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Jim Calio

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Life And Death On The African Plain

Posted: 02/ 9/2012 7:00 am

The hyena was dying.

It was sitting by the side of the road with its back turned toward us. It looked, at first, as if it was just ignoring us; as though it had had a big meal. We stopped our 4x4 to look, no more than ten yards away from the animal. But it soon became apparent that something was very wrong. The hyena could only turn its head to look back at us. Then, we noticed that one of its legs was badly mangled and bloody.

"I think its back is broken," said Kevin Macaulay, 29, our safari guide. "It must have been trying to horn in on a lion kill and a lion must have whacked it in the back."

As if hearing him, the hyena managed to lie down and stretch out its neck toward us with its sad eyes, seeming to implore us to do something.

"It'll be dead by tonight," said Kevin.

We had just left Chichele Presidential Lodge, a beautiful hilltop lodge in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park, with panoramic views of a floodplain on all sides and animals in every direction. The lodge itself is part of Abercrombie & Kent's group of Sanctuary Lodges and Camps in Zambia. Chichele, with its colonial architecture, canopied beds and private swimming pool, was once used as a presidential retreat. Today, it's even got Wi-Fi connection.

It was not uncommon to drive by herds of Cape Buffalo or zebra in the plains below the lodge and, one day, dozens of baboons came skittering up the hill and jumped up on some of the porches.

"Don't leave your doors open," we were warned laughingly, "or they'll leave wearing your clothes."

At night, those of us who were staying in some of the outlying cabins were not allowed to leave or return to our rooms without a staff member because of animals roaming the property. The owners told of having breakfast on the back veranda one morning and holding their breath as a lioness and her cub walked by casually. On one of the mornings I was there, three elephants were munching on leaves in a tree just outside the property line.

We saw giraffes, elephants, antelopes and hippos, the latter lolling lazily in the water during a river crossing. They mostly seemed unfazed by a carload of tourists snapping away, but we never got close enough to really spook them.

It was the dry season so the vast savannas were parched and yellow, dotted here that there with a lone tree or a clump of trees. We would walk, single file, looking for animal tracks. Two armed guards hemmed us in, walking in front and back just in case. We were told that in the unlikely event of a lion attack, we should stand still and let the guards take care of it.

"The worst thing you can do is run," said Kevin.

The night before we saw the hyena, we got lucky: We spotted a leopard resting on a rock, its stomach distended after what was probably a good meal. We also saw a genet and white-tailed mongoose, baboons sleeping in trees and even caught a rare glimpse of a civet scampering into the woods.

That night there was no moon, so it was darker than usual.

"This is the kind of night when lions like to hunt," said Kevin. "They can sneak up on their prey."

We came across a herd of Cape buffalo grazing in a field, their eyes glassy when hit by the spotlight.

"There will probably be one less of them in the morning," said Kevin, meaning that one of the herd would probably fall prey to a lion.

The next morning was our last at Chichele. We packed up and climbed into the 4x4 for the long, sometimes bumpy ride back to the airport.

As we drove down the hill, we suddenly stopped. There, about twenty yards ahead in a thicket of trees, three huge lionesses were chewing on a water buffalo. Kevin had been right: The lions had struck on a moonless night, and they had been rewarded.

Then we noticed something else: Off to the right of the thicket, a young male elephant was stamping the ground and waving its ears, charging the lionesses and then retreating. When he charged, they would back up, but never too far from their kill. Then they would slowly crawl back and continue eating.

The elephant was charging for a reason. Behind him, about ten yards away, was a baby elephant surrounded by four members of the herd. They were protecting the baby elephant, and the male was trying to scare the lions off. We watched this dance go on for about an hour, with the elephant charging and then retreating and the lionesses eating and sliding away when the elephant go too close. Slowly, the other elephants moved away with the baby. Off to the right, up on a hill, a magnificent male lion, his mane golden in the morning sun, sat watching the entire spectacle, having eaten his fill already.

It was when we drove away that we saw the wounded hyena. .

"What will you do?" I asked Kevin. I knew what he was thinking: The hyena had probably tried to interfere with the lion kill we had just seen.

"Probably nothing," he said. "If the injuries were from another animal, we'll let nature take its course and just leave it here. But if they are man-made, meaning from a gunshot or snare, then we'll have it put down."

And with that, Kevin pulled out his cell phone and called a local veterinarian who would come to the site and make a decision about what caused the hyena's injury. Because it's a national park, vets are on call.

We stopped for a few minutes longer, looking at the animal that looked back at us, pain in its eyes, unable to move. Then we drove on. I never learned what happened to the hyena, whether it was put down or allowed to die a natural death. It was all part of life in the African bush. Part of me doesn't even want to know.

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