NATURE

The Waiting Game

In central Tanzania, the Great Ruaha River spills down from steep mountains onto a brushy plain alive with wildlife. Crocodiles sun on sand bars while hippos wallow in the shallows. Flocks of shimmering birds flutter in riverside bushes. And especially in the dry season, from June to December, great herds of grazing animals gather on the Ruaha's banks, awaiting their turn to quench their thirst. Among them are numerous broad-shouldered African buffalo, imposing creatures that can weigh nearly a ton and bristle with sharp, curving horns.

The gathering sets the stage for a life-and-death drama. For waiting in the weeds are hungry lions, eager to snatch any buffalo that shows signs of vulnerability. But the hunters must be wary, for even a single swipe of a buffalo's horns can leave a lion crippled or dead.

NATURE travels to the banks of the Ruaha for a suspenseful look at this high-stakes contest. INTIMATE ENEMIES: LIONS AND BUFFALO profiles both predator and prey, and chronicles moments both tender and fierce, from a mother lion caring for her cubs to an enraged bull buffalo fending off a pride of attacking lions. There is also remarkable, slow-motion footage of lions on the prowl, and amusing cameo appearances by tickbirds, the jovial flyers that hitch a ride on buffalo backs. In exchange for the lift, the birds eat parasites and keep a lookout for predators, an unusual kind of biological cooperation called "symbiosis."

The action takes place in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania's second-largest national park. In a country famous for Mount Kilmanjaro, the world's tallest free-standing mountain, and Lake Victoria, one of the planet's largest lakes, the Ruaha reserve is a hidden treasure. Its remoteness and torrential rains that turn the ground to goo for much of the year have kept it off most tourist itineraries, but the reserve has long been a magnet for wildlife researchers and photographers.

A particular attraction is the park's abundant lions and buffalo. To seasoned African wildlife watchers, the two animals are among the celebrated "big five" safari attractions. They rank with elephants, leopards, and rhinos as among the most exciting sights in nature.

But buffalo watchers have to be wary; the big animals can be unpredictable and dangerous if threatened. Adults can weigh 1,500 pounds and stand nearly 6 feet tall, with horns that spread up to 4 feet. The bony spikes are a potent defense. Indeed, buffalo herds often travel with their most vulnerable members -- including calves and pregnant females -- on the inside of the pack, surrounded by defenders able to intimidate attackers with a thicket of horns.

But the horns aren't used for defense alone. Male buffaloes also use them to joust for dominance within the herd. In fact, males spend much of their time in bachelor groups, working out a pecking order. Some herds are made up of younger males from 4 to 7 years old, while others are formed by grizzled veterans more than a dozen years old. And the oldest bulls often strike out on their own, living solitary lives.

It is these lone bachelors nearing the end of their lives that are most likely to be attacked by lions. Still, the big cats have no easy task taking down such a formidable foe. As INTIMATE ENEMIES shows, it takes strength, skill, and teamwork. Typically, one lion will attack from behind, trying to sink its claws into the leathery hindquarters of the buffalo while avoiding sharp hooves. Then, a second lion must make a carefully timed grab for the nose, in a bid to control those lethal horns. Then, the lions must work together to topple the buffalo, while another clamps its jaws across the windpipe to suffocate the victim.

When it's all over, however, even the successful attackers may have to wait for a meal. The full-maned mature male who dominates each pride of lions gets first dibs on the fresh meat; everyone else eats leftovers. And once the feast is over, the lions do what they do best: sleep. Indeed, "lions are supremely adept at doing nothing," lion researchers Craig Packer and Anne Pusey of the University of Minnesota once concluded in the pages of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. "To the list of inert noble gases, including krypton, argon and neon, we would add lion."

The lions' rest, however, inevitably comes to an end. The stomach growls with hunger and there are cubs to feed. And the buffalo are there by the river, waiting and watching.


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