Catherine Sherman

Bringing Home the Buffalo


A pride of lions gathers at a carcass of a Cape Buffalo at MalaMala Game Reserve in South Africa. The upper left photo: This was our first view of the pride as we drove in an open Land Rover to the lions at the buffalo kill. We had rocked over a very bumpy river bed through high grass, and then suddenly there were the lions about fifteen feet away. I was thrilled and terrified at the same time. In the upper right photo, the male adult lion suddenly see us. In the lower left photo, my heart starts beating wildly as the male lion stands up and appears to be coming toward us. In the lower right hand photo, the male lion has plopped down to digest his meal, bored with us — thankfully!

On  a recent trip to Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa, my  husband and I were lucky to see lions in two prides.   The lions in each pride were eating a Cape Buffalo that they had killed. (Yes, it’s the Circle of Life, but I didn’t like that part…) Mala Mala adjoins Kruger National Park, which is almost five million acres, about the size of the state of Connecticut.

It was unnerving at first to be so close to these large predators that could easily attack and kill a human. In our first sighting, we rode in an open Land Rover, bumping and rocking down a hill onto a sandy river bed, pushing our way through tall grass and vegetation.  A female lion emerged from the grass.  We drove past  her into a clearing by the Sand River, where the rest of the pride was eating the buffalo.  We parked about fifteen feet away. We were assured that the lions and other wildlife see the vehicle with its passengers as one nonthreatening entity and don’t seem to mind our presence as long as we are seated in the vehicle. (I was never tempted to leave it!)  I felt my pulse quicken, though, whenever a lion would look over at us and rise up. A few made brief eye contact, which my own cats do when they want something.  Fortunately, the lions never walked closer to our vehicle than ten feet.  I got nervous for a moment when the lions growled at one another over their meal. For the most part, the lions took no heed of us.

I’m so grateful for this amazing experience.  Click on the photos to get a better look.

Female big cats in each of these photos have suffered some kind of injury, probably from hunting. In the top photo, the female lion on the left side has a big cut in her right flank. Our guide told us the injury was about three weeks old and would probably heal, although it looks pretty bad to me. This lion was nursing cubs. The lions are resting after eating. The female lion (in a different pride) in the lower left photo has a swollen back right leg. She was limping when we saw her and had moved away from the pride. A mother cheetah in the the lower right photo has a cut to her back right flank, probably incurred from the horn of the male impala she’d killed the day before, our guide said. She had three cubs.

The cats behaved in many ways like my own house cats.  The way they played, rested and sat was so similar.  After they ate, some of them sprawled on their backs, looking as if they didn’t have a care in the world.  The lion cubs were so adorable.  But I never forgot for a second that these big cats could be deadly.  Even my own well-fed cat Malcolm brought down a bird that had flown into our chimney.  He leaped nine feet into the air and batted it down.  I was able to rescue the bird, though, and released it unharmed.

Where I live in the Midwest, we have have almost no large predators, such as mountain lions.  Occasionally, you hear of a mountain lion sighting. Most of them have been killed off years ago.  Grizzly bears roamed my area 200 years ago.  We do have smaller cats, such as bobcats.  Last year, while I was walking in my neighborhood, I saw a bobcat sitting in the grass of a large mowed area near some woods.  She stared at me as I walked past. That was a little freaky! Bobcats can kill a deer.  Later, I saw the bobcat trotting across the street into the yard of the president of the homeowner’s association. (The bobcat knew to go right to the leader of the human pack.)  The president told me that the bobcat’s cubs were in a tree overhanging her back deck.

Lions and other big cats are magnificent creatures, but because of the danger they present and because their fur is coveted, they have been severely hunted, and their numbers have really dropped in the last century.  Lions are considered a vulnerable species, and I hope they can be protected and their numbers in the wild increased. Game reserves, such as Mala Mala and the vast Kruger National Park in South Africa, are working to protect this magnificent animal. At the bottom of this post is a news article about lions in South Africa.

