Dateline: Maasai Mara Reserve
Time: 6:00am, August
Its always cold in the mornings in the forest along the Mara River, regardless of the time of year. The male leopard across the river had woken me at 3:00am with his growling territorial call and Iʼd be dozing off and on since. The lions to the northeast had also sounded off, but just before dawn; and they were quickly answered be three hyenas, probably not at all happy about being made aware of the lionʼs presence.
Wanjao had brought me my hot coffee pot, to my open tent, just before 5:30am and heʼd assured me that everyoneʼs coffee was on the way. I rousted, pulled on my shorts, shirt, fleece and jacket, and was sitting on my tent verandah three minutes later; listening to the “dawn chorus” of all the song birds, with the occasional predatorʼs voice still punctuating the background.
I met the askaris at the fire twenty minutes later and a few minutes after that all my guests began to slowly filter in, couple by couple, tent by tent. With little talk we quietly bundled into the two vehicles and wound our way out the forest track, heading for the open plains a few hundred yards away.
We popped out of the forest onto the grassland and hadnʼt gone two hundred yards when two young wildebeest came “fast-canteriing” past the bows of our two vehicles. When they were just meters in front of us I suddenly realized it was not two wildebeest but one yearling wildebeest with an adult hyena right on its tail, and matching it stride for stride.
I dropped down from the roof and instantly alerted Koskei, and he, in turn, instantly swung the vehicle into pursuit at a a discreet distance. I had him radio the other vehicle and the “hunt” was on.
The speed of the two animals, both predator and prey, was amazingly fast, though it didnʼt seem so at first. But we, in our landrovers, were having a time of it, trying to keep up with the fast-loping animals. They cantered in and out of gullies, across small ditches, over termite mounds, and in and out of the forest edge; never slowing, eating up the ground at quite a rate.
Fully three kilometers on the young wildebeest made the drastic mistake of turning to face its pursuer. Perhaps the yearling was tiring and going into oxygen debt, perhaps he thought he could face down the hyena, but either way, it was a huge, huge mistake.
Without even breaking stride the hyena dove in, ignoring the spike horns of the yearling, and grabbed the panting wildebeest by a back leg, tearing it open with one violent slash of its jaws. The wildebeest bawled and spun to face its attacker. But already I knew it would just be a matter of time now, not a matter of if the wildebeest would die; but when it would die. Killing takes patience and no predator exhibits more patience than a hyena.
The stand-off begins: The hyena rests a bit and then starts a casual run in at the wildebeest, not a death threatening attack, but just runs in near enough to force the yearling to defend itself, run at the hyena, exert energy and bleed more. The hyena casually dodges out of the way, canters ten yards distance, pauses, and runs back in again; eliciting the same response from the panting prey. Again, again, and still again, these charging runs make the wildebeest defend itself. The tireless hyena never ceases, only pauses between each rushing attack.
Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the wildebeest falters, wobbles, and actually drunkenly stumbles and falls. The toll of the initial chase, of the blood loss, of the defensive actions, become obvious. Almost the instant the wildebeest hits the ground the hyena is on it, tearing at its flank with easy success. A sizable chunk of flesh tears away and the bleeding increases dramatically.
To everyoneʼs horror and surprise the wildebeest struggles back to its feet, even as the hyena rips more flesh from its bleeding lower abdomen. The wildebeest bawls, falls and sits there while the hyena eats the bolus of flesh. The predator returns and grips the wildebeest again, and with yanks at its body with such violence that the entire young wildebeest is twisted and tossed sideways as it lies on the ground.
Out of nowhere a second, a third, and finally a fourth and fifth hyena appear. But all of them save one keep back, evaluating what is going on and who is doing the killing.
A hyena clan is a highly organized, highly structured and complex social society. The female that has the wildebeest is certainly a dominant female as all the smaller (probably male) hyenas remain at a respectful and safe distance of fifteen meters or more.
Yes another hyena, a large, now meanders between the trees and winds its way casually towards the fighting, and dying wildebeest. Its a female I think; based on her size and the relaxed and confident way in which it is approaching the action. She doesnʼt stop or raise up her head to investigate. Sheʼs obviously heard all the commotion from some distance, and maybe watched the original chase across the open plains. She knows both what is going on and what she is about. Certainly some of the kill will be herʼs, no argument.
True enough! The recent arrival walks, just walks up to the other hyena, that is now gripping the wildebeest by its hip, and settles in beside it, and then pushes forward, in no hurry at all, and with fearsome power, tears out a massive chunk of flesh. Intestines spill out as the wildebeest drops to the ground. With that collapse the two predators come closer and start feeding on the entrails (eat the high nutrition parts first as you never know if youʼre going to lose the kill to lions). The wildebeest goes flat over on its side as the two violently tear into its stomach and chest cavity.
To our horror, the wildebeest yearling raises up just in time to watch the larger of the two hyenas tear out and eat its liver, before lowering its head to the grass for the last time. And finally, more than forty minutes after it started, it ends. Only the two females feed on the flesh; never allowing the others, that have gathered, to even approach the carcass.
Six hyenas and my group wind back through the trees and out onto the open plains; we head south towards the river while the hyenas head straight east, towards their den on Rhino Ridge.
(on our way back to camp at lunch time we stopped by to check on the remains of the kill. Nothing, not a scrap of fur, bone or hair, was there. Even the hooves had been taken. Only a dark spot on the grass indicated that anything at all had occurred.)