Sabie Sand Reserve was unlike we had previously seen it. In two days, two weeks previously, half a metre of rain had fallen causing wide spread destruction to the sand roads and river crossings, and indeed rivers that previously we had never seen flow were suddenly very alive again. The effect on the surrounding bush was dramatic – it was a verdant, impenetrable wall all around, within which herds of elephant, buffalo or almost anything could hide within metres of the road and we wouldn’t have known. It had rained again overnight and the day was cooler but humid and overcast. Other than a damp, sleepy leopard in a tree and a very wet lilac breasted roller there was little to be seen, and we drove around wondering where all the game had gone, and was this a sign, and of what?
Eventually we found some impala, a couple of bucks with females and juveniles and lambs in an open area with less bush and more grass. The overnight rain and cooler weather appeared to be a cause for celebration as the juvenile bucks play-fought and the girls rushed about, running and leaping for fun exhibiting behaviour called “pronking”, a very onomatopoeic word for the strangely cute little leaps-for-joy that smaller antelope like impala and springbok sometimes perform. As impala are normally just grazing, this frolicking group was charmingly entertaining so we stopped to watch as they hurtled and hurdled around in front of us. Suddenly, they all rushed off in one direction to our left and then equally quickly rushed back towards us. Then they all stood still, looking back. Alarm!
And in a Sabie second everything changed.
The ranger said two magic words. “Wild dog!” Three of them, and suddenly all was panic, chaos, tension, drama, action and you didn’t know where to look or point the camera next. The dogs went into the impala making the group burst apart in every direction at maximum escape speed, no more pronking just flat out running and leaping over and through the surrounding bush to find cover, escape. Except for one little juvenile, which had the largest dog locked-on. And in the time it took to start, turn and give chase in the Land Cruiser it was all over.
As we caught up to them all three dogs were pulling the impala to pieces. It was already dead almost certainly from shock straightaway or so we told ourselves, as nature at it’s most raw suddenly gave us a stark contrast to the pastoral idyll we had watched just a minute earlier. The dogs gave high pitched whimpers, the sound of their feeding frenzy and within only seconds were fighting amongst themselves for possession. Two broke away from the smallest of the three, one on each end of the already completely eviscerated carcass, and ran around and around, trying to tear it away from each other. Eventually it ripped apart and all three dogs had something, but inevitably big dog had the big bit, complete with head. She ran around with it for some time as a grisly trophy like a medieval executioner. And soon the impala was all but consumed apart from the bigger bones left for the hyenas.
Photographers and game viewers alike were able to at last take in what they had just seen. Young Oska from Denmark, a very worldly wise 11 year old announced that this had been his first kill. I said that as a 63 year-old veteran of game viewing and photographing in Southern Africa for years, it had been mine also. To see wild dog, or as my wife prefers painted dog, is a tremendous privilege that I’ve only enjoyed three times in 15 years and countless days spent driving around the reserves of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. To see these rare and very threatened animals hunt, kill and the gory aftermath was the most tremendous luck for us but not the unfortunate impala, and we wouldn’t have experienced it at all if the impala hadn’t engaged us with their unusual behaviour.
Is there some moral or philosophical point here? When we see predators is this secretly or maybe openly what we really want to see? Actually it’s just planet Earth doing it’s thing and if we happen to witness it we should be the wiser for it. The lesson is about survival of the fit, the failure to survive of the weak or very young, and balance. If there were no predators impala numbers would eventually grow unchecked and overgraze available food resources, so that nature would balance numbers through starvation and/or disease. We have no real predators and our numbers are growing exponentially. As our transatlantic cousins would say, “Go figure!”