Our World Wild about a Ruaha safari

Giraffe-hunting lionesses, the spectacular wildlife and the plight of the endangered elephants make this Tanzanian national park worth visiting.

The lioness burst from cover and charged along the sandy riverbank. The four zebra scattered like birds, flying up the incline, a blur of dust and stripes. The giraffe was less decisive. Time seemed to slow down, light and colours throbbing as they met, the cat craning to size up the prospects. It seemed impossible: the hunter a metre high, the prey five times as tall. 

And yet she struck, springing on to the giraffe’s flank, latching on with her claws. The giraffe ran on, bucking and kicking her off. 

The lioness regrouped, dashed and leapt again. Another tussle, more kicks, the lioness bucked a second time. The giraffe was now in open space, loping off and building speed. Unfazed, the lioness rippled into a sprint. The gap between them closed, 50m to 30, 20 to 10, the seconds stretched into vivid slow motion.

That’s when we saw the second lioness. She’d woken, mid-siesta, to find her sister missing. Instantly grasping the situation, she’d torn around a baobab to face off the chase. One lioness on her tail, a second one ahead — yet by regular hunting standards, the odds were still with the giraffe.

We were careening now, our driver gunning the Land Rover into the river, bouncing me out of my seat and onto the floor. The engine roared, the Landy shook and lurched, and our Tanzanian guide, Maulidi, bellowed instructions. We mounted the riverbank to see the giraffe fall, her long neck tipping down in a long, graceful arc, like an old tree being felled.

We raced to find them and, from our perch, witnessed the aftermath. A grim embrace, the tense minutes as the animals laboured, their chests heaving. A large, sentient mammal expired right in front of us. Our throats bulged with adrenaline and emotion; one member of our group wept. The truth of the moment was complex and painful, particularly to those of us long separated from nature.

We spent the evening debriefing with Rebecca Phillips and Andrea Pompele, our young camp managers. It turned out that the lions of Ruaha National Park had a knack for hunting giraffe. Incredibly, they represented an estimated 10 per cent of Africa’s total lion population. 

This concentration of mouths needed feeding, and giraffe were abundant. 

For two cats to tackle an adult giraffe, however, surprised even the locals. It seemed that we had witnessed something quite rare.

Wild with life

At more than 20,000sqkm in area, and with more than 570 recorded bird species alone, Ruaha seemed wild with life. Thanks to Maulidi’s keen eyes and bush savvy, we sighted leopards, those notorious recluses, on every day of the safari. We watched one feed on a baboon kill under a low-lying tree, close enough for us to smell the carcass and hear the chewing. We spotted several hyena, on one occasion startling one who ran ahead of the Landy, belly full and swinging with meat. Another time, we moved through a herd of buffalo, hundreds of them surrounding us like a whirling black lake. 

On a single day, we sighted 20 mammal species, including the endangered African hunting dog, the honey badger and the enormous eland. We witnessed fascinating behaviour at close range: senior baboons disciplining a younger ape, a lion and lioness mating loudly, another lioness in a stand-off against a buffalo herd, each side taking turns to charge in a surreal game of chicken. 

Elephants under attack

Even more than the lions, the animal that moved me was the elephant. In herds or on their own, their displays of intelligence and sensitivity were palpable. We watched them tirelessly, baby elephants splashing around in waterholes, elders carefully locating and digging for fresh water, adolescents mock-jousting for dominance. Even at quiet times, their capacity for curiosity and play was so touching, their gestures so relatable. “Expect to empathise with an elephant”, I found myself asking.

Sadly, the ellies of Ruaha face serious challenges. I spent an evening around the campfire with Rebecca and Andrea, learning more. Illegal poaching for tusk in Tanzania is endemic, driven by demand from China and other markets. This results in the slaughter of thousands of elephants per year. Consequently, the estimated elephant population in Ruaha has halved in the past five years, and Selous Game Reserve (a UNESCO World Heritage Centre) has lost almost 90 per cent of its elephants.

There is some cause for hope. Late last year, a fall in the price of ivory brought expectations that poaching would be curbed. The World Wildlife Foundation has reported that every dollar invested in protecting elephants yields $1.78, making the economic case that elephants are ‘worth more alive’. While I was there, Dr John Magufuli, Tanzania’s President, ordered a crackdown on ivory poaching, in recognition of elephants as a vital natural resource. The threat is likely to continue, however, until ivory markets in China and elsewhere are closed completely.

In efforts to raise awareness about these issues, Rebecca and Andrea formed their own small campaign in 2016. ‘Africa Conservation Adventure’ was a journey through 23 national parks, with online photo and video posts. Along the way, the pair met local conservation groups, such as the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program. Rebecca and Andrea still post about their adventures, and promote grass-roots groups who are making a difference, whom the public can learn more about or support.

Visit Ruaha

One way to support Ruaha is to travel there in person. Several airlines can connect Perth and Tanzania; I used South African Airlines, via Johannesburg, which worked for me. From Dar es Salaam, a flying safari to Ruaha was easily arranged through ‘Essential Destinations’. The package was more affordable than the Serengeti National Park, and animal sightings were frequent, but less crowded than in the more renowned park.

Campsite security, accommodation and meals at Mdonya Old River Camp were top notch. Our safari guide, Maulidi, comes highly recommended, thanks to his professionalism, eagle eyes, and willingness to tailor safaris. The animals were most active in the mornings and late afternoon. 

Wet and dry seasons both have their charm, so it’s really a matter of personal preference. Check online updates, as some of the lodges close in April/May.

A tree branch gives a great view of potential prey. Picture: Hessom Razavi

Fact File

Essential Destinations (Mdonye Old River Camp) — ed.co.tz/property/mdonya-old-river

PAMS Foundation Tanzania — pamsfoundationtanzania.org

Environmental Investigation Agency — eia-international.org/report/vanishing-point-criminality-corruption-and-the-devastation-of-tanzanias-elephants

Africa Conservation Adventure — facebook.com/africaconservationadventure