Humid heat makes the lush grass of summer waver in the sunlight, and the close air makes me pant. However hard I try, I do not sleep as much as the lions. Instead, I lie awake, listening. No breeze stirs the sparse leaves on the umbrella thorn tree above us.
No matter how hot it is, lions always have to be touching each other while they sleep. This touching can range anywhere from one tail touching another to an entire body draped over another. Fine for lions-their bodies can take a lot–but dangerous for a spotted hyena like me. I am much smaller than them.
I am not worried about getting too hot. I am concerned about being crushed.
Sterk rolls over. As I move so I will not be under him, I break contact. Still asleep, he gropes until he puts an enormous forepaw on my back. Then he settles back into deep slumber.
With the Sun high and the ground hot, sound fades before it can travel far. If I hear anything, it will be close and worth investigating–though this is highly unlikely. Few creatures will knowingly come near a lion pride, awake or sleeping.
The Sun slips down the sky. I doze. As shadows take shape and heat begins to dissipate, I notice pebbles and sand shivering on the ground. Pressing a paw to the soil, faint vibrations tickle the pads of my paw. Elephants are calling.
The vibrations continue, growing stronger as the heat weakens. They will stop before the lions wake. We prefer to rest until late afternoon, and the elephants know it.
Finally, the others begin to awaken. First one, then another sits up, yawns, and shakes sleep away. I rise and shake too, stretching my long neck out, wishing they would hurry up.
Several days have passed since we last ate, so today, we will hunt. Leier, the highest-ranking lioness, leads, and the rest of us follow. Sterk walks close behind her, and I fall into step beside him.
We have been as brothers for a long time now, Sterk and I. He calls me Glimlag. I remember when we were young and small, and fences bound our feeble wanderings. The bond between us has stayed strong, even after we escaped the fences.
As we travel, one or another of our group will split off, investigate sounds, sights, or smells, and circle back to rejoin the main group. I follow Sterk wherever he goes.
Something moves up ahead. Zebra. Every one of us freezes.
As we wait and watch, a small herd materializes. The Sun is sinking below the horizon, throwing slanted light across the land.
Sinking into the tall grass, we observe the zebras’ movements. No young ones are to be seen. Nothing to slow down their escape. No one to wait for.
Creeping, bodies low to the ground, we spread out, surrounding the zebras.
Sterk moves out, curving toward the sunset. Harde moves in the opposite direction. Leier stays in the center, Stil between her and Sterk, me between Leier and Harde.
The dusk deepens. We move carefully, stealthily, into our positions. I am not as quiet as the others. I cringe every time I kick a stone or miss my step, the sound thunderous in my ears.
The lions are patient, but they can only wait so long–the zebras will realize we are here soon.
Sterk charges from the left. The zebras bolt, hollering, straight toward Leier.
Leier's tawny body bursts from the grass directly in the zebras' path.
She leaps, digging her claws into one animal’s shoulder. Flankers move in swiftly, intent on the wind-pipe crushing hold which stands between satiation and hunger.
Muscles rippling with explosive power, Sterk lunges–too late.
Zebras gallop away. Hoofbeats and frenzied hollering fade into the distance.
Bucked off, Leier is on the ground. Rising, she begins walking. We follow her.
This night hunting is unsuccessful.
Dark clouds gather, threatening rain.
Washed in the murky early morning light, the lions flop down under the low-hanging branches of a buffalo thorn tree and begin grooming each other.
Hungry and unwilling to sleep quite yet, I carry on by myself in hope of small prey.
A scent teases my nose. I check, head high, searching. I catch it again: carcass. Sunrise side. I set out at a swift lope.
Vultures are circling beyond the next hill, but not many. I reach the top, and the smell of death fills my nostrils.
A dead elephant sprawls below me.
The trunk has been ripped from its face, and is lying off to the side. No tusks adorn the formidable head.
Two jackals and several vultures are pulling at the empty place where the trunk used to be. No other scavengers have come yet.
I charge down the hill, scattering the smaller creatures, and rip at the exposed meat.
I never eat first.
No one will stop me!
My own thoughts stop me. I snort to clear my nose.
Without Sterk and Leier and Harde and Stil, I, a lone hyena, will be unable to defend this food. If another pride comes, mine will have little chance of claiming it.
If I go back and bring the others, I will have to wait until they have eaten their fill.
This is quite a bit of food, so I might be able to eat at the same time as they.
If I eat until I am full, or until something chases me off, I could still bring them and show them.
The faster I eat now, the more I get.
The faster I go for the others, the better we will be able to defend it.
I skid to a stop under the bull thorn tree, whooping at the others to wake and come. I lead them to the carcass, hoping we are not too late.
As we crest the hill, I relax. Jackals and vultures are still the only visitors. The other four charge down the hill, just as I did earlier, and begin eating. I sneak in for a mouthful now and then. No one stops me if I do not come too close.
The story is set in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.
The characters' names are in the Afrikaans language, widely spoken in South Africa.
Glimlag - Smile
Sterk - Strength
Leier - Leader
Stil - Quiet
Harde - Loud
Elephant poaching occurs even within sanctuary boundaries of Kruger National Park.