As the sun sets, the distressed growls of a buffalo calf echo through the bush. But it’s a trick.
The growls echo from a loudspeaker, designed to attract lions to a tree and allow a South African wildlife sanctuary to identify its supreme predator.
As an added attraction, the carcasses of two impalas are affixed to a tree. The scent promises a fresh meal.
At the headlights of a 4×4, rangers armed with night binoculars and torches watch over the scene. “We know our lions, but with this process we check them out,” says Ian Nowak, chief warden of Balule Nature Reserve.
A wildlife researcher beside him listens intently, his ears listening for clues to nighttime sounds.
This is how she knows that a rumble comes from the elephants grazing in the tall grass. And that’s how she knows when to raise her camera to photograph lions, looking for distinctive scars or particular ears – whatever identifies them for the count.
This work requires patience. The team has already spotted 23 lions ripping the bait.
“They growl and they fight. Then they go to bed and eat, ”Nowak whispers. “It can be a real bait frenzy. They hit each other then settle down.
With 55,000 hectares, Balule is huge – but it connects to an even larger ecosystem which, all in all, is almost the size of Belgium.
Balule and other nearby game farms have become nature reserves, joining the Kruger National Park
create a vast territory without internal fences, covering 2.5 million hectares, which extends as far as Mozambique.
Creating such a huge space for wildlife is a rare achievement these days. Environmentalists gathered in Marseille, in the south of France, are deeply concerned for Africa’s “big cats”, faced with habitat loss and human encroachment as well as poaching.
Balule is so large that its enumerators must travel the land to make the enumeration as complete as possible.
“Sometimes they ate. If they’re full, they don’t come, ”Nowak said. “Especially the males, they are lazy as hell.”
Twenty years ago Balule was mainly farmland and the lions were few in number. Last year, the census found 156 of the stately beasts.
“The Lions are doing incredibly well, mainly because there is a big enough space to operate,” Nowak says.
Good news for the lions
Overall, the news is good for lions in South Africa, thanks to the government’s conservation efforts – aided by the incentive of tourists who are willing to pay to see the animals.
Private investors also intervened. A multi-year drought was also a boost. Antelopes and buffaloes did not have enough to eat, making them easier prey for large carnivores. The speaker rumbles again with the recording of the injured buffalo.
This time, a small jackal appears, hoping to nibble. At the slightest noise, he fled. The wildlife researcher detects another movement in her thermal binoculars.
The headlights come back on, illuminating the majestic mane of a lion that stealthily approaches, cautious but calm.
“He is careful first,” says Nick Leuenberger, one of the regional directors. “He doesn’t know if he will work
in another pride. Lions defend their food, they do not share it. Here the lion tolerates the jackal. He knows he is not a major threat to his food source.
Suddenly, the lion leapt towards one of the hanging impalas, biting its stomach.
After his meal, he lies down at the foot of the tree. Now the team can move on. No other animal will dare to approach.
The following night, seven hyenas take turns cutting the fresh impala, with no lion in sight.