(Warning: There are a few images here that might be a bit bloody for some)
It was a typical June morning in South Africa: bright and cold with a promise of fleeting warmth by noon. In the distance, we watched as a leopard deliberately dropped its fresh impala kill from a tree and then disappear. We guessed that it felt threatened for some reason and planned on hoisting its meal into another tree where it felt more comfortable. It wasn’t meant to be. Hyenas appeared out of nowhere, running through the bushes at breakneck speed towards the tree.
Our hearts sank, it wasn’t a good omen for the leopard.
A little while later we found the impala. Not that we could see it, the grass was too high, but there was no mistaking the frenetic behavior of the circling hyena, their eyes locked on the ground, panting and squealing with excitement, their jaws tugging on something at their feet.
A single female began calling to the others with a yelp that started off low in her throat then rose a few octaves before abruptly ending as if her air had been cut off (see video). From all directions hyenas, young and old, materialized ready to dig in.
The leopard, unfortunately, was gone, the hyena had successfully run him off and now they were going to enjoy the benefits of his hard work.
What unfolded was like a Hitchcock film, tons of drama and tension but very little gore because the majority of the evisceration was hidden by the grass. I’m not sure I would have been as relaxed if the carnage had taken place out in the open like a scene from The Walking Dead.
As the sighting progressed, the hyena shared and simultaneously fought over the impala. Squabbles would break out and then settle down as soon as they’d begun. Now and then a sneaky member of the cackle would grab a large piece of the remains and run away, sending the rest of the group into a tizzy while chasing the perpetrator down with a snarl.
Periodically, blood-smeared heads would abruptly pop up from the huddle, scanning the area for any danger. (No down time for the victorious in the bush, another predator might try to steal their stolen meal.)
Photographically, I was having a ball. Not because it was a gripping visual—though it was, the hyenas were incredible to watch—but because something clicked that day in my photography. I’d been watching Marlon du Toit, our leader, shoot all week and I loved the intimacy of his closeups and I wanted some of my own.
But getting that close has its risks, I had to constantly adjust the frame so that I didn’t cut off ears or tails in a way that ruined the shot. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s just not that easy to do when the animals are constantly wriggling about in a million directions. (I’ve amputated more than my fair share of animals in my day).
Anyway, that morning I felt I was on it. Something inside felt a little more fluid, a little less mechanical on my part. I was less concerned about “perfect” compositions and I think the images are the better for it. I shot through the grass, capturing the mania surreptitiously. I know that most photographers prefer a clean shot but I really like images that capture animals seemingly on the sly through leaves or trees, or some other natural element. It adds a level of authenticity that I like.
For over an hour we watched the hyenas battle over their piece of the proverbial impala pie and then it was time to move on.
All in all, despite the thievery, blood, death and aggression, it was a wonderful way to start the day…..
For more on my trip to the Timbavati Game Reserve, click here.