The Real Story

Gerry van der Walt All Authors 11 Comments

Right, grab a cup for coffee and check this out.

After quite some time the Brutal or Amazing story pops up again.  If you have been following me for a while you might recall a blog post I did on Photo-Africa about a lioness that killed a pregnant Red Hartebeest.  In the blog post I asked whether the behavior we saw was brutal or amazing.  I never thought that this story would get the attention it did

Yesterday I was asked, on Facebook, to please comment on the images that someone posted and the story now include, from what I can gather form the translation, that the lioness in questions died of a heart attack.  I was asked to comment on the post in which discussion range from  the lioness trying to save the hartebeest but failing to do so dies of a heart attack all to  me trying to make up the story (??) to draw attention to my photography.

So, instead of trying to comment on a post and answer all the questions and comments, here goes with the original post and two follow up posts that I did.

Original Post – 12 September 2008

You never know what’s going to happen.

That is the mindset we normally have when we head out on drive or on a walk. That is what keeps it exciting. It’s what makes you want to learn more. See more.

The wonders of nature keeps you captivated at the best of times but once in a while you see something that makes you realise that there are no scripts in nature. Things happen that surprise you. Shock you.

I had a moment like this two days ago.

These moments make you realise that no matter how many books you read or how many times you see the same event play out, we can never truly understand what goes through an animals mind as they live out each day in a struggle for survival in the African bush.

On Thursday afternoon we headed down to the southern part of Madikwe to try and pick up on lion tracks that some of the guys had early that morning. We drove around the area for a while but did not find any tracks. As we moved on, a few minutes later we found a dead Red Hartebeest in a dried up pan.

The female antelope has not been opened up yet and upon further investigation we found a female lioness on the opposite wall of the pan. She was still out of breath and must have just finished killing the Hartebeest. Lions kill by strangulation and takes quite a physical toll on them – hence the heavy breathing.

As the lioness got up and moved towards her prey we settled in to watch the scene unfold. Lions are normally quite methodical in how the open and start feeding on a carcass but what followed blew our minds.

As she reached the carcass she started opening the antelope from the stomach area. Nothing unusual so far.

The first goal is normally to open the belly area and pull out the stomach.

So far everything was going pretty much ‘by the book’. Adele joined me on the drive and was watching the scene unfolding through the binoculars. My guests were also watching the scene through their video camera and binoculars.

As she continued, the lioness got hold of what we thought was the stomach ans started pulling it out. As she stood up to get a little more leverage Adele said “That is not the stomach!

The Red Hartebeest that got killed was heavily pregnant

Now I have seen a lion kill where the prey was pregnant but normally they would just carry on feeding as if nothing was wrong.

This is where the scenes that followed had us all dumbstruck.

Once out of the mother the lioness very gently placed the foetus on the floor and spent quite a bit of time smelling and investigating the unborn Hartebeest

Her body language was strange for a lioness in her situation and it seemed that she was clearly perturbed by what has just happened and kept on looking around as if to look for help.

After a while she kept on feeding and started removing the stomach contents, all the while seeming to make a concerted effort to stay away from the foetus.

After a while, and not feeding at all, she returned her attention to the foetus and very gently picked it up by the nose.

She stood, with the foetus in her mouth, for quite some time looking around in all directions as if checking for something. After a few minutes she started walking off towards a thicket very close to her kill

She stopped again and very gently put the foetus on the floor. All the time looking around and looking quite tense and nervous. She then proceeded to nudge the foetus with her nose, gently rolled it over and picked it up on the back of the neck as if it was one of her own cubs.

She continued looking around and slowly moved towards the thicket.

She carefully walked towards the thicket where she proceeded to place the foetus very carefully at the bottom of the thicket. She nudged it a few times with her nose still looking around all the time as if she was expecting either help or danger.

After another few minutes she slowly returned to the carcass where she did not continue feeding but in stead looked around again and then slowly laid down where she fell asleep.

This was definitely one of the most extraordinary moments of lion behavior I have ever witnessed. What was she thinking? Why did she react the way she did.