Well fed, this pride lounges along a creek. Note the cub nursing.

MalaMala Game Reserve Blog

About Lions

Smithsonian Magazine: The Most Ferocious Man-eating Lions

Fears for South African Lions

By Jean Liou | AFP – Wed, Jan 16, 2013

Link to News Article

“Lions may be the well-reputed kings of the savannah, but South Africa’s lucrative trophy-hunting industry means the regal cats are more likely to know the inside of a paddock ringed with an electric fence than the country’s sweeping plains.

To the dismay of animal rights activists and environmentalists, growing numbers of the predators are being farmed for hunting, with more than half of South Africa’s roughly 8,000 lions now in captivity.

“The principle that you breed wild animals for economic exploitation is an international norm. It takes place everywhere in the world,” said Pieter Potgieter, chair of the South African Predator Breeders’ Association.

But “the problem is with the lions because the image has been created in the minds of people that the lion is the king of the animals. Walt Disney with his Lion King and all these things, they have created that image,” he added.

The big cats are bred in pens then leased to zoos or game farms, where they are kept in cages or used as pets to attract tourists.

When they mature, some of them are released into the wild. The release usually happens just days before trophy hunters shoot them.

Breeders treat lions just like any other farm animals before leaving them to the mercy of trophy hunters.

“In principle, a lion is no more or less than any other animal species,” Potgieter said.

An estimated 3,000 or so lions live wild in South Africa, compared to more than 5,000 held in paddocks.

In the rolling savannah plains in the country’s centre is Bona Bona Game Lodge, situated near the corn-farming town of Wolmaransstad.

A few hundred metres from the lodge, which is also a popular wedding venue, are large cages with nine placid lions and three Bengal tigers. It housed three times that number of lions before an annual auction in June.

The lions are fed weekly, each Sunday morning — an exercise visitors pay an entrance fee of 80 rand (6.8 euros, $9) to watch. Animal lovers pay 300 rand to play with cubs or give them a feeding bottle at most zoos.

“Cubs are rented out by the captive lion breeders to eco-tourism resorts to be petted by tourists, who are assured that such cubs will be set free,” said Chris Mercer of the animal rights group Campaign Against Canned Hunting.

But a fuming Mercer says: “Tourists should know that these cubs will not be returned to the wild. They will, instead, be returned to the breeders… as semi-tame targets for the lucrative canned hunting industry.”

“These cubs are farm-bred, held in confined spaces until they are old enough to be hunted,” he adds.

Paul Hart, who runs Drakenstein Lion Park in the southern Cape region, said it was the “process of removing cubs from their mothers at birth specifically so that they can be used as play things and to increase the speed of breeding that is inherently cruel, not to mention the methods employed to ensure the cubs are docile with tourists.”

Critics say some lions are also specially bred for their bones, which are sent to Asia to end up in potions, but farmers deny that claim.

Amateur trophy hunters — most of whom come from the US — each year kill about 500 captive-bred lions in South Africa.

Hunters are ready to part with $22,000 per male lion, in addition to just about as much for other logistical and taxidermy costs. A lioness however comes in much cheaper at $4,000.

The trophy-hunting practices also raise controversy.

In the Northwest province with the most lion-breeding farms, the cats are often released, hungry, just four days before a hunt.

Unleashing them into unfamiliar turf means they are unlikely to escape their pursuers.

But farmers justify the practice.

“Whether you kill a cow, a sheep or a pig, or you kill a lion, it’s exactly the same thing. It’s an animal,” Potgieter argues.

A recent study by the Duke University in North Carolina has shown that two thirds of the African lion population have vanished over the past 50 years, to around 35,000 from nearly 100,000.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service also recently announced it would launch a review on whether to list African lions as endangered species.

Such a listing would prevent US hunters from bringing lion trophies from Africa back to the United States.” Story by Jean Liou.