Smart cats

Before we even got to Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park last October, for some reason, Lola and Frank had convinced their Spanish friends that we were good at spotting lions! Although my wife is good at spotting any game -including lions if they are around- I was somehow taken aback by being attributed such a fame that generated baseless expectations… maybe I oversold myself…

So, when we arrived at Twee Rivieren there were anticipations and I was overwhelmed by the responsibility that had landed on my shoulders…

Luckily for me, it was the visitors themselves that found the lions. Well, at least they overheard the whereabouts of the lions! So, all we needed to do was to follow our visitors’ advice to find them and in this way avoid a sure embarrassment!

The lions in question (two males) were, of all places, about one hundred metres outside the camp gates and, according to our night safari guide, these pair come to this area every few weeks so we were fortunate to see them.

The predators were near the camp’s waterhole where they had killed a gemsbok a few days back so we set off to find them as soon as we had an opportunity.

It was not hard to find them as, in addition to the gemsbok that we did not see, the night before they had also killed a wildebeest and the latest kill was rather obvious!

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The kill happened very near the camp. Behind is Twin rivers staff accommodation on the Botswana side of the park.

Apparently, the cunning cats have learnt to use the strong camp fence in their favour by cornering their prey against it. Clearly this had happened in this instance as the victim was still somehow entangled in the fence where first one and soon both were seen feeding.

Lions suckling

A letter about unusual lion behaviour in the Serengeti National Park[1], brought back memories of our own observations in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya, in the 1980’s.

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A picture of the letter to Getaway.

As it can be seen above, the letter describes that, a couple of tourists on a photographic safari, witnessed a lioness kill a wildebeest cow and her calf. Afterwards the lioness suckled the cow, then consumed the calf and returned again to suckle and lick the milk from the now dead female.

While in the Maasai Mara one evening we witnessed a lioness kill a topi[2]. While the lioness was busy strangling the animal, two cubs appeared on the scene and, without hesitation, went directly to the Topi’s udder and suckled the animal for a few minutes.

Topi m mara

A Topi in their typical “watching” stance.

Eventually the animal died and the cubs stopped suckling and joined the mother at eating it. We did not see he lioness suckling.

lioness and cubs other copy

The cubs we saw suckling were larger than this one.

The explanatory reply from Brian Jones, a very knowledgeable person on raising lions at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (South Africa) among other activities, confirmed that lions do lick carcasses, a fact that I can also corroborate through personal observations. As he made no mention of the suckling of prey by lions, I decided to write to Brian to let him know of our own observations and somehow reinforce the tourists’ observations. The following is a record of our exchange:


From:              Julio de Castro <juliojdecastro@gmail.com>

To:                  Moholoholo <moholorehab@wol.co.za>

Dear Mr. Jones,

Reviewing old magazines I saw your comment of a couple of years ago (Getaway, May 2013, p.13) to a sighting of a lioness suckling and licking a wildebeest female in the Serengeti National Park.

In the 1980’s, while working in Kenya, one evening in the Maasai Mara we witnessed a lioness kill a Topi. While the lioness was busy strangling the animal, two cubs appeared on the scene and, without much hesitation, went directly to the Topi’s udder and suckled the animal for a few minutes. Eventually the animal died and the cubs stopped suckling and joined the mother at eating it. I do not recall if the death of the female Topi coincided with the cubs stopping to suckle. The cubs were about 6 months old or older (not suckling babies).

I have also witnessed lions licking wildebeest and zebra prey (mainly in the abdominal area) but I believe that there are two different phenomena, one is the deliberate suckling of a female prey and another is the licking of a dying/dead animal, including males.

I hope you find this interesting and look forward to your comments.

Kind regards.

Julio de Castro


19 November 2015

From:              Moholoholo <moholorehab@wol.co.za>

To:                  Julio de Castro <juliojdecastro@gmail.com>

Good morning Julio,

Thank you very much for your e–mail.

So interesting to hear of your experience witnessing the cubs trying to suckle from the Topi – really amazing!!!

