Now this is what you'd call between a croc and a hard place...

This dramatic footage, filmed in Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve, was shown during a recent episode of National Geographic's Safari Live. While it may be tough viewing for some, the clip is a brilliant example a favourite big-cat hunting strategy. Experts suspect the zebra's splashing attracted the pair of lionesses, who are members of the local "Paradise" pride.

Maasai Mara spans over 500 square miles of habitat, so prowling popular watering holes and river crossings is a prey-finding tactic that saves the predators precious energy, which they might otherwise spend covering ground. Despite their hunting prowess, lions usually prefer to take smaller hoofed stock: zebras make up just 10-15 percent of their diets across much of their range. 

After reviewing the footage, conservationist Anne Kent Taylor told National Geographic that it's common for lions to show themselves early on in the hunt in order to spook their prey. "That happens quite often where lions wait at the banks," she explained. 

Just how this ill-fated zebra ended up "herdless" and alone in the river is unclear, but the kill would have been a boon for the lionesses. Last year, Paradise's three leading ladies were seen with six 18-month-old cubs, so it's likely that these adult females fed multiple mouths with their catch. Approximately 18 prides currently reside in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and several lone and nomadic lions also roam the region.

Worryingly, this iconic wilderness and safari destination is currently in the grip of a prolonged drought, and local rangers are beginning to see shifting behaviour in many resident species. The critically vital Mara River is at risk of drying up, and the region's famed wildebeest migration is also under threat.

Drought has been causing shifts in wildlife behaviour elsewhere on the African continent, too, including last year in South Africa's iconic Kruger National Park. For herds of grazers in search of adequate food and water, it can be a dangerous time. "The herds tend to split up and fragment during droughts," wrote local safari guide Alistair Smith at the height of Kruger drought. "It is under these conditions that lions take advantage of weakened stragglers."

We don't know whether the Maasai Mara zebra was a similar "drought straggler", but reports from neighbouring Serengeti National Park say local predators have been "emboldened by the confusion" caused by the lack of water.

The situation in the Maasai Mara is a serious concern for conservationists, and many suspect the drought is a harbinger of ecological and economic hardship to come. Without enough rainfall, conflict between wildlife and the expanding human population in the Mara Basin is flaring up. Domestic cattle, for example, are now being led to the reserve's remaining water holes. This not only puts livestock at risk of predation, but it also means even stiffer competition for watery resources.


Top header image: JimTheGiantEagle/Flickr