• Don Heyneke

The Circle of Life

Updated: May 21

This has been an unforgettable time in our lives, for the first time in nearly a century the globe has felt a collective unprecedented challenge. This will be a moment etched in history and it will completely redefine the way in which we live and the landscape of society will certainly need to adapt to a "new normal". There will be positives to take out of these unfortunate and difficult times. The initial wave has been somewhat overwhelming and now that we have been the proverbial water for a couple of months, it has personally given me the time to reflect and process a lot up until writing the short insert. Part of my reflection has been to appreciate everything I have; my family, my friends, and the experiences I have been privileged to have and the people I have been able to share them with.


Scrolling through some of the images I have taken whilst on safari has reminded me of some special moments. It is the main reason why I love photography, the process of taking an image is one exciting aspect but those who know me well will know that I constantly beat the drum of how photography takes you back in time. When looking back on photographs I am filled with nostalgia, I am taken back to the moment and the entire scene is recreated, the smells, atmosphere, the emotions and the people I was there with all return. I was reminded of one of the most unique stories and sequences of events that unfolded whilst on a safari.


During the start of a safari, you never know what will transpire in the coming days. This particular safari started with us noticing vultures perched up in trees and circling above us. We immediately went to investigate where the vultures had perched. We were immediately hit with a vale of death when we discovered a dead elephant. We scanned the area for a couple of minutes but there weren't any large predators to be seen.

This allowed me and my tracker, Lucky, to walk around the dead elephant trying to piece together what was the cause of death. After closer investigation, we could see that the elephant had somehow fallen to its perish. We guessed that its spine or pelvis was seriously damaged by the fall, without being able to get up and continue with the herd, the teenaged elephant died. Nothing besides the vultures had tried to feed on the elephant, but we were certain it was the presence of vultures alone that would attract the attention of larger predators such as hyenas and lions. We would only know what transpired once we returned the next morning.

When we returned we weren't surprised to find a clan of over 50 hyenas devouring the elephant. As we continued to observe the scene we were shocked and in pure amazement, a lioness to arrived and joined the equation. This was particularly unusual because the lioness was seriously outnumbered, 50 to 1. At the best of times, a lioness would struggle to take on 4 hyenas on her own. However, it was clear that these were desperate times and she needed to take desperate measures.

It was obvious that the lioness was incredibly weak and vulnerable. She was old, she had lived a full life, over 18 years, which is incredibly old for a lion in the wild. The scene was filled with intensity and emotion as we watched the lioness approach the clan submissively. She was so desperate for a meal that she was willing and prepared for the consequences of trying to feed on a carcass that belonged to her enemy. There was a second where I thought the hyenas would pounce at her vulnerability but surprisingly the hyenas rather exhibited a sense of compassion and allowed the lioness to feed.

I always think about what a hard life lionesses have, what they have had to overcome during each hunt, raising cubs and the constant threat of new male lion coalitions taking over their pride. One wonders what this lioness has lived through over her 18 years. I personally followed this lioness for 7 years and knew some of what she had overcome during that time.


In this sighting, it was as if the hyenas thought the same way that I did, they acknowledged her, respected her, allowed her space to feed. It was as if they were acknowledging how formidable she once was and the indignities of her old age. I think the reality was that they knew she was no longer a threat and there was enough meat to go around, most of the hyenas had gorged themselves already and weren't concerned with the weak lioness. After feeding, the lioness left the scene just as quickly as she arrived, disappearing like a ghost. It would be the last time she would be seen alive.

Naturally, we were all overwhelmed by what had unfolded and we decided to start heading back to camp. However, the story didn't end there, there was one last twist... As we were getting closer to the lodge we noticed more vultures circling above and rapidly descending. Before we could get to where the vultures were landing, we were met by a herd of elephants huddled very close together. We eased past the herd slowly and carefully when we notice that a tiny elephant was lying on the ground but it did not seem to be dead, it was newly born and the vultures we had seen were landing to feed on the afterbirth. Discovering the death of an elephant resulted in us finding the birth of a new generation, the full circle.

The circle of life plays out each day in the wild, with birth and death as a natural occurrence. There is a constant flow, intertwined, and ever connected. “It’s the circle of life that moves us all, through despair and hope, through faith and love, until we find our place, on the path unwinding.”

It is through such rare encounters that we are able to witness such joy and we begin to appreciate this circle of life. A principle that is discussed on safari vehicles all over Africa and to see it unfold over the course of a few days is truly unique and humbling.


This time during lockdown has allowed me to discover a new passion for videography. This sequence of the events was so unique that I took more videos than pictures, without the intention of putting together a short film. I tried to recreate the scene and story in the short films below to round off this incredible moment etched in our memories forever, a gift only nature can provide.



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