralist communities is thought to have reduced their numbers from 15,000 in the 1970’s. With the Ethiopian sub-population threatening to go extinct in the coming years, Grevy’s Zebras will become endemic to northern Kenya. Conservancies such as Lewa, its Laikipia neighbours and its partners in the Northern Rangelands Trust are the last strongholds. As conflict with pastoralists is minimized by adopting better grazing policies, the current main threat is predation from lions and spotted hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta). A seemingly disproportionate number of Grevy’s Zebras are predated considering their relative scarcity to other prey, but it is usually the foals that get taken. To have a healthy stallion killed will be a blow to Lewa, which holds around 11% of the global population. However, the current emphasis on maintaining a functioning ecosystem involves the risk of losing a number of critically endangered animals to predation, be it Grevy’s Zebras or even Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) calves. At least these photographs and our report can contribute to the ongoing research into these dynamics.
It was phenomenal luck that we got to see the kill take place, but it was also fascinating to follow up for a number of days and see how the event fits into the ecological context. Not only was it a demonstration of a food web in action, but it also impacted the local lion social dynamics and the wider conservation perspective.
Photos by Markus Eichelberg