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Welcome to the Jungle

On National Geographic Channel's "Predators at War," it's anything but fun and games.

11:00 PM, Jan 13, 2005 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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REALITY SHOWS regularly feature contestants eating maggots, swimming with snakes, and jumping off cliffs. But none has ended in people tearing one another apart, limb from limb, the victors feasting on the flesh of the losers. This might happen next season but in the meantime, there's the National Geographic Channel, which delivers what no other reality show can: a contest ending in brutal death.

Sadly the victims aren't the obnoxious jock or the bubbly bimbo. Rather, they are the buffalo and the antelope. Predators at War (airing this Sunday at 9:00 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel) takes place in South Africa's Mala Mala game reserve where a severe drought has broken down the territorial boundaries separating some of the fiercest carnivores on Earth, namely, the lion, the leopard, and the hyena. Complicating matters, two "wild cards" have entered the reserve: the cheetah and the African wild dog. By nature, none of these predators are out to eat each other. Instead, they fight over the same sources of food. Viewers are treated to up close shots of this competition--and the gory results, thanks to the incredible footage of Kim Wolhuter, a former ranger who knows no fear (think less Steve Irwin and more Robert Muldoon, the game warden in Jurassic Park played by the late Bob Peck).

At first, the scene is quite typical. A leopard--"few can match it for sheer deadly ambush power" says the narrator--stalks an antelope and takes it down with a fatal snap of the neck. But then the notorious Charleston clan of hyenas arrives, wrestling away the carcass from the leopard who gives up without much of a fight. The hyena has the strongest jaw of any mammal on the planet, exerting roughly 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. And even then the struggle over the antelope (now thoroughly disemboweled) isn't over, because the lions have just entered the scene. Intimidated by their strength and size, the hyenas choose to flee and fight another day.

It doesn't always work out this way. As naturalists are quick to point out, weather, health, and numbers all play critical roles. The water buffalo, for instance, is generally large enough to fend off an emboldened predator half its size. But when lions (lionesses to be exact) spot an elderly buffalo in the herd at night--the time when lions and leopards rule--size becomes less significant. Wolhuter's camera captures five lions overpowering the weak giant, then attempting to choke it. Miraculously, the herd remains, keeping the lions temporarily at bay while they try to nurse the now badly bleeding buffalo. But it cannot stand on its own and eventually the herd decides to leave. Normally a lion will kill its prey by wrapping its mouth around the neck, either breaking the windpipe or crushing the cervical vertebrae. But since the buffalo can no longer put up a fight--and because there are five hungry lions--this time the prey is devoured alive.

DESPITE SUCH DOMINANCE, fewer than half the lion cubs ever make it to adulthood, even under normal circumstances. In drought-stricken conditions, the rate is dangerously low. A lioness tries to revive one of her young but it has died of starvation. Slowly, with her remaining cubs, she moves on. In no time, a hyena comes up to the carcass, sniffs it, and trots away with the prize. When a cheetah successfully hunts down an impala (these antelopes can run 40 m.p.h. but are no match against the cheetah, which can reach speeds of 70 m.p.h.), a hyena lies in wait, eager to steal the hard-earned prize.

It's easy to see how the hyena gets a bad reputation, cackling sinisterly while thriving on the food of others, but it would be a mistake to deem them either cowardly or simplistic. Dr. Micaela Szykman, a post-doctoral research fellow with the Smithsonian's National Zoo, considers the hyena to be smarter than any of the other predators mentioned--she ought to know, since she earned her Ph.D. while studying the behavior of the spotted hyena in Kenya. "The hyenas are certainly going out there and stealing kills from other predators but they are also great hunters. . . . They chase them down, pull them apart, and eviscerate them." She also notes that hyenas are more socially complex than lions, leopards, and cheetahs. "Intelligence seems to come with increasing complexity. So dolphins are smart because they are socially complex and primates are smart because they too are socially complex. Hyenas actually live very much in primate-like societies."

Hyenas are well-designed killing machines: Their front teeth are meant to shred flesh while the rear teeth crush bones (and their stomach acids dissolve those bones easily). As another zoo official pointed out to me, "What other mammal can break a gazelle's femur with its jaws?"