A Journey Through Chobe National Park: From Baby Elephants to Hungry Hyenas
The stench of the elephant’s carcass was nothing I had ever smelled before. It was foul; a pungent sourness that clung to the air. The only thing left of the animal was some bones, a bit of leftover skin and two round feet that looked out of place on the dry dirt ground. Chobe was not a place for waste and rotting flesh; predators ate as much as they could and the African sun dried the rest.
It was the last day of my trip in northern Botswana, yet I was still not used to the 45C heat and the unforgiving sun that scorched my sensitive skin. We were driving around in a safari vehicle with our local guide, Ze, following the dusty trail of a lion pack hoping for a glimpse of action. We had seen grazing animals a plenty, but we had yet to witness a hunt.
“You have to have patience and some luck,” Ze told us.
We had spent several days making the journey through Chobe’s teak forests to get to the floodplains where zebra and impala frequently grazed during the dry season. The animals would look over at our noisy overland truck with mild interest, then get back to eating.
Once though, a group of zebras started galloping back and forth at the sight of us, almost as if they wanted to put on a show. We admired the strong majestic beasts from a close distance, their wildness so palpable. Nearby a large herd of impala stirred, the sound of the galloping hooves made them anxious. Their heads scanned the region for lurking predators. Like all antelope species in the region, they were a favourite prey of lions, leopards and hyenas.
Later we would see a young eland lost and separated, too consumed with grazing to notice its herd had moved on. It jumped about frantically trying hard to find its herd, but they were gone.
“What’s the most memorable hunt you’ve ever seen?” I asked Ze a few days earlier while on a small boat cruising the Chobe River.
We had driven a couple hours away from the dry floodplains to the water, which was a nice respite.
“I saw a pack of hyenas take down a male lion,” he responded in his thick Tswana accent. “I’d never seen that before.”
It turned out even the king of the jungle was not safe from hungry predators.
Ze drove the boat along the river, while we lazily admired the view — and what a view it was. The lower water levels in the dry season revealed islands of fresh wet grass and an abundance of wildlife that came to enjoy the new eats. Hundreds of massive water buffalo with their thick, threatening horns, stood about with eyes fixed on us as we went by. We kept our distance from pods of hippos that stuck their heads barely out of the water, except only to yawn and show off their strong gaping mouths. Fisher eagles flew high above scouting for prey, while goliath herons fished stoically in the water.
We watched a family of elephants cool off in the water and swim to one of the islands. When the matriarch trumpeted, the rest of the herd followed suit. When they reached land, one of the baby elephants was unable to step up onto ground, its legs too short to get over the ledge. It tried several times over and over again, falling back into the water each time. Finally one of the elephants noticed the struggle and made a noise that had the whole herd double back around to help the baby. One adult tried several tactics without success — pushing the baby from behind, and using her trunk to pull it up — until they simply stopped trying and just walked over to a more easy incline.
Chobe National Park is wildly known to have a healthy population of elephants, and indeed we saw them everywhere. They seemed to be as affected by the sun as much as we were. Groups of them would stand by trees that offered little shade. The lions too were seen drinking from the river or hiding underneath shaded areas. But eventually, no matter how hot it was, they’d have to come out and find food.
On that last day in Chobe National Park, I sat in the safari vehicle with my eye on a lion, her pack close by, hiding amongst the parched bushes on the hill overlooking the floodplains. She was barely noticeable, almost perfectly camouflaged in the foliage.
“They are waiting for the zebra to get closer,” Ze said.
At the far end of the floodplains came a herd of zebra that could possibly be their next meal ticket. We waited for the lions to make a move.
“Look!” Ze said all of a sudden.
Right in front of our truck, stood at least a dozen African wild dogs, an endangered species. I was instantly mesmerized by their patchy brown and black coats, large ears and almost red eyes. They stood on guard facing the lion in what seemed like a stare-off for a while. A few of the dogs moved in closer. The lion got up quickly and charged towards them. The dogs ran off, but not far and inched again closer, holding their ground. They barked at the lion and were chased off once more. And again they came back, continuing the game a few more times. It turned out that the wild dogs had hidden their cubs close by and were trying to guard their hiding spot. Satisfied that the lion was not going to pursue, the dogs ran to the watering hole in the plains and cooled themselves in the muddy water.
“Those dogs trying to take on a pack of lions,” I said to Ze, “I think the lions would probably win.”
“Yes, I think so too,” he replied.
I imagined what it would be like to witness that fight. Then I realized I probably couldn’t stomach that excitement; those creatures were just too beautiful to want to witness their end.
As we left the park for the last time, I tried to soak up as much as I could, breathing in the fresh air and the incredible landscape. As we turned onto the highway, I saw an elephant crossing the road with a baby elephant following at her heels — and a hyena trailing close behind them. Then they all disappeared into the trees.
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