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Hwange’s elephant-hunting lions

Late November and I was at Victoria Falls and the Africa’s Eden Travel Show, held in Livingstone, Zambia. It’s a great time to meet suppliers and partners but I also decided to add on a few nights after the event to explore some lodges in Zimbabwe and build new contacts.

From Victoria Falls I headed south to Hwange National Park. It’s huge: 14 650² kilometres or 5 600² miles of wilderness and famous for its elephant, lion and African wild dog sightings. For most visitors, it’s a phenomenal experience to see one of the elephant super-herds, which can have over 350 individuals. Most of the camps and lodges in Hwange have a waterhole where you can sit and watch the playful interaction between young elephants as well as the interesting social behavior of mature elephants with their matriarch.

Elephant super herd at lodge waterhole

Hwange’s unrelenting dry season drives huge numbers of elephants to water.

I had the privilege of staying at the Khulu Bush Camp – “Khulu” meaning “grandfather” in the local Ndebele language. The camp is owned and run by 3rd, 4th and 5th generation “Zimbos” as they like to be called – the Stead family. This family prides itself on welcoming every guest to Zimbabwe as a member of their own extended family.

Stead family welcomes to your home away from home

The multi-generational Stead family: the owners & conservationists of Khulu.

Khulu’s exceptional 15 000 acre private concession is located just outside the boundaries of Hwange National Park. As well as Khulu, the Steads have two other camps, with each slightly different from one another: Ivory Lodge is especially good for (surprise surprise) elephants, while Sable Valley is simply a photographer’s dream with an amazing underground hide that they have built. All three lodges offer great value for money and lie on the same property with options to drive in the national park as well.

Elephant super herd in Hwange

Photographic hides at the camps deliver the closest of close-up shots.

The wildlife sightings were incredible and two events really stood out: one was seeing African wild dogs hunting and taking down their prey in the Dete Vlei in the private reserve. The wild dog (now often called “painted dog”) is one of the most sought-after sightings on safari and here was a pack of sixteen, making a kill right in front of us! (With speedy efficiency, I must say.)

Hwange's African wild dogs

Watching a pack of African wild dogs on the hunt was a spectacular sighting.

The other sight I’ll never forget was seeing elephant-hunting lions, yes, lions that hunt elephants; the carcasses left behind were evidence of the fierce battle.

Hwange elephant-hunting lions

This young male lion is part of the elephant-hunting pride & will take his skills with him.

How do lions hunt elephants? Well, there are an estimated 55 000 elephants in the Hwange region and a lion population of about 500. Water and food for elephants is plentiful during most of the year, and it needs to be. Elephants drink about 200 litres (50 gallons) of water and eat 150 kilos (320 pounds) of greenery a day. But, during the dry months of September, October and November the aridity intensifies and temperatures soar, resulting in little for them to eat and longer distances to cover to find it. Now lions start preying on the weakest and most tired elephants, though they are always careful to stay away from full-grown adults.

Elephant carcasses covered in feeding vultures

The aftermath – soon little is left but skin & the biggest bones; the cycle continues.

I saw the fresh carcasses that the lions had left at the waterhole, now covered in feeding vultures. There were four predated elephants, a very unusual sight in Africa. Few lion prides have learned to bring down elephants – or dare – but here in Hwange as well as in neighbouring Botswana, it appears to be a rare but regular phenomenon.

These were dramatic sightings and bought mixed emotions but if you want to see nature act naturally, then this is the place to do it. It has a similar feel to the great drama that surrounds the Wildebeest Migration in East Africa with its River Crossing and Calving chapters: highly photographic predator interaction with opportunities for something unusual.

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