We always have to be careful of projecting our own emotions onto the animals we are watching but this situation made this extremely difficult. Did her ‘mother instincts’ kick in? Was there still a heartbeat that she could feel? Was she trying to protect the unborn Hartebeest

It is questions like this that always make you realize we do not know everything. These questions makes you realise once again the special privilege we have of being able to witness the things we do. You can read as many books or watch as many videos as you want but you never know what will happen when you are out in the field.

This sighting was something that caught us all off guard and will stay with me for quite some time. I do not know if I will ever understand exactly what happened but in a cruel, beautiful way we witnessed a piece of African magic.

It is moments like this that you truly feel how special nature is. There are no laws or rules in nature that is set in stone. Nature will carry on in it’s own way whether we are there to play witness or not.

Let’s hope we can have the privilege to share this magic for many years to come.

* * *

And then the comments and emails started coming in.

It is amazing how people became emotional, personal and quite defensive of their  views of the story.  Even when explaining that I didn’t imply any deeper thoughts about life, love or abortion but simply posted the image because I found the behavior interesting and unique  I still got emails telling me how the world works.

Anyway, when I started receiving email after email asking whether it is true that the lioness died of sorrow I did this follow up post.

Follow Up Post #1 – 31 May 2009

Yesterday I saw a dead lion.

Well, that is you believe everything you read on the Internet.

This image above shows the apparent ‘dead’ lioness on the left. The image was taken two mornings ago as she walked down one of the roads in the Madikwe Game Reserve along with her sister, mother and one of the pride males.

So… not dead then.

If you have been following this Blog for a while you will recall a post called “Brutal or Amazing… You Decide.”    Otherwise the shortened version goes as follows:

  • Lioness who just killed it starts feeding.
  • She discovers the antelope was pregnant.
  • She removes foetus and places it one side.
  • She reacts strange and seems upset by what she found.
  • She gently picks up the foetus, as if a cub, and places it under a thicket close by.
  • She returns to the kill where she does not continue to feed but lays down and falls asleep.
  • This particular post described one of the most memorable sightings I have ever had in the wild and has now apparently done the rounds on the Internet as during the last few days I have received a number of emails from people all around the world asking whether the female did in fact die.

The question has come in various forms all having to do with the female dying due to a range of emotions such as sadness, loneliness and even stress about what she did

A lot of the comments on the original post had people in quite a spin because ‘how dare I impose human emotions on an animal’ etc etc. I found it fascinating and quite sad how many people would just fire away and write long, extremely opinionated comments, and sign it as anonymous but I suppose that is one of the ‘luxuries’ of the internet. Not going there again… Moving on…

To clear up all the confusion and in answer to all the emails – the lion is definitely still alive!!

The cropped image above, taken on 11 September 2008, shows the young female as she started feeding on the carcass mentioned in the Brutal or Amazing post.  Notice that her left ear has a very distinctive ‘V’ shape cut at the top.

The following image was taken of the exact same lioness on Sunday morning, 10 May 2009.

A little bit older. A little bit larger, but the tear in the left ear is still apparent and as you can see she is very much alive. (The fact that she was one of the two lionesses we had to chase out of our lodge’s electric fence a week ago also proved this.)

I will always remember the sighting we had that day as it went against everything we ‘know’ about nature and what we read in books. Whether the lioness ever ‘thought’ about what happened on that day, or afterwards, is a completely different matter and we are all entitled to our own opinion.

* * *

Things quietened down for a little while but then I started receiving emails from the the middle east asking for me to please confirm the story and whether the lioness died of regret, sorrow and a whole range of other emotions – and now apparently also from a heart attack after not being able to save the young hartebeest.

A lot of the emails was written like this – أنا لا أفهم هذا – which made it a tad difficult for me to understand what the email actually said.

A few people however did email in broken English, with exactly the same stories, so after quite a few of those I did this post.

Follow Post #2 – 18 November 2009

The Internet is a truly fascinating place.

A year or so ago I did a post called Brutal or Amazing.  You Decide.  The short version is this.  

