Mangosteen trees were silhouetted against a red sunrise and spurfowl were calling outside our tent in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. We’d heard lions roaring overnight and would soon be setting out to see if we could find them.
We were staying at Duba Expedition Camp, the newest of Great Plains Conservation’s camps in Botswana. Through such camps wildlife film-makers, photographers and conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert use eco-tourism to support their conservation work.
Here at Duba, for instance, land that was once used for hunting is now a wildlife conservation project supported by photo-tourism instead. Great Plains is also a partner in the Rhinos Without Borders effort to save this ancient and threatened species.
In early June there was a lot of water in the seasonal floodplains, though our guide Joseph Basenyeng said they would be dry by November. We drove through water deep enough to flood the cab and need us to open doors to let it out – a reminder that in the flood season parts of the Delta turn into a swamp. The water is clean, filtered through papyrus and hippo grass, which floats and spreads along on the surface.
We crossed a sturdy log bridge and got a glimpse of a clawless otter fishing for supper, watched black crakes walking along on oversized red feet. A rufous-bellied heron flew towards some red lechwe, trailing yellow legs. An African darter caught a large bream and was struggling to manage it when a fish-eagle swooped in and snatched it away.
Joseph picked up some lion tracks and followed them through a large buffalo herd, past a kudu peering back at us from the thicket. After about 20 minutes we found two lionesses and five cubs resting under a tree. We were settling in to watch them when we heard the male snarl loudly from a bush nearby, a sound that can rattle your bones.
Blood on his face and paws, he was guarding a warthog kill from a sixth cub. Joseph estimated the cubs were seven to eight months old. The little family approached the maned lion cautiously, looking for an angle to get at the food. But there was no way the lion was sharing, even though he may well have stolen the kill from the lionesses in the first place.
The lionesses walked away, trailing cubs as they scanned the bush. They stopped, stiffened and crept forward on high alert. A warthog was rustling in the bushes about 15 metres away. But the cubs hadn’t learnt yet to get down and be quiet when their moms went into a stalking posture so they ran gaily ahead and gave the game away. The warthog ran off in a puff of dust.
Four more times we watched those lionesses try to hunt warthog, each time unsuccessfully. The antics of the playful cubs interfered with the hunt.
Only the last attempt wasn’t the cubs’ fault. After another abortive chase one lioness lay down in the shade near the back tyre of our vehicle to rest. The other lay about 10 metres away. In silence we watched a warthog come closer and closer without noticing the lions.
Then a red-billed spurfowl called the alarm and the warthog ran for its life, carving a neat angle between the two huntresses. Although they sprang into action and kicked up dust as they gave chase, they were too slow. A threatened adult warthog can run pretty darn fast on its stubby little legs.
We had to get to the airstrip for our flight to Maun so we left the frustrated lions, three of the cubs lying in a puddle of fat paws, their heads on each others’ backs. Although they’ll only join the hunt for real at about 11 months old, in another month or two they’ll learn to watch intently and stay out of the way.
I’ll bet their moms will be relieved.