Probably the smell of milk and I’d say the Topi must have had a youngster!!

Yes the licking of a dead animal is normal. I  have often seen even cheetah licking their pray before eating!! I have a few tame Cheetah and they lick my friends on their arm, I tease them by saying “they always lick their prey before they eat them” (ha, ha).

Thank you so much for sharing your experience, it always a story I can tell to other folk.

All the Best


I thank Brian for his time to reply and his valuable contribution. Please visit http://www.moholoholo.co.za/ to see the valuable work that the Centre performs.


[1] Koetze, R. Unusual sighting. Getaway (Letters), May 2013, p.12.

[2] The Topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela) and the Tsessebe (D. lunatus lunatus) are sub-species of D. lunatus.

Encounter with lions

We left Masuma dam and its elephant parade and got to Main Camp, only to discover that our lodge was still occupied by the previous guests from South Africa. It seems that the latter rule in Zimbabwe and they appear to show little respect for the local regulations and arrangements. After a three-hour wait, we finally managed to move into our lodge and settled down with the apologies of the Park manager but not from the interlopers!

We enjoyed the area, particularly the outstanding Nyamandlovu pan and viewing platform that, as usual, was very popular with the elephants. However, as we had just enjoyed a private elephant act, we did not spend much time at the pan and instead looked for other forms of excitement.

During one of our game drives a helpful fellow traveller proudly informed us that there was a lion pride on the prowl near the Dom pan nearby. Finding them did not take long (all credit to my wife, again!) and we watched them trying to see how many they were. After a while counting heads, legs and tails we concluded that they were one adult male, two younger males, three females and two cubs.

We spent some time watching the lions to see how many they were.

Counting lions.

Although it was mid morning they were alert and clearly looking for prey. They moved towards Nyamandlovu pan and positioned themselves at a vantage point that enabled them to see the pan and, more interestingly, a small herd of wildebeest grazing in the dry grasslands, surrounding the pan. The lions kept a keen eye on potential prey but they seemed to ignore the wildebeest, to our surprise, as they would have been the obvious target.

The wildebeest did not take their eyes from the lions!

The wildebeest did not take their eyes from the lions!

As we waited, elephants walked in the background ignoring the lions and vice versa. Only when a couple of young adult female elephants, unaware of the lions’ presence, walked straight at them, was there a sign of fear when they quickly bolted and ran tail up while the lions stood up, preparing for a possible withdrawal. It seemed to us that the lions were not keen on the wildebeest but attentively watching something else that we could not see.

The three lionesses prior to the failed hunt.

The three lionesses.

Suddenly one lioness stood up and started to walk with the clear “hunting gaze”: keeping her neck stretched straight out in line with her back and her head always leveled, despite walking over irregular terrain.

One of the lioness starts the hunt.

One of the lioness starts the hunt.

She is stalking somthing we did not see!

She is stalking something we did not see!

While watching her we lost sight of the other two and we realized that a hunt was on although we still did not see the prospective victim! We prepared ourselves for action and suddenly a couple of warthogs came running across the field, moving very fast and away from the visible lioness.

The warthog sees her and runs away!

One of the warthogs running away.

She went for them running at full speed for a short distance but quickly gave up the chase, as the warthogs at full speed were too much for her. While the warthogs disappeared, two more heads popped up in the grass in front of us. Something had failed in the ambush! Perhaps the warthogs smelled the lionesses or, as they looked young, they did not have the necessary skills to shut the trap. Whatever the reason for the failure the exercise proved to be too much and the females went back to the group and proceeded to do what lions do best: rest and sleep! We left them there hoping to find them again later.

The lioness gives up the hunt.

The lioness gives up the hunt.

They were still there in the afternoon and, only when the day cooled down did they move into the bush where we lost them. Luckily they passed very close to us and we managed to take a few good pictures before they disappeared.

Resting on the road.

Resting on the road before moving off.

Showing us her "tools"...

Showing us her “tools”…

An older male joins in.

Two of the males moving off.