“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” Oliver Sacks. “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart,” Henri Cartier-Bresson
Lions are lazy. They spend much of their time during the day sprawled out like shaggy rugs, only moving to keep in the shade. Dusk to dawn is their most active time, when they hunt.
They get tormented by flies, especially when their muzzles are stained with blood from a recent kill. When the lion can’t stand it any longer, it will raise its head and snap its jaws together in an attempt to trap the fly.
Lions are social creatures, living together in a pride – a dominant male (or more, if they are brothers) with a harem of females and their offspring. As soon as young males become mature, they leave the pride and look for another to challenge the dominant male. Once defeated, the old male will be driven off to lead a solitary existence, eventually dying of starvation as his hunting skills diminish.
Lions are apex predators. Their favourite food is buffalo and an adult is big enough to provide a good meal for the entire pride. Most of the hunting is done by the females acting together to ambush an animal, bring it down by leaping onto its back, then grabbing it around the neck to suffocate it.
They will eat carrion. When hippos were dying from anthrax 14 years ago in the Park, lions would take over a corpse and eat their fill.
Safari guides give names to the prides in South Luangwa National Park – the Mfuwe Pride, the Chipembele Pride, the Hollywood Pride (whose lions seem to know that they look photogenic, and pose like film stars for the cameras).
On Sunday, we saw a pride of seven lions with a buffalo kill at the Luangwa Wafwa – an oxbow lake still containing water five months after the last rains.
When I came to South Luangwa this year in July, there was talk of a man-eating lion in the Nsefu sector of the Park. The wildlife authorities asked an ex-big game hunter if he could find and kill the lion. Once lions discover they can kill people, they may realise how easy it is to grab a child as quick meal. The hunter managed to shoot the man-eater with his camera but couldn’t get a clear shot with his rifle. No further deaths have occurred.
There is nowhere better to see leopards in the wild than South Luangwa National Park. Although normally nocturnal, in the Park they are often active in the early morning or late afternoon. And these are the times I photograph them.
Leopards are usually solitary and hunt alone. Females will kill for their offspring and teach their cubs how to hunt. Males and females get together for mating, but otherwise remain separate.
Each leopard has a territory, about 5 square miles for females, more than double that for males. The territories for males and females can overlap. During the heat of the day, they will hide under bushes or sleep in a tree, draped across a thick branch. They may have already made a kill and dragged it up into the tree to eat at leisure (without having to worry about a hyena or a pride of lions from stealing it). I am amazed at how strong leopards are, pulling a dead antelope which weighs more than they do, 5 metres vertically up a tree.
Leopards hunt by stealth. Their favourite technique is to use a gully to creep up on their prey. Once within five metres, it will pounce on the unsuspecting victim. Small animals can be killed by a bite to the back of the neck, but larger antelopes need to be suffocated by the leopard clamping its jaws around the windpipe.
Leopards can run fast, upto 50kph for short distances but they are not built for prolonged bursts of speed. They choose their prey carefully, to avoid being injured. They are wary of taking adult warthogs whose sharp tusks can inflict serious wounds, for example. If they do get hurt, no one is going to hunt for them while they recover. They prefer to take antelope, such as impala and puku.
Leopards have long bodies and short legs. When stalking, their shoulders rise above their bodies as they creep along, belly close to the ground.
A colleague witnessed two female leopards, each with two kits, sharing a kill. This is unusual – perhaps the leopards were sisters and recognised each other.
Because they are territorial, safari guides get to know individual leopards as they drive around their patch. One female leopard, known as “Marmalade”, was so habituated to game drive vehicles that she would use them as cover, sometimes crawling underneath to get closer to her prey.
I met one of Marmalade’s offspring, “Alice”, in 2014 as I had to drive through her territory when going from my quarters to the health centre each day. I have photographs of Alice from that time, but she has probably died. All these pictures are of leopards seen during the past three months.
In mid September, I followed an experienced guide off the main track to see leopards mating. They do this more discretely than lions, who are quite blatant about it. Unfortunately, they were deep within a thicket and all I could hear were coital growls and snarls.
My house is in the territory of a female leopard. When she prowls around at night, the baboons in the tree over my roof, go berserk, screeching out alarm calls. A colleague found a trail in the dust which had been created by the leopard dragging a dead bushbuck over a kilometre to a thorn bush, which concealed a young cub. There was a central drag mark, with paw prints on either side.
