By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 12
Moremi Game Reserve

July 29

While we sipped our coffee at the fire, a flock of ibis flew across over the lagoon, silhouetted against the red pre-dawn sky. Gee said this was his favorite camp, being right on the water and very private.  In fact, once you got about twenty yards away you couldn’t see the camp at all - nobody would ever know you were there.
     Gee was looking for tracks as we set out, hoping to find the lions we heard in the night. We paused just outside of camp to watch the hippos as they waded through the flooded fields eating grass. Gee had his new camera out, taking photos with the rest of us.  

     We stopped to watch the sun come up over a winding river that serpentined across a floodplain. Lechwe grazed peacefully in the dim light, with a few white egrets scattered among them. As the sun peeked above the horizon the marshy field was bathed in a golden light. The lechwe were now gleaming in the early morning sunlight, and a plover was silhouetted against the bright water. We watched the egrets fly across the sunrise as the mournful call of a fish eagle wafted across the dawn.

     We hadn't gone far when Gee spotted the lioness. At first she was just a small dim shape in the shadows across the water; most of us would never have noticed her. Gee drove around the end of the lagoon to get close to her; we found not just the lioness, but the whole pride. To our delight, there was a mother lioness with four young cubs, maybe six weeks old and by far the smallest we had seen.  
The mother lioness was lying in the grass, and the babies were curled up against her. The other lions were sleeping close by - there seemed to be about a dozen all told. The babies sat up and gazed at us curiously, climbing up on their mother to get a better view. They were quite possibly the cutest things I have ever seen.

     The pride consisted of four or five adult lionesses, with many older cubs and adolescents. Some were sleeping and some were gnawing on the remains of whatever they had last killed. One half-grown cub was busily chewing on the tuft of a tail with wispy black hair; I think it was from a wildebeest but it could have been a tsessebe. Another was chewing on a leg. From time to time one or two of the lions would get up and move to a new position, and a few more arrived from the bushes. As we looked around, we kept finding more and more lions; now the count was up to 21. This explained the growling and roaring we heard in the night.

     The mother lion was chewing on some scraps, and the cubs, now awake, joined in. They worked quite hard trying to pull the last tough bits of sinew off of the bones. The other lions were getting a little restless; they had consumed most of the edible parts of the carcass, and were thinking about hunting again. One by one they started to get up and move off across the plain. One of the adolescents carried a leg bone with him as he went, while another tried to take it away from him.

     When the others left, the babies had greater opportunity with the carcass scraps; one of the little cubs seized the tail tuft and paraded around proudly, while several others wrestled with a leg. The mother gnawed serenely on a choice bit, ignoring the cubs’ efforts to take it from her. A tawny eagle watched it all from a treetop.
     The cubs started to play and tussle. They would rear up and bat each other with their paws in mock battle, then wrestle each other to the ground, rolling over and over. There is something about lion cubs that is unbelievably appealing - we could have watched them for hours.

     The other lions continued to move away; we could see them walking stealthily across the plain and past a pond. Finally only the mother and her four cubs were left. We could now count 24 lions in the pride. We were debating about whether we should stay with the cubs or follow the others; seeing the babies was a unique experience, but we also wanted to watch the pride hunt. Looking out across the plain, suddenly we could see several lions chasing after something - Gee checked it out with his binoculars. “Hold on!” he instructed us, and took off fast across the veld.      
The lions were going after two honey badgers! We couldn’t believe our eyes. Gee quickly drove toward them. The two honey badgers were trotting across the plain, and two adolescent male lions were going after them. Gee urged us to video it, but I was bumping around in the back of the moving vehicle so I didn’t get much footage. 

The young lions clearly wanted to attack, but they were unsure. The honey badgers turned and hissed, going after the young lions aggressively, making them back away. The older lions watched in amusement, like smart old dogs watching half-grown pups go after a skunk, knowing from experience that this was a bad idea.  
      The youngsters persisted, harrying the honey badgers. Every time the lions approached, the badgers would turn and run at them, preempting any possible attack. An acrid foul odor filled the air, emitted by the honey badgers’ scent glands. Eventually the lions gave up and left the honey badgers to their own business.  Gee was as excited as the rest of us. “My God!” he exclaimed. “Amazing! That was Un-be-liev-able!”  


     We noticed another vehicle behind us watching the action; it was Phillimon, Pula and Parker from camp. Since we were so close to camp Gee had radioed for them to come see the lions; we were really glad they had gotten to share in the experience.  
The young lions rejoined the rest of the pride, and we followed them. Now we realized that the pond they were going by was Pelican Pond, still occupied by hundreds of pelicans and storks. The lions regally walked past a group of marabou storks, who paid them little notice.


