The Killing Fields
Lions are at the top of the animal food chain, but they have never hunted elephants - until now. Our correspondent watches a BBC crew record the most shocking nature film you will ever seeDamian Whitworth The moon has set over the Kalahari and in the darkness it has become very hard to tell which shadowy lumps are bushes and which lions. Suddenly a member of the pride decides to make his whereabouts known. A deep, resonant roar rends the African night; a great, bass groan that places the hunter spine-tinglingly close to our open-sided Jeep. We scramble for night-vision goggles. There he is, a brute of a male, not three yards from the vehicle. And he is not alone. We are surrounded by lions. After hours of inaction the pride is on the move. The hunt is on.
“It’s just unbelievable,” mutters Jonny Keeling, a BBC wildlife producer clinging to the top of the Jeep next to me. “They’re trying to kill again.” This is said with no satisfaction. Although a kill is what he has come to see, what the BBC is spending a great deal of money trying to record, the horror of what he fears is about to unfold on the plain fills him with dread.
A few years ago stories began to emerge from Botswana that were so extraordinary wildlife experts struggled to believe them. The north of the country is home to 130,000 elephants, a quarter of the world’s population. According to guides in a remote area of Chobe National Park a pride of lions had started attacking elephants. Driven by extreme hunger at the height of the dry season, when their normal prey was scarce, they had started by taking down baby elephants and then moved on to adolescents and occasionally even fully grown adults.
Lions are among the animal kingdom’s most brutal and efficient predators but no one had heard of them hunting elephants before. These two big beasts of the savannah have plenty of mutual respect and normally give each other a wide berth. The BBC’s Natural History Unit decided to send a film crew to try to capture a hunt on film and invited The Times to join them.
The bush pilot who flew me from Maun to Savute on an early October morning said that there had already been kills. “There’s not been a cloud in the sky since April,” he said as we flew over a dusty landscape veined by dried-up rivers. “The animals are getting pretty stressed.” For documentary makers and journalists this was promising. Less so for elephants.
The guide who met me at the airstrip had what seemed disappointing news. The lions had killed a young elephant the previous night. This would probably keep them going for a few days, until after I had left. On the way to the camp we stopped at the scene of the kill. A solitary lion was picking over the carcass. Other members of the pride dozed in the shade. It was more than 40C (104F) and with their bellies stuffed with elephant these guys weren’t going anywhere.
The lions hunt elephants because they have discovered that they can. The Savute elephant killers are an unusually large pride that fluctuates between 30 and 50 animals. The dry season has always been a desperate time for wildlife in northern Botswana. One year, perhaps, water, and therefore prey, was scarcer than ever and a small or weak elephant was killed in a moment of bold opportunism. Then there was no turning back.
Most of the hunting takes place at night when it is cool and the elephants, with their poor night vision, are at a distinct disadvantage against lions. By day the elephants rule, dominating the water holes that are at the centre of the nocturnal dance of death. In the late afternoon when the crew’s working day begins we find a group of five bull elephants at a pan close to where the previous night’s kill occurred. Aged between 30 and 45, these middle-aged gents refresh themselves at the end of a long hot day, extending trunks in a friendly greeting that seems to be the equivalent of the tap on the arm and the “Awight mate?” of pub drinking pals. They nuzzle against each other and compete to see who can make the most satisfying snorkelling noise, spraying water over their backs and luxuriating in mud showers. More elephants emerge from the bush, plodding slowly towards the group. A couple stop to stare at us. One advances to within ten yards, observing silently, ears flapping, for several minutes, then raises his trunk and moves on. To sit at sunset and watch these massive, ancient-looking beasts, so gentle and dignified, feels like an extraordinary privilege.
But the savagery as well as the beauty of nature lurks at the fringe of this scene. In the background 15 watching vultures are silhouetted in a dead tree. Waiting. A jackal trots backwards and forwards. And the lions are beginning to stir. As the temperature drops, they make forays to the water, slinking up in groups of five or six. If they come too close an elephant chases them away. The bolder lions snarl and pace, letting the elephants know they are there, but none dares to come within trampling distance of these hulking bulls in daylight. They retreat.
The balance of power shifts as night falls. Breeding herds start to pass through. Groups of female elephants guide their young to the water hole, which becomes crowded with as many as 30 or 40 elephants, noisily sluicing and splashing. For hours the film crew sits in two Jeeps close to the lions, who are lying right on the trails used by the elephants but show little sign of doing anything except good impressions of being the slobs of the animal world. One large male reclines with all four paws in the air. He does not bother to stand to urinate or defecate, which he does noisily, his elephant dinner having apparently given him bad diarrhoea.
During the hours of waiting the crew give me safety tips. Guns are deemed unnecessary but there are differing views on whether a lion will try to get into an open-sided Jeep while people are in it. One guide tells me that as long as humans stay in the vehicle they are seen by the lion as part of the vehicle and are safe. Later, however, I hear a story about a lion in the park that jumped into a Jeep. A combination of pepper spray and the lion’s own confusion caused it quickly to jump out.