As you may have guessed, leopards are my favourite predator in the Park. I get withdrawal symptoms if a week goes by and I haven’t seen one. Sometimes I see them unexpectedly, walking nonchalantly across the track in front of me. If I am lucky, I spot a carcass hanging below a tree, but the leopard may have just parked the dead animal in a safe place to eat later.
Local Zambians are scared of elephants. Quite rightly, too. They regularly kill people. Get between a calf and its mother and you are asking for trouble. The locals think that elephants hate bicycles and will attack cyclists. I know a local man who came across an elephant while riding his bike on a bush track. He threw down the bike and lay beside it, pretending to be dead. The elephant examined his motionless body with her trunk, sniffing and nudging him. As it moved off, the elephant kicked out at him with its back foot as if to say, “I don’t believe you’re dead.” This glancing blow fractured his pelvis.
I feel very safe in my car if I meet an elephant on a track, but my predecessor as Valley Doc was terrified when he came across a bull elephant blocking the road. He reclined the car seat to horizontal, lying out of sight and stayed as still as he could while dialling for someone to rescue him.
I think I can read the signs when an elephant is irritated and wants me to get lost. If it is safe, I reverse and keep out of its way. If it is calm, I stop the vehicle and wait for it to move off the track. They can come very close, within a metre, and often look at me, sizing me up, not a threat, as they plod past.
Very rarely elephants will attack vehicles. I have heard of one young bull breaking off a tusk in the radiator as he tried to flip a game-viewing Land Cruiser. I reckon I can detect testosterone-fuelled bluster, when young bulls make a mock charge. You just have to read their body language and stay calm. And keep the engine running.
I enjoy just watching them quietly, learning more about their behaviour. I saw a female bring her calf to a water hole, but the edge was so steep and deep, the calf’s trunk couldn’t reach the water. The mother drank her fill then turned to her calf, manoeuvred its head under her trunk and regurgitated water into the calf’s mouth. She did this several times until the calf was sated.
A few weeks ago, as soon as it turned dark, I heard the sound of elephants wrecking the bushes and small trees beside my house. I had been invited to dinner and was hoping to walk over to my neighbour’s house, across 50 metres of rough ground. She telephoned me to say that a family group (about six) of elephants were grazing around our houses and not to come. I waited for half an hour, checked that the coast was clear and walked to her house, flashing my torch into the bushes to make sure the elephants had gone.
We were just sipping a pre-dinner drink on the verandah when my neighbour said, “They’re back. The elephants are round the front.” As no one had answered the front door, one bull elephant decided to come around the back, where the verandah overlooks the lagoon. We watched as he lumbered past the side of the house, pausing to pull off some weeds from the thatched roof for a quick snack. He then padded over to a dead tree and scratched an itch.
Rather recklessly, I was sending images of the elephant back to the UK using WhatsApp. The notification noise of a reply on my smartphone is particularly jarring. The bull stopped demolishing a tree branch, turned to the noise and walked over to the verandah. He peered under the thatch where we were externally motionless, but internally trembling. After a few seconds, he decided that leaves were more interesting and he moved off. Eventually all the elephants walked down to the lagoon and we breathed sighs of relief and excitement.
Sunday lunch, a barbecue by the river, what could be more pleasant? We drove an hour south on a well-graded road and pulled over under the shade of a huge tree and started a fire. As the mopani flies (tiny midge-like creatures that get in your eyes and up your nose) were troublesome, we lit some dry elephant dung to create smoke which repels the flies. We arranged our portable chairs around the fire, trying to be near the smoke but not choked by it. It worked very well.
George cooked the pork chops and boerewors sausage to perfection. The chicken thighs in spicy sauce were delicious. The baboons are afraid of people in this remote area so they didn’t pester us trying to steal food. Elephants are vegetarians, they didn’t want our food, but we had to keep our eyes open in case they lumbered into our party area. The breeze shifted after lunch (and a couple of gin and tonics), so I moved my chair, paying attention to where the smoke was drifting.