     Several pelicans sat in the top of a dead tree in the water, clutching the branches slightly awkwardly with their webbed feet. Others stood along the shore or waded in the shallows. The lions paused and looked at the birds assessing, like perhaps they were contemplating poultry for lunch. Some of the pelicans seemed a bit spooked and hastily took to the air, flapping their way across the pond and out of reach of the hungry cats. Most of the lions turned and slowly walked away, but two lionesses crouched in the grass beside the pond and eyed the birds speculatively for a while before following the rest of the pride.


     The lions moved slowly across the plain, spread out in a long ragged line. Every so often they would stop and rest a while, then a few would get up and move on, and the others would follow. They did this again and again. While we waited, Gee told us that he had once watched a honey badger chase a leopard up a tree. The badger had then circled around the bottom of the tree angrily, refusing to allow the leopard to come down. 
“That crazy nastyass honey badger. Honey badger doesn’t care. He don’t give a s#*t.”

     The mother lioness had stayed behind with the young babies, but the rest of the pride, including several litters of slightly older cubs, crossed the plain to a blue river.  They were making their way toward a herd of lechwes, stalking through the tall grass and brush, working their way nearer. Gee said if they could get close enough they would show themselves, and the lechwes would panic and run in all directions, giving the lions a good chance of picking one off. He kept repositioning the vehicle to get ahead of them and give us the best possible view.


     With so many cubs in the pride to feed, Gee explained, these lionesses have to work very hard hunting. When they make a kill, if the dominant male is around he will not let the others eat until he is finished, so the mothers, wanting to feed their cubs first, don’t tell him about the kill. Anyway, he is usually off patrolling the territory or doing other macho manly things while the females do most of the hunting.

     The lead lionesses stopped to sit on a termite mound. Several more joined them, and yet more – soon the whole pride was hanging out around the mounds. While we watched the hunt and waited for action, there was other wildlife all around. Yellow-billed storks were flying, and so was a flock of white-faced ducks. Several open-billed storks waded in the river, next to an enormous crocodile. A bull elephant moseyed by in the background, with some of the most enormous tusks I have ever seen. Several beautiful wattled cranes stood in the tall grass, and a small flock of pelicans flew straight toward us.


     The pride leaders moved again, skirting along near the river before heading into a patch of tall red grass. Gee drove around to the other side so we could watch and photograph them as they emerged from the dense grass one after another. The lions climbed up on another mound right beside the Landcruiser; from there they had a view of the lechwes out on the flooded plain. They paid no attention to us, but watched the antelopes intently. They looked more than ready to go hunting, and a plan seemed to be in place.  
Several of the lionesses made their way furtively through the brush in order to position themselves closer to the lechwes without being seen. A couple of others stealthily moved straight ahead.  A few of the lionesses were suddenly nowhere to be seen. The youngsters stayed back in the cover by the mounds and watched, no doubt under strict orders to stay put, as the more experienced huntresses set up their elaborate ambush. The suspense was killing them (and us). The lechwes grazed on unaware; they were actually moving toward us, unable to smell the lions upwind.


     Two of the lionesses drew nearer and nearer to the grazing antelopes, and then moved out into the open where they could be seen - amazingly, the lechwes moved toward them to get a better look. Gee said the lions surely have a plan. Some of the hunters must already be around the other side hiding, he explained, and our lions might show themselves to attract the lechwes’ attention, while the others on the far side close in to spring the trap. But now the lions moved back into the brush. This confused the lechwes, who came closer, milling around and trying to locate the now-hidden hunters. Better to know where your enemy is!


     Suddenly one of the adolescent males just couldn’t stand it any longer; he had to go join the hunt. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you were a lechwe) his timing was poor and his skills in stealth were lacking, and he made his move too soon. The lechwes saw him and took off, leaping high as they ran through the water.
The lionesses were annoyed, and seemed to admonish the youngster. We could almost hear the conversation taking place: “Leo, I told you to stay in the underbrush and wait. Now look what you have done. Nobody will eat today!”  “But Mo-om, I just wanted to help . . . I wanted to be a big hunter like Daddy . . .”


     The hunt had failed for the moment, but Gee said that the lions would try again in the evening. Lechwe have very short memories, so in a few hours they would forget the lions were there. The hunters started to relax, finding comfortable spots to nap and wait for evening.
Suddenly there was a stir in the pride; the big male had arrived.  He had been fighting recently, no doubt defending his territory, and had several bloody cuts on his face. Gee said there was a coalition of two brothers who were the dominant males of this pride - we wondered where the other one was. The lion greeted the females joyfully, rubbing jowls with them one after another. One of the lionesses nipped him flirtatiously in greeting, and he bared his teeth at her. He lay down in the sunshine - he seemed to be trying to look regal, but he was too battered from fighting to pull it off. Also, I think he had been hoping there would be lechwe for lunch.


     It was getting warm now, so the lions found what shade they could and went to sleep. Several of them moved to take advantage of the shadow from our vehicle. Once again, we were amazed at how little notice the lions took of us. We left the pride sleeping close together in the shade, with the male in the sun a few meters away.