The Jeeps are 100 yards apart and there is speculation about how far someone would get if he tried to run between them. The answer: not far. For while the lions are clearly used to people and don’t give us a second glance, almost as if we were embedded with the pride, this changes as soon as anyone tries to leave the trucks. I discover this when I try to go to the toilet. The lions appear to be sound asleep and not remotely interested in our presence, but as soon as my foot touches the ground a lioness, 50 yards away, raises her head and stares. I clamber back up and wait for a moment when my toilet routine will be less keenly scrutinised.
Justine Evans, the lead camera woman, says that it’s not really the lions I should be worrying about. Evans, a rare woman in a male-dominated business, is regarded as one of the pluckiest and most experienced people in the wildlife documentary world. She has worked extensively at night and with elephants, although the death this week of a British honeymooner in Kenya, who was trampled while walking with a Masai guide, shows how unpredictable elephants can be. Once, while following a herd on foot, Evans narrowly escaped being trampled when an elephant pursued her and she fell. She was carrying a tripod in both hands and “it felt like running through treacle”. She managed to scramble to safety but describes the experience as “terrifying” and her reaction to it as unimpressive. “I was about to be squashed and all I could say was ‘No!’ Couldn’t I have said something more interesting?”
As a child she wandered Richmond Park in the hope of bumping into David Attenborough. Now he regards her as one of the best people he has worked with. “She is extraordinary. She appears to be fearless,” he tells me later. “I’m sure she’s not fearless because it is silly to be fearless and she is not silly. But she is very courageous.” Evans is self-deprecating. “You can’t worry too much about the consequences of everything,” she says.
The danger tonight is that when elephants panic they blunder about in the dark and could collide with a vehicle. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that we can’t see well in the dark either. Justine and her assistant can view what is happening in the frame of their infra-red cameras but they are relying on the rest of us to see what is going on elsewhere and it is very hard on the eyes to look for long through night-vision glasses.
This is why, when the roaring begins, it comes as such a surprise that we are surrounded by lions. The noise is intended to intimidate the herds passing through. The lionesses check out the elephants as they pass, looking for vulnerable targets. They get very interested in a calf and its mother and other adults have to close ranks to shepherd it through the pride.
There is quiet again. The pride appears to have gone back to sleep. But as a mother and an adolescent, aged between 8 and 10 years old, come through, slightly detached from the rest of a herd, two of the lionesses are instantly awake, on their feet and moving in. “Quick! Come on!” yells Evans. Pandemonium ensues. The elephants trumpet with panic as they crash through the undergrowth. One of the lionesses jumps on the young elephant’s back and another grabs its haunches. The hind-leg tendons are severed and the animal crashes to the ground. The rest of the lions pile in. The mother thunders off into the bush, apparently realising that there is nothing she can do to protect her child from this onslaught. “Oh Christ, they’ve got one,” murmurs Keeling as we catch up. The hunt, from the moment the lionesses spotted their victim until they felled it, lasted just 30 seconds.
What follows is not for the squeamish. The elephant takes a further 30 minutes to expire. The death agony is not pretty. The lions chew through tough hide and clamp their jaws round the elephant’s trunk in an attempt to stop it breathing. The sound of the animal’s gargling, wheezing and hissing is sickening and the lions provide a chilling accompaniment of low, contented growling. It is a hellish scene, all the more so for the faint red glow cast by the infra-red cameras. There are scuffles as members of the pride jostle for position on the carcass. When they eventually can feast no more they pull away, their faces covered in blood, gore-stained up to their haunches. Panting with the exertion of gorging themselves, they lick each other’s faces and flop down, exhausted.
Although this is what we are all here to see, there is no question everyone is on the side of the elephants. “It seems irreverent watching a noble beast being killed. Elephants are such honourable animals,” says Keeling grimly. “It’s just unbelievable. The lions are trying to kill every night, even though their bellies are full. They are just machines.” He is already worrying about the graphic nature of the footage. “We will have to be judicious about how we use it. So it’s not too gory.”
A year later, back in Britain, the lions and elephants sequence for the Planet Earth programme Great Plains has been created from weeks of filming. The crew witnessed the deaths of eight adolescents and the lions tested some fully grown adults but didn’t bring them down. The footage has been carefully edited but is nevertheless an uncompromising piece of film, possibly the most shocking natural history footage you will have seen, up there with the film of killer whales hunting sea lions that jolted viewers out of their armchairs back in 1990. David Attenborough, who narrates, says that the film-maker’s job is “to make it tolerable” for a TV audience. “People accuse us of the pornography of violence. But if they saw it [in real life], as you have done, they would see the difference between how we produced it and how it was shot.”
Once again a BBC film crew, working under incredibly challenging conditions, has succeeded in capturing the brutal realities of the natural world in a way we haven’t seen before. If you retain any sentimental feelings about lions, prepare to lose them.
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