Story and photos by Michael J Cohen
Can only two male lions take down an adult male giraffe?
Male lions average over 400 lbs. Giraffes, over six times that much, with well over a ton of power behind their kicks. Just their height alone is intimidating. However, in April 2016, I saw two male lions take down an adult male giraffe in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. So, the answer is yes, with a caveat I’ll mention a bit later.
A vast park in the Kalahari Desert region with dry river beds and water holes, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is shared by South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. In one place here, it is possible to complete all the necessary immigration paperwork to enter and leave the three countries. Clay and gravel roads parallel the river beds where the water holes are located, which attract wildlife and give visitors ample opportunities to observe the wildlife. I was there with Vincent Grafhorst, an accomplished wildlife photographer and guide, who’s a pretty good cook as well.
The day 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 back 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 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!”
I have mixed emotions when watching a predator hunting, 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 occur within camera 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!
The Hunt Is On
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 the giraffe would escape. Its pace had not slowed and I assumed if one lion had to stop so would the other. Potential relief for the giraffe, disappointment not to have 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 started bucking, which caused the lion to slide down the shoulder and leg, attempting in vain to hold on. The giraffe kicked the lion 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.
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 it’s 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. In my mind, the outcome was very much in doubt. It looked like even two lions had no chance to take down such large prey.
We kept looking back for the second, lighter-maned lion and eventually, a good 40 minutes later, it began its approach, slowly stalking from behind in the low grass. The dark-maned lion must have seen it as he got up, as if to attract the attention of the giraffe. The giraffe must have sensed what was happening because, as the lighter-maned lion began its charge, the giraffe kicked back with its rear leg, just missing its 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 photograph) 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 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 near 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 wasted no time tearing into the abdomen of the giraffe and engaging in their gruesome feast. They never during the meal 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 eating, resting, and eating again, the lions, fully satiated, moved away from the carcass, and as cats do, rubbed heads securing their bond and the end of a successful but dangerous hunt.
How I Got the Shot
Familiarity with my equipment and having the right camera and lens combination played a big part in being able to capture this image. During times of peak action, I was shooting on continuous autofocus at 12 frames per second. I can’t recall how many shots I ended up with but I’m sure it was hundreds. Although both of us were shooting with similar lenses, my guide didn’t capture the leap while my camera recorded two frames of the rear lion in the air attacking the giraffe. We talked later, and both felt that the difference was the camera. He was shooting with a body that shot 5 frames per second to my 12 fps. Just not enough for fast action. In addition, my Canon 1Dx, was able to shoot in the relatively low light with a fast-enough shutter speed and relatively high ISO without generating too much noise. For this experience, I have to give the equipment a lot of credit.
Knowledge of animal behavior would normally be a key component in getting a photo like this, but it seemed obvious to us that the lions were hunting and that a fight would ensue. Perhaps more important was the virtue of patience. We stayed out in the rain, when nothing was happening, hoping for an opportunity to capture something amazing. After the first lion attacked, about 45 minutes passed without any action. Many cars drove by, saw the lions and, to our amazement, spent only a few minutes watching and left. We, on the other hand, skipped lunch and were on full alert for any potential action. Nothing could have pulled us away from the chance of witnessing the final battle.
Patience and perseverance, having the right gear and being intimately familiar with it, a little bit of skill and a whole lot of luck—that’s how I got the shot.
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Michale J. Cohen is a nature, wildlife and outdoor photographer based in Florida. His photo at the top of this article was a 2017 finalist in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition of the Natural History Museum in London, England, as well as a Judge’s Choice winner in that year’s NANPA Showcase. See more of his work, including many more from this shoot, at https://mykey.smugmug.com/.