Nature up close: Buffalo 1, Lions 0

Lions meet up with buffalo at the Sabie River in South Africa: Who's attacking whom?

Follow along as "Sunday Morning" contributing videographer Judy Lehmberg reports on her two-month trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa and to Kenya's Maasai Mara.

From the first second I saw South Africa I felt I was home, not just in the sense it felt comfortable to me but in the sense I had already been there and always belonged there. I am a science person. Because I have never seen any proof of reincarnation I do not believe it happens. But if I did believe in it, my previous lives were all in Africa. And in a very real sense they were since we all came from Africa originally. Even though I don't always understand most of the languages spoken here, I do understand a sincere smile, a kind greeting, the effort the average shop clerk goes to answer my pesky questions. I am in love with its people, its animals and the land itself, and fully realize how lucky I am to spend time here, and to experience some amazing animal behavior such as we saw a few mornings ago.

Several mornings ago as we drove south along Kruger's Sabie River, we saw a pride of eight lions doing what lions do best, sleeping. They were all spread out on the sand, a few close to each other but most at least 20 feet from its nearest neighbor. 

A pride of lions resting along the Sabie River.

A little further down the road we found a huge herd of Cape buffalo – at least 300 large bulls, cows, and calves feeding or resting.

Much later in the day as we headed north we saw the same buffalo herd just beginning to cross the road heading for the Sabie River and a drink of water right towards the sleeping pride. The lions woke up and quietly watched them approach, a few slowly moving to better hide themselves behind a bush or a large clump of grass. We were going to see a kill – a rare sighting indeed!

But the rest of the lions quickly came out of hiding and made an unorganized attempt to attack. 

The Cape buffalo got within striking distance.

That launched a stampede of buffalo as they did a massive U-turn and ran right towards all of the cars on the road, including ours. It was amazingly loud and kind of scary.

One of the younger lions blew it by charging too early.

The lions retreated a little, then remembered they were lions and charged the buffalo. That went on for about twenty minutes. I imagine if viewed from above it would have looked like a slow, not very romantic dance: One partner moves towards the other, then retreats. Then the other partner does its two steps forwards and backwards. Finally the buffalo decided they had enough of this game and retreated away from the river, never getting a drink, and leaving the lions looking forlorn and hungry.  

Then some of the buffalo got mad, turned around and charged the lions.

One of the many things I've learned in Kruger is that lions don't always attack when I expect them to, and buffalo don't always get eaten. I've watched a male lion suffocate an adult male buffalo. It took fifteen full minutes and was one of the most amazing and terrible things I've ever witnessed.

But other outcomes are possible. Nature isn't always what you think it will be, and sometimes neither the predators nor the prey do what we expect of them. That is what makes this wildlife watching and filming game fun. There is always something new to learn.

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Judy Lehmberg is a former college biology teacher who now shoots nature videos.

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