The flood plains that lie at the heart of Katavi National Park in Tanzania are surrounded by belts of thick, shady woodland; doum palms, various acacias, tamarinds and one of Africa’s most recognizable trees the kigelia, or sausage-tree, named for the heavy fruits that hang from its branches like salamis in an Italian delicatessen. Driving through a thick patch of this bush one day, I stumbled on the scene of a gruesome murder. As we rounded a bush, we were confronted with a very large male giraffe, his head high up in the middle of a sausage tree, just a few metres in front of the car. He was stock-still and didn’t react to the arrival of our car, which was unusual. Something wasn’t right, but it took a few moments to grasp what we were looking at. The reason why he didn’t react was that below the shoulder...he wasn’t. Which is to say that, like a scene from a cheap horror movie, he was just a head and a long neck, perfectly preserved, stuck in a tree. After recovering from the initial shock, my first thought was “dead animal in tree, a leopard must have put it there.” But then logic returned; just the head and neck alone of an adult giraffe would weigh far more than a leopard could carry. A closer look at the crime scene allowed us to piece together the events that had lead to the giraffe’s demise. Just in front of the outstretched lips – tantalizingly close in fact – was a nice juicy sausage fruit. The animal’s head and neck were stretched out fully, straining to get to this morsel. But somehow, engrossed in his singular objective, the giraffe had failed to notice two things (and we couldn’t tell the order in which these two had happened). The first was that he had inadvertently put his head through the “V” of a forked branch while trying to reach the fruit. The second was that he didn’t notice the predators, maybe lions, maybe hyenas, creeping up behind him. Putting two and two together, we could then see that at some point (in response to a noise, a bite?) he had sharply drawn his head down and back. And that was it. It had become locked in the forked branch, like a rope in a cleat. And the results were there, frozen for us to see, like some hideous cautionary tale. After a while we continued on our game-drive, but nobody said very much for some time.
Looking through some of my video tapes this week, I stumbled on footage of a brief, but strange, little incident. The tape shows a pride of lion lolling around in the sun on the edge of Chada Plain in Katavi. In the background, a small group of buffalo appear and walk directly towards the lion. In Katavi, buffalo feature regularly on the menu for the lion, so we expect to see the lion get ready for a hunt. Over a period of a few minutes, the buffalo, who haven’t seen the lion, saunter closer. This is looking exciting. But another minute passes, the lion haven’t moved and are still looking pretty relaxed. Now the lead buffalo is no more than 50 yards from the first lion. Both parties seem to be playing it cool. A further minute and this is looking a little unusual. The first buffalo shuffles right past the first lion, no more than 3 feet away from him. At first I’m convinced that both animals ignore each other. But then I swear something passes between them. Stop the tape, rewind…Blink and you’ll miss this, but unless I’m much mistaken the two animals seem to exchange an absent-minded nod, like old men passing in the street. To compound this bizarre mutual disinterest, the other buffalo arrive and, as one, walk right up to the lion and stop. The lions stand up and what follows is a strange piece of choreography as all the animals arrange themselves as follows: Buffalo – Lion – Buffalo – Lion – Buffalo – Lion. Literally shoulder to shoulder. Once so arranged, all animals (with impeccable timing) look to camera, and I’m starting to feel quite strange. And finally, all but holding hands, they exit screen right. Together. Looking like a group of old age pensioners at a tea dance. OK, so it’s clearly to everyone’s benefit to know when you’re not hunting – saves everybody rushing around and wasting energy, but there was something else going on here. These animals knew each other and knew they were off duty. It was a bit like watching Brown and Cameron walk out the House of Commons together chatting.