     We needed a potty break; Gee drove us a long way from the lions to find a safe place to check the tires. As always, he got out and looked behind the bush himself before allowing us to go. I asked him if he had ever found anything dangerous doing this; he said yes - once when he checked behind a bush there was a male lion sleeping there.
Out on the floodplain we could see a pair of wattled cranes with a single chick – Gee said they usually just have one. They aggressively chased away a spur-winged goose that came too near. A darter and an open-billed stork stood together with a flock of white-faced ducks, like a mismatched family. When the open-billed stork took flight, we could see the gap in his bill that he couldn’t quite close, silhouetted against the sky.


     A lone tsessebe wandered by, looking at us curiously. A small bachelor herd of waterbucks stood near a tall termite hill, the white circles on their rear ends shining in the sunlight. A magnificent lechwe bull stood looking at us, sporting an impressive pair of lyre-shaped horns. Several younger males were nearby, and after a few minutes they all took off running, splashing through the wet field in their odd down-hill gallop.


     A herd of impala surrounded a pair of ground hornbills, herding them away from their territory. A spur-winged goose flew past us, feathers bright in the brilliant sunshine. An iridescent malachite kingfisher sat on a reed, brilliant and beautiful, and very tiny. An egret chased several lechwes away from her nest, flying behind them persistently pecking at their hind legs to make them leave.


     Several hippos were grazing near the river; we watched them enter the water, bobbing up and down and blowing bubbles. Then they watched us warily with just their eyes and nostrils above the surface, occasionally rising up higher out of the water and snorting at us. It was clear that this was their territory, and they would defend it if need be.



     Gee stopped by a tree that had mud plastered all over the trunk; he explained that the hippos flick dung on a tree with their tails to mark their territory.  The higher the dung, the bigger the hippo. He told us a little story about the origin of the hippo. 
God wanted the hippos to live on land, but the hippos wanted to live in the river because the elephants ruled the land. But God said he already had crocodiles in the river to eat the fish, and he didn’t want to have another animal eating them. The hippos made a deal with God, they promised that if they could live in the water, they would not eat any fish. But God needed a way to check, so he said hippos could live in the water, but he made their stools very soft and runny, and said that the hippos must spread it thin with their tails so God could check for fish bones. He also required them to open their mouths wide above the surface, so that he could check their teeth for bones. And so that is how hippos came to live in the water.

     We went back to where we had left the lioness with the four small cubs. We found them very nearly in the same spot, but they had moved to the shade under a tree. The mother lay on her side sleeping while two of the babies intermittently nursed, and a third was stretched out asleep beside her. The fourth cub was looking for mischief; he climbed up on the log above mom and reached down to bat at her and his littermates with velvet paws. After a while he crawled down on top of mom for a better position from which to harass his siblings, and soon all four cubs were in on the game, rolling around wrestling. The mother lioness slept on, ignoring them as they crawled all over her. Finally she woke up as the little mischief-making cub climbed back up on the log; she raised her head and gave him a nuzzling kiss.


     The second male lion of the coalition had arrived while we were out watching the hunt, and he was sleeping near mom and the babies. He did not have fresh wounds like the other male. With his arrival, this brought the total count of lions in the pride up to 26. We felt very lucky to have had the chance to spend the morning with the lions: to watch them hunt, to see them interact, and to spend time with the little cubs. Lions are so powerful and fierce, yet in many ways they act just like huge versions of our pet cats at home. Once you have spent some time watching lions in Africa, you will never look at your house cats quite the same way.


      We headed toward camp. Driving back over the flood control berm, we stopped to just enjoy the beautiful watery landscape. Kingfishers, plover, egrets and herons shared the scene with us. Out on an island in the flooded field we could see a lone hippo grazing; perhaps it was one of those boy hippos who have to grow up alone. But this one had company; a red lechwe buck grazed beside him. White clouds punctuated the blue sky, and were reflected in the water of the flooded plain - this was the first day on the trip that the sky wasn’t crystal clear.

     We drove back past Pelican Pond; now all the birds were gone and it was completely deserted – they must have moved on when the fish gave out. But with the vision of the hundreds of water birds that had still been there in the morning, it was Patty’s turn to make up a bad limerick:

Pelicans, ibis and storks times three,

A plethora of waterbirds for us to see.

When they took flight

It was such a sight

“My God, Amazing,” said our guide Gee.

     We arrived back in camp to be met by Parker and Phillimon with our customary moist cloths and glasses of sweet tea; I wondered who would do this for me when I went back home? After lunch I walked down to the edge of the water just behind camp; Paula was out there also. We could see zebras under a palm tree across the lagoon, and hippos on land grazing.
There were also some hippos in the water quite close to us; one of them looked like it might come out on to the shore. Paula and I stood up on a termite mound for safety (surely he wouldn’t think to look for us there), and watched as he chomped on marsh grasses near the edge of the water, not fifty feet away. As he opened his mouth to chew I checked for fish bones – didn't see any. 


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