We found a lioness who just killed a hartebeest and proceeded to watch as she showed some very ‘interesting’ behavior as she found a foetus inside the dead antelope.  No doubt it was an amazing sighting but the comments that was posted on my old blog ranged from philosophical to ridiculous but it sure caused reaction.  I just thought it was a great sighting.

A few months ago someone must have found this post and spread a rumor that the lioness in the original Brutal or Amazing post died.  The reason, apparently, was from sadness and despair.  

The idea of this post was not to get involved in an anthropomorphic discussion but rather to confirm that she is not dead.  Not from sadness.  Not from despair.    She is not dead.

This morning I received an email from Ahmad Azini from Iran saying that he received the images and story in an email, again, and wanted to find out what happened to the brutal lioness and do a blog, in his own language, to clear up any contradicting stories.

Other than the images in the above posts, Grant Marcus captured the following image a week ago.

The image shows the ‘brutal’ lioness on the left with two of her five new youngsters and her sister.  Obviously doing quite well and… not dead!  

So the bottom line is this – the lioness from the original Brutal or Amazing post is doing very well and is not dead.  And don’t believe everything you read in emails!  

The series of images and accompanying story from the original post has appeared in a number of UK magazines and newspapers but if you have received any other versions of this story via email I would love to hear from you.

* * *

After I posted the above blog the questions still kept on coming.

Apparently there was someone who was sharing the series of images on their site and driving a shitload of traffic by fueling the controversial and emotional comments people were sharing.  In the end I decided just to close the comments on all the blog posts as it was just insane the amount of questions and comments people had and the accusations of me going to hell for showing images like this also didn’t help.

What also helped fuel the whole situation along was that the series of images appeared in a number of UK newspapers and magazines but even after a telephone conversation with the journalists, in which I explained the whole situation and how it was just a pretty cool sighting and quite different behavior.  Did not talk about emotions, anthropomorphizing the whole story or whether the lioness died or not but hey, I suppose those kind of things don’s always sell magazines.

So, there you go – the Brutal or Amazing story as it happened.

To reiterate – I purely thought it was a pretty cool sighting.  I never intended any sensationalism, political views or some or other deeper anti-abortion message.  I have a deep and sincere love for nature and photography is my way of sharing what I see and, as I grow more as a photographer, what I feel.  Nature is amazing in how you really never know what to expect and to me these image was purely me capturing a story of a lioness who showed strange behavior.  Full stop.

From a wildlife photography point of view I think the reality is that we will always, intentionally or otherwise, project our emotions onto our subjects.  The challenge is to do this in a subtle way, to not change the story and to let your viewer complete the story in their mind.  It might not be right but as human beings we are made up of emotions so to say it should not happen is unrealistic and will never happen.

Even the most basic nature images can have the power to evoke some kind of emotion with the viewer.  It is up to you, as the photographer, to be pure in your intentions and tell the story as naturally and honestly as possible.  In the case of the above story, that is exactly what I did.

So there you have it – the real story.  Oh, and by the way.  Last time I heard the lioness is still alive and well (all be it a little older) living in the Madikwe Game Reserve.

As always I look forward to hearing from you but please let’s not go down the road of political views and lions dying of sorrow. 😉

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

Comments 11

  1. Marcelle Robbins

    HAHAHAHAHAHA…Im so sorry!! All I can do is laugh and laugh…how the heck do people dream up all this crap! Its a few photographs of a lion kill and than a sleepy full lioness taking a nap! LOLOLOL!! I agree the behavior is something special to capture. We know it does happen, but to capture it like this for yourself is awesome (green with envy that you captured this) But from a sleepy lioness to dying of sorrow and anti abortion mumbo jumbo?? Its too funny for words. I cant believe you have had to re-visit this issue for 4 years!! And on top of that answer questions about a lioness who died of sorrow? My stomach is so sore from giggling… I apologize if I offend anyone, but heck man! This is some funny shit!

  2. Connie Briehn

    Gerry,
    I love this !!!!
    Thank you so much for sharing an amazing experience 💗
    I will definitely use the story and pictures in the Ethology portion of my Biology 104 curriculum !!!

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