Thursday, January 19, 2006

In the process of digging through my reference material for the last piece I did (the lion work), I came across some images that reminded me of an incredible morning in the Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania just about six years ago. We had driven down into the crater early, just before sunrise actually, in order to see if we could find some early morning goings on, the time when most preditors are active and hunting. Anyway, as the morning progressed and the sky lightened, we found ourselves coming upon a small group of lion, at rest along an embankment of a small stream. We, a group of artist friends and myself, enjoyed a few minutes of great reference photography of the group just lazing about, getting some nice closeups. But, there seemed to be 'something' in the air . . .

. . . and within a short time, an old buffalo, all alone, appeared in the distance. In what can only be described as very strange behavior, the animal seemed to be walking in an almost direct line toward us and of course, the resting lions. As we all watched in disbelief, the buffalo continued on toward the lions and within a short time, had come within a hundred yards or so of the lion group. By this time, several of the lion had noticed the buffalo coming toward them and had sat up, intense on the approaching buffalo. The lion watched for a time and then one of the lions rose and began a stalk toward the buffalo, who was still continuing directly toward the lion group. With such strange behavior, it was surmised that the buffalo must have been ailing or had problems of some sort, as a single animal like that would never walk directly into the path of a group of lion.
As we all drew deep breaths in anticipation of what we thought might be about to happen, cameras in hand, minds racing with all sorts of mixed emotion, the lion that had stood and begun a stalk was coming at the buffalo from a wide arc to our right and behind the buffalo. The buffalo seemed totally unaware of the lion stalking it, even though there was plenty of sight line as the grasses were quite low at that time of year, and dry, so they would have made crackling sounds as the lion approached. But, the buffalo kept on walking toward us. In short order, the lion bounded up and ran toward the buffalo. Right there, no more than thirty or forty yards in front of us, we watched as the lion pounced upon the back of the buffalo, grabbing onto its flanks and digging teeth into its rump. The buffalo began to struggle and we all thought it would be 'quick work', as the buffalo obviously being in a less than perfect state of health, should go down easily.
But, we were all surprised to watch as the buffalo began to drag the lion along with it, as they both continued along coming straight toward us. By this time, a number of the other lions, some young sub adults and grown females, saw what was going on and began to wonder over toward a spot where it was certain that the buffalo with the lion hanging on, would approach the embankment of the stream bed. Sure enough, within a minute or so, the buffalo came to the embankment and began to try and decend into the stream bed. At this point, all the sub adult lion seemed to be quite excited and began to approach the buffalo from all angles.
In short order, it seemed apparent to us observers, that we were watching a 'training exercise' with the older adult animals seeming to show the sub adults just how they should be attacking an animal like a large buffalo.
Well, needless to say, we sat and watched the unfolding drama play out, fully expecting that the buffalo would soon take its last breath. But, that was not to be as the animal continued to fight and still on its legs, upright, continued to wonder along the stream bed. As our vehicle crept along, with its passengers totally entralled in the ongoing grizzly situation, I remember thinking to myself, 'how on earth will I ever make use of this material?' But I continued to shoot picture after picture, totally lost in the moment.
As time passed, probably an hour or more, the buffalo was able to make it out of the ditch and headed across the crater floor toward the big lake that sits almost in the middle of the 11 mile wide caldera of the extinct volcano. Of course, our vehicle continued to follow the drama all along and we finally all made it to the shore of the lake, buffalo, lions, and mesmerized artists!
By this time, the buffalo's tail had been bitten off and it had some wounds on his hind quarters, but it was still struggling and putting up a valiant fight. Incredibly, this had been going of for over two hours, I am sure, by the time the buffalo made it to the lakeside. Along the way, the sub adult lions seemed to be taking turns, pouncing and jumping onto the buffalo's back. It was an unbelievable experience, one which I had never seen in any of my previous trips to Africa, and none since. By the time we had all arrived at the lake, I must have easily shot four or five rolls of 36 exposure film.
Ultimately, after several hours of this amazing journey, the buffalo was able to make it into the shallow waters of the lake and the lion settled down along the shore line and just sort of watched. At this point, it was nearly time for us to head to a safe spot on the crater floor for our boxed lunches and we all reluctantly, headed off to the other side of the crater. It was assumed that we might head back to that spot later in the afternoon to see if the drama continued to unfold, but we wound up getting involved in other situations. We did return the next morning though, to the lake and found the buffalo laying at the lake side, finally having succumbed to its wounds. It truly was an experience that was at once, both thrilling and repulsive. Nature on its own terms.

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