About two weeks Amy asked for a blog on an epic lion of Londolozi. My reply was flippant and immediate: “Aren’t all lions that have somehow scrambled through to adulthood epic?”. “Just write the blog” she said before huffing off to the Londolozi Creative Hub.
So I’ve been scratching my head and wracking the memory banks for that one lion that made me think ‘hell, you’re an amazing, beat-all-the-odds-lion.’ It’s not so simple. First up the memory just isn’t that good and a lot of the candidates have faded into the background of been-here-and-eaten-a-wildebeest-or-two kind of lions. There is the obvious list of usual suspects: the tailless lioness of the Tsalala Pride and some of her enduring offspring, the Mapogo and the Majingilane. All utterly magnificent, recognisable and supremely dominant throughout their prime years. But too much has been said and often repeated to cover them again.
So I’ll try and narrow it down a little to find the Nobel Prize winner.
The Males. Well haven’t there just been so many of them? Since 2004 we’ve had this relentless succession of testosterone that has arrived, dominated and ultimately been eaten or chased off of Londolozi. When I first got here, the 5 Sparta Males were a spent force and closing off on a remarkable dominance of the area that saw prides thrive and grow under the security of a big and determined coalition. The Sparta Pride had 17 lions, the Castleton Pride 22, the Xmobanyana Pride 11, the Tsalala Pride 3 and the Styx 14. Since then we’ve had more males than South Africa has had Finance Ministers. First came the two Marthly Males and then the Kruger Male followed rapidly by the Shaws Males, the Mapogo, the Majingilane, the Fourways Males, the Styx Males, the Matshipiri Males and now the 2 Matimba Males, with the Birmingham Brothers lurking on the horizon like a December thunderstorm (in other words; we aren’t sure if they’ll actually come.) 11 years and so much turnover. It’s no wonder that most of our lion prides have been whittled away to a few breeding lionesses here and there and that the dynamic is fractured and teetering on the brink of disaster. I don’t mean to be gloomy but we do need a golden period here at Londolozi where lionesses are left in peace to raise cubs and young male lions are left in no doubt that this is not the place to seek their fortune and try their luck. Maybe the Birmingham Males – who knows?
Why the Male lion turnover? There is a theory that Bovine tuberculosis is responsible for the premature decline in condition of Male lions and that instead of staying in their prime and possibly living to 13 and 14 (and remaining dominant and providing a few extra years for lionesses to raise their young) they instead become targets for younger male lion coalitions much earlier and lose their territories and lionesses at vulnerable periods for the stability of the pride. Theories aside it could just be genetics at play and we are just witnessing a battle of DNA that will eventually crown a winner take all and we’ll get some stability eventually.
The lionesses have had their work cut out for them and those that have survived this Male Lion battleground and raised cubs to boot deserve all the accolades. There is a parallel in the human world isn’t there? That the Tsalala Pride managed to eke out the 4 Mhangeni females and the young female currently with the pride is phenomenal. Don’t forget that the Sparta Pride have 2 females that were born in 2007 during the male lion madness and survived it all. I hope it gets easier for all of them but somehow I don’t think being a lion is easy regardless of the circumstances.
I’ve fudged the answer so far but I’m going to reminisce about the Shaws males anyway. This was initially a group of 5 male lions that were born in the late nineties and raised in the western sector of the Sabi Sands before leaving their natal area and settling in the southern portions of Mala Mala. Our first sighting of them was in 2006 when 3 of them (the other 2 had died) were feeding off an elephant that had died of natural causes close to our southern boundary. One of them was one-eyed, limping and gaunt and would soon disappear leaving just two males to tackle the problem of the taking of Londolozi. By the end of 2006 they were dominant here, having dispatched the Kruger Male and taken over both the Sparta and Styx Prides and having some contact with the Tsalala Pride.
At the beginning of May 2007, the Sparta lionesses gave birth to 10 cubs in the Xidulu drainage line but disaster struck shortly after when the males, who had been eating a still-born elephant calf, went for a drink at Mvubu Dam. One of them was caught and killed by a crocodile and though we never actually witnessed the capture it was still surreal to watch a crocodile nudging the carcass of a full grown male lion around the dam. The implications of having a coalition suddenly reduced to 1 were immediately apparent as the Mapogo arrived in full force, and two of them in particular took territory across Londolozi and set to work trying to find the lone Shaws male, and dispatch the new cubs in the Styx and Sparta Prides.
Remarkably the Shaws male would survive the attentions of the Mapogo through until January 2010 when he was euthanized in poor condition in Mala Mala. The 2 adult Sparta Females at present are his cubs and we believe he was able to leave his indelible mark on the Styx Pride as well. Staying on the run for 3 years was a quite brilliant feat of survival against the odds and having some surviving genetics to boast about isn’t too bad either in an era when infanticide was so common place.
I guess that has to be pretty epic…
Written by Tom Imrie