Fight For Love and Life - Timbavati Tales #6
Very little in the bush is more exciting than watching animals doing out-of-the-ordinary stuff; i.e. not just sleeping and eating! While many visitors to Africa consider witnessing a kill to be the ultimate game viewing highlight, some of my personal favourite sightings over the last 5 years have been the many instances when I have watched animals fighting for whatever reason.; be it two Egyptian geese bashing the living daylights out of one another with their wings, or two male lions going head-to-head over a buffalo kill.
The beauty of witnessing a fight is that it can be seen in the majority of mammal species, and indeed most animal species, from time to time. There is no single stimulus for starting a fight, and the reason for entering into a fight can be almost as varied as the methods employed during such fights, but one factor that is most often present is that the participants are likely to be male (although not always!). It can be said that the majority of adaptations that male animals have, in terms of larger sizes than females and a host weaponry which the opposite sex usually lacks, has evolved purely for the purpose of fighting with one another to win a battle for something. This something could be anything from access to a female in estrus, territory, food or the defence of a herd member or cub; sometimes however, animals just fight with one another because it’s fun (just watch any baby lions or elephants), although these “play fights” no doubt serve to prepare the participants for future, more serious fights.
In the Timbavati, the males of the antelope species are blessed with elaborate horns that surely hamper their usual day-to-day life, but without such armoury, they would not be able to fight to take control of a territory or a receptive female. As April draws to a close, one of the most exciting times in the impala-world is about to begin; the rutting season! Male impalas will spend the next several weeks risking life and limb (or horn) to acquire a piece of land that will give them access to a herd of females, and the chance to mate and spread their genes. Of course, as this land is at a premium, the territorial male will spend a good part of his time chasing off other males, and those that are confident enough not to run away will enter into a clash of horns that could determine who walks away with the territory! These clashes can be quite impressive, and each season countless male impalas end up snapping off horns, having their eyes gauged out, or, most likely, end up as a meal for a leopard as they are so focussed on the fight and keeping other impalas out of their territory, that they don’t pay enough attention to the predators on the prowl, and April-May is usually a male impala feast for the leopards of the area.
Giraffes don’t have territories, but instead they fight for access to a female in estrus (as do kudus), and will accompany her while she is ready to mate, and fight off any challengers. Young male giraffes will be dominated by the older, larger bulls, and can be displaced simply by “standing tall”, where the taller male is automatically the victor. Evenly sized males may engage in an spectacle known as ‘necking’; a very gentlemanly activity whereby each opponent courteously uses his heavy skull and long neck to pummel his opponent as hard as he can! The opponent will jump to absorb some of the blow, and hence the “taking turns” approach that is used. Young males will also establish a hierarchy in their ranks based on less serious fights as youngsters, and learning who can be fought with, and who should be avoided. Full mature males may hit one another with such force that some of the opponents end up being knocked unconscious!
Elephant bulls always seem to be fighting when they are young and their bodies are changing with a surge of hormones, and most fights witnessed in elephants will be little more than play, but like giraffes, these “playful” fights are allowing them to size one another up for when the real fights begin later in life. Bigger bulls dominate the fights based on size, and most smaller individuals will avoid the larger males, and all bulls that are not in musthe will avoid any bull that is in musthe (the male elephants state of sexual readiness), irrespective of size. Throw two evenly-sized bulls in musthe into the ring, and man, you are in for some action! With 5-6 tonnes of testosterone-fuelled muscle going up against one another, it always surprises me that more elephant bulls don’t die in such fights; but at the end of the day, most losers would rather walk away with their life (and a dented ego) than ending up as vulture food. One animal that is more than prepared to give his life in a fight over territory – primarily as it is comparatively limited – is the male hippo; and the reason for this is that if a male doesn’t have a territory, and a raft of females that goes with it, he can’t mate, and if he can’t mate, he can’t spread his genes, and if he can’t do that, he has - according to Darwin - failed in life, hence the fact it is almost worth giving up life for the potential to create more life!
While the predators engage in some spectacular fights, including territorial fights, they are most often seen fighting over food. Fights over food may not be so serious, and a little scolding of a subordinate pride/clan/family member is enough to put them in place, but sometimes things get more serious. I once witnessed a lion getting killed over buffalo carcass, although, truth be told, there was more to the story, and the ferocity of the fight was not due entirely to the presence of the buffalo steaks on offer, but rather the presence of intruding lions into an area that they did not belong, trying to eat a kill that did not belong to them in the first place...a disaster waiting to happen!
Young predators also show off their “fighting abilities” the most, and this is often seen between young lions and leopards fighting with one another, or with their very tolerant mothers. The playfulness in these fights is very evident, and it needs to be so as to not induce a serious response from their “opponent” when one was never wanted to begin with. The techniques learnt, and muscles developed in these fights as cubs serve the cubs well as they carry on with life, because as adults, their opponents definitely won’t take it easy on them!
My favourite fights, however, are those that take place once back at the lodge after the safari, when everyone now turns to fighting over the bacon and eggs at the breakfast area!