A guest blog from Michael J Cohen: Can two male lions take down an adult male giraffe?
20 November 2017 posted by: Zoe - WPY Comms Officer
Michael J Cohen has been a keen semi-professional photographer for several years and he has recently devoted himself to the profession full time. His image in the Behaviour: Mammals category of #WPY53 depicts the unusual scene of two lions attempting to bring down an adult male giraffe on their own. Many of those who have seen this image ask the obvious question: did the lions succeed in catching their dinner or did the giraffe escape? In this guest blog, Mike tells us the exhilarating story of the chase.
Lion's long shot by Michael Cohen, Finalist 2017, Behaviour: Mammals
Male lions average over 400 lbs. Giraffes, over six times that much, with well over a tonne of power behind their kicks. Just their height alone is intimidating. However, this past April I saw two male lions take down an adult male giraffe in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. So the answer to the question is yes, with a caveat I'll mention a bit later.
The Park is shared by South Africa, Botswana and Namibia and it is possible to complete necessary immigration paperwork to enter and leave the three countries all in the same place. It is a vast park in the Kalahari Desert region with dry river beds and water holes. Clay and gravel roads parallel the river beds where the water holes are also located, which attract the wildlife giving visitors ample opportunities to observe it. I was there with Vincent Grafhorst, an accomplished wildlife photographer and guide, who's a pretty good cook as well.
The day of the hunt began rainy and dark. Twenty minutes before the action started the stage was set with dark foreboding storm clouds, heavy rain punctuated with bolts of lightning and claps of thunder. We questioned whether we should head to camp but fortunately decided to wait out the storm. As the clouds began to clear the rain eased up to a drizzle and the darkness began to fade. Looking east, along the river bed, I noticed a large giraffe several hundred yards away running toward in our direction. Just seeing a giraffe running got my heart pumping. Then the adrenaline really kicked in as I could see predators chasing it. Vincent said, 'Probably hyena', to which I replied when they got a bit closer: 'Vincent, those hyenas have manes!'
'Just seeing a giraffe running got my heart pumping.'
There are mixed emotions when watching a predator hunt, pulling both for the prey and the predator and responding viscerally to the brutality of nature. For me, no other event in nature is as compelling and emotionally packed as seeing a big predator hunt and take down its prey. It's also the hardest thing to photograph. The odds of being in the right place at the right time, with decent light and having the action within range are quite overwhelming.
This was my fifth safari and I had only seen two unsuccessful lion hunts and two cheetah hunts at quite a distance. Now an adult giraffe, later determined to be male, was rushing right toward us pursued by lions, male lions!
Male adult lions average over 400 lbs, but giraffes can weigh 6 times this amount.
The giraffe was running for its life, only once stopping to look behind it. The lions were still at least 200 yards behind the giraffe, not running hard but trotting. The lead lion was dark maned and moving faster. His mate, with a lighter mane, suddenly stopped and moved to the side of the river bed, resting in the grass. At that point I expected that the giraffe to escape as its pace had not slowed and I assumed if one lion had to stop so would the other. Potential relief for the giraffe, but increasing disappointment on my part over potentially missing the opportunity to witness a rare event.
However, just as the dark maned lion approached our position, still about 75 yards behind the giraffe, it broke into a full sprint. The lion quickly closed the gap and circled in front of the giraffe, stopping it in its tracks. The giraffe lifted its hooves menacingly, facing the lion head on. In what to me seemed courageous but futile act, the lion leaped onto the right shoulder of the giraffe. The giraffe, bucking its legs caused the lion to slide down its leg, attempting in vain to hold on as the rear leg of the giraffe struck it hard on its back causing the lion to grimace in pain. As the kicks and dust flew I remember thinking that the giraffe would severely wound or kill the predator. However, the giraffe seemed to avoid stepping on the lion, perhaps to obtain secure footing, or maybe just lacking a predatory instinct, and the lion was able to move away from danger.
'As the kicks and dust flew I remember thinking that the giraffe would severely wound or kill the predator.'
After that the lion took a position a good 30 feet from the giraffe in the direction that the giraffe was previously running; holding its attention away from the direction its companion would be approaching. I imagine both lion and giraffe were exhausted, the lion bruised from its first attempt and the giraffe in fear for its life.
Time passed slowly as we waited to see if there was a second act to this drama. The giraffe, never taking its eyes off the lion, continued to threaten another kick by raising its hooves toward the lion and slowly, almost imperceptibly, moving toward it. Perhaps too tired to run and having given the lion a good blow this was its best strategy to survive the encounter. The outcome was very much in doubt in my mind and it looked like even two lions had no chance to take on such large prey.
We kept looking back for the second lion and eventually, a good 40 minutes later, it began its approach, slowly stalking from behind in the low grass. The first, dark maned lion, must have seen it as it got up as if to distract the attention of the giraffe. Despite the distraction the giraffe must have sensed what was happening because as the second lighter maned lion began its charge the giraffe kicked back with its rear leg, just missing the target as the lion, jaws agape, sprang through the air onto its rump. However, it too was thrown off by the desperate giraffe and rewarded with a strong kick or two as it went tumbling onto the dusty ground. Had I placed a bet at that time it would have been even money on the giraffe. It towered over the lions and seemed fully capable of protecting itself. However, we noticed, as can be seen in the photographs, that the front hooves of the animal seemed to be misshapen. Possibly this defect slowed its ability to flee and attracted the attention of the lions in the first place.
The front hooves of this individual giraffe appeared to be misshapen and Michael theories that this was what gave the lions the edge.
The lions circled the giraffe and together tackled its hind quarter, one leaping on the rump and another on the rear leg. The weight and ferocity of the lions was too much for the giraffe and slowly its leg buckled. Immediately, the dark maned lion attacked the abdomen, and its companion, the giraffe's face, gripping its mouth and nostrils to suffocate it. It only took a few minutes for the giraffe to die. From our position we could only see the lion at by the head of the giraffe, and as the giraffe expired, the lion licked it, probably for other reasons, but it looked to me like it was almost in thanks.
'The lions circled the giraffe and together tackled its hind quarter, one leaping on the rump and another on the rear leg.'
The lions wasted no time tearing into the abdomen of the giraffe and engaging in their gruesome feast. During the meal, they never showed a hint of aggression toward one another, sometimes pulling on the same piece of flesh. Of course there was plenty to go around. After they were fully satiated, eating, resting, and eating again, the lions moved away from the carcass, and as cats do, rubbed heads securing their bond and the end of a successful but dangerous hunt.
'The lions wasted no time tearing into the abdomen of the giraffe and engaging in their gruesome feast.'
- See Michael's image in the #WPY53 exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London, open until 1 July.
- Keen photographer? The 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition opens for entries this October. Keen an eye on our Facebook page for updates.
ABOUT MICHAEL COHEN
Michael recently decided to pursue wildlife and nature photography full time and travels extensively for that purpose. In addition to having several award-winning images, he has been published many times and has also donated many of his images to charities, conservation organisations and non-profits.