Africa’s iconic predators—lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs—are most known for being cunning, stealthy, and vicious.
But these meat-eaters are often misunderstood. The fiercely loyal African wild dog lives in close-knit packs, caring for the babies of the matriarch and patriarch, communicating by touch, and nurturing those who are sick or injured.
Vultures rarely attack the living. By feasting on the dead, these birds act as a built-in cleanup crew, consuming carcasses that might otherwise spread disease to other predators and their prey.
Blood drips from a Rüppell’s vulture’s beak as it pauses mid-meal in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. As scavengers, vultures provide a crucial service to their African ecosystems: cleaning up and recycling dead animals. Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
And though they are at the top of their food chains, Africa’s predators face significant threats.
From illegal hunting to loss of land to drought, the once vast domains of Africa’s wild kings are shrinking rapidly. Leopards are being pushed into urban centers, and lions have plummeted in numbers—from over 450,000 in the 1940s to about 20,000 today.
With no choice but to adapt to threats, predators are increasingly forced to battle each other for dominance over their diminished habitats. The Nat Geo WILD program Savage Kingdom follows five predator dynasties struggling to survive in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, where the land has become progressively dry.
Here are 14 images of African predators trying to make it in a difficult world.
A young Rüppell’s vulture ravishes a dead zebra in the Serengeti. Older and more dominant birds have taken their fill of the choice meat, leaving the skin and bones for youngsters. Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
In the Serengeti, a golden jackal snarls at a white-backed vulture trying to encroach on its meal. Jackals are opportunistic omnivores—they hunt small game, scavenge carcasses, and even eat fruit. Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James
A male lion downs a wildebeest, its eyes bulging in terror, on a parched savanna in the Serengeti. Life is tough for male lions: Only one in eight survive to adulthood. At age two, many are kicked out of the pride by other males and forced to roam alone or in small packs with other cast-offs, vulnerable without a pride’s protection. Photograph by Mitsuaki Iwago
Matted with blood, an African wild dog—named Tremblant by researchers—pauses after devouring an impala. Only distantly related to other canids, the dogs once ranged across most of the African continent. Now they compete with people for their ever dwindling hunting grounds. Photograph by Chris Johns
A group of lionesses crosses a small stream in Botswana. Lions are the most social of the big cats, most typically dwelling in close-knit family units called prides. Outsiders are rarely allowed to join the group. Photograph by Beverly Joubert
A lioness clenches her jaw around the neck of a day-old Cape buffalo. Female lions are the primary hunters in a pride, while males typically defend the pride’s territory—which can be as large as a hundred square miles. Photograph by Beverly Joubert
Five lionesses bear down on a screaming warthog as their nine cubs look on. Together, they make up the Vumbi (“dust” in Swahili) pride. In late 2011, the pride faced near starvation on the dry, empty plains of the Serengeti. A family of warthogs provided a much needed meal. Photograph by Michael Nichols
Captured by a remote-control camera, a blood-stained lion cub perches atop a dead zebra in the Serengeti. When it comes to feasting, cubs are at the bottom of the pecking order within a pride. Once the adults have had their fill, juveniles move in for the scraps. Photograph by Michael Nichols
A female leopard in South Africa’s Sabi Sand Reserve feasts on an impala that she hauled up a tree for safekeeping. Human expansion has cost leopards an estimated 66 percent of their range in Africa. Photograph by Steve Winter
A spotted hyena carries a lesser flamingo in its mouth in Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park. When it comes to food, hyenas aren’t picky—only giraffes and adult water buffalo tend to escape their wrath, thanks to their mammoth size. Photograph by Winfried Wisniewski, Minden Pictures
African wild dogs ravage prey in Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park. The packs eat fast in an effort to consume as much meat as possible before other predators, such as hyenas, move in. African wild dogs do have one advantage: They work in unison as a pack, while hyenas are more likely to fend for themselves. Photograph by Chris Johns
A young leopard in South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve feeds on an impala killed and hoisted aloft by its mother. Tree-caching protects food and cubs from hyenas and other competitors. Photograph by Meril Darees and Manon Moulis
Four-month-old African wild dog pups tussle over a strip of impala skin. These pups consume regurgitated meat, but are on the verge of being physically strong enough to keep up with their pack in the field. The dogs are often called painted dogs for their unique, mottled coats—no two are alike. Photograph by Chris Johns
This article was first published by National Geographic on 30 Nov 2016.