No sooner than I’d sat down when I asked, “Folks, I can smell elephants, can anyone see them?” Elephants do have a distinct, strong odour. Everyone scanned the horizon until Vicki pointed out that I had moved my chair over a flattened mound of fresh elephant dung. Normally, it looks very distinctive, like bowling balls, but this had been picked over by baboons, looking for choice bits of undigested food, and they had scattered it about. So much for my bush craft!
The general manager of one of the nearby safari lodges decided to have a team-building, morale-boosting trip to the National Park for sundowners on Sunday. (It is traditional to find a pleasant spot to watch the sunset while enjoying a drink, hence the term sundowners.) Seven of us drove into the park at 4.30pm, planning to meet up with friends at 5pm on the open plain of WaMilombe.
I really enjoy being driven in an open, high vehicle. The view is so much better than the view from the driver’s seat in the doctor’s car and I can concentrate of seeing animals, instead of trying to avoid potholes. The Luangwa River spills over into WaMilombe during the rainy season, creating a vast, shallow lake. Mud from the river fertilises the soil, creating rich grassland, perfect for herbivores. The floods recede, draining away into streams which carve deeply into the muddy soil, creating excellent cover for carnivores hunting the herbivores. This makes WaMilombe popular with leopards, and people who want to view leopards in action.
The plain is bordered by ridges on two sides, the Luangwa River and its dried-up tributary, the Mushilashi River. Leopards like to rest in trees on the ridges, while they look out for their next meal. Normally, the plain is dotted with antelope, puku and impala, but this evening it was empty. A solitary game drive vehicle was stationary under a tree close to the Luangwa. Game vehicles only stop for refreshments, toilet breaks and when there is something interesting to see. We decided to take a look.
Stretched out in the shade was a beautiful young leopard. We stopped ten metres away and took photographs. The leopard wasn’t interested in our interest. Its belly looked full. The driver of the other game vehicle said that there were two other leopards over by the ridge. As we crossed a deep dried out stream bed, we disturbed another leopard, who trotted away from us, towards the trees. Our driver could see another leopard hiding below the ridge, so we went to get a closer look. As soon as we began to observe leopard 3, leopard 2 sauntered over to leopard 1. As it approached the shady tree, the leopard speeded up, and ran up the tree trunk.
We realised that there was something attracting leopard 2 to the tree, so we returned and parked under the branches. We could seen the fresh corpse of an impala, draped over a thick branch. Leopard 2 was partially hidden by leaves, but we could see and hear it eating. I wasn’t expecting a sac of antelope intestines to plummet from the tree, just missing by inches the only vegetarian in our vehicle. Partially digested grass and manure splattered against the side of the truck. Leopard 1 decided to capitalise on this good fortune by picking up the guts and returning to its favoured position by the trunk of the tree.
Both leopards gorged on the remains of the impala while we watched. The sun began to set so we left the feast and drove to the bank of the Luangwa River, where we could safely get out and have a drink. The sunset was magnificent, but not as impressive as the afterglow which lingered in the sky for twenty minutes, getting deeper and deeper red. I took a selection of photographs of the sky reflected in the river as the light faded. Hippos started leaving the river to eat grass during the night. We could hear baboons giving alarm calls on the other side of the river, but we couldn’t spot another leopard in the gloaming.
When it was pitch black, we drove back to the leopard tree. A hyena was lolloping about, hoping for some titbits to fall from above. I got a poor photograph using the headlights to illuminate the scene. We were a mile from the park gate when a large grey shape appeared in front of us. I could pick out four elephants, munching away on trees. We drove carefully past and joined the main dirt road leading to the gate. The driver slammed on his brakes, creating a cloud of dust. “There was a puff adder in the middle of the road back there. I’m going to reverse, let me know I am not going to run it over.”
The lighting conditions were very poor, but the puff adder was clearly recognisable, as a short, fat snake, with a triangular head and typical diamond markings on its back. It might look fat and sleepy, but that’s its modus operandi. It stays still, waiting to attack with one of the most rapid strikes of any snake. Its venom causes massive tissue damage. Not the sort of snake you want to step on during a walking safari in the bush.
About a kilometre from my house, we stopped again to allow a lion to cross the road. Bush highway code: animals have priority on these tracks. As we waited for a second lion to emerge from the bush to join its sister, I reflected on how fortunate it was to be able to see these savage beasts in their natural environment. And we had just popped out for a couple of hours on a Sunday evening for a social drink with friends.