Lions, hyena, and the camel carcass

Three days ago while out on the airstrip we found a dead subadult camel surrounded by pastoralists. The scene was gruesome. A ring of blood surrounded the fur on the camel’s neck, and a trail of blood leaked out and glinted in the setting sun. The carcass was almost entirely intact, with just a hunk of tissue ripped from the rear, and indeed, lions were the culprits. I spoke with the camel herder, and he said a male lion had preyed upon this camel who was at the back of the herd, jumping straight to the neck to take down the gigantic animal. In all the commotion, the herder was able to separate and congregate the rest of the camels, while others were called in on the scene. By the time we had arrived the lions had been scared off, but the carcass was to be left for the carnivores.


Just some rice and beans and an hour and a half had passed, and we set out again in hopes of lions’ return. We passed the typical lot—  a herd of impala, plovers screeching and nightjars jumping— and as we approached the camel we saw two large reflective eyes rising up. Sure enough, a beautiful lioness was feeding on the carcass. It was shocking to see how much of the carcass had been consumed in such a short period of time. By sheer weight I imagine about 3/4 of the camel was already gone. We turned out the lights and laid low to listen to the nearby howls of hyenas and also a faint chirping sound from behind the bushes. We were all pretty confused about the sound and moved a bit closer… and out popped two adorable lion cubs, running clumsily and hiding under the tall grasses. By this time we had moved away from the carcass, and we saw a hyena eagerly begin consuming the tissues now that the lioness was positioned further away. The sounds it produced were startling to hear — bones crunching and slimy tissues slipping. The hyena was soon joined by an adamant little black-backed jackal who was also honed in on the nutritious meal. As they fed it was easy to see their hesitance and worry. They constantly eyed the lioness (who was now invisible to us), looking up simultaneously no less than once every ten seconds.


It was surprising to see the jackal’s lack of concern for the hyena. Many times the two were in such close proximity that the hyena could have simply reached down and taken down the thin little canid. After about ten minutes, the hyena and jackal bolted off instantaneously with a whimper, just before the lioness leaped out in pursuit. This moment was one of the most incredible that I have witnessed at Mpala. The sheer power and size of the lioness leaping out near us, along with such little sound produced, gave me chills. We turned out the lights once again so the lioness could resume feeding without interruption. Finally, after several minutes of silence, we flipped on the lights to see her resting along with her two cubs, all eyes transfixed on us. The difference in personality between the cubs was cute to watch. The one on the left would occasionally wander around and move its head at us in wonder, while the other cub slunk behind the grasses, peering up just enough so we could see its eyeshine and round ears. Eventually the lioness casually got up and moved off, joined by her two cubs who yawned, stretched, and hustled to stay within a few meters of distance from her.

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Photographed after pursuit [3]
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A premonitory spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) struts towards us confidently, on a mission tracking the scent of blood. Before we were aware of the camel carcass, we ran into this hyena coming up the escarpment. Usually hyenas are reclusive during daylight hours, so at the time I thought it was a bit strange. Hyenas and other carnivores can detect the smell of a fresh kill from several kilometers away. It’s cool to think of an eagle’s view of the scene from above: hundreds of animals, large and small, making their way to investigate the scene.

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A few days earlier we spotted this beautiful adult lioness today roaming the plains at Ol Pejeta. A warthog caught her eye, and she hunched down to stalk the animal. Unfortunately for the lioness, the warthog immediately took notice and ran off, and no pursuit or chase followed. The lioness was evidently not out hunting and probably just entertained the possibility of having a snack that resided nearby. She continued on, occasionally glancing back at us, and eventually sat down to lick her paws and rest.

Hyena and cubs at Ol Pejeta

All photographs in this post in situ [1] unless otherwise stated; scroll down for sensitive content

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