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Intimate Enemies

The Waiting Game 1 | 2

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.

A buffalo's horns can be deadly to a lion.
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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