The constantly evolving interrelationships between lion prides and wandering males is the cause for continued use of the term “lion dynamics” as that is exactly what all lions in the wild are in relation to one another, dynamic. Emotional attachments naturally develop when seeing certain lions more frequently than others and (unfortunately for us) their fate is accepted unwaveringly.
The arrival of the currently resident and locally dominant Matimba males a year ago, sent most of the long established prides into chaos, splitting up several of them into what we still consider breakaway prides of sub-adults. Such breakaways have previously been observed and documented; most notably the current Mhangeni pride which was an initial breakaway from the famous Tsalala pride in 2010 with the arrival of the Majingilane males and their brutal take over of the previous Mapogo coalition. Currently, subsequent breakaways are happening and have been discussed on this blog, and each smaller pride’s future is still unknown.
However, with the Matimba males’ newfound presence, there was a split in the Tsalala pride nearly a year ago, one in which I had little hope. The powerful and experienced Tailless female of the Tsalala pride split from her sister and the last remaining young lioness by leaving the pride’s rightful territory and taking the four young sub-adults with her in an attempt to protect them from the new non-paternal Matimba males.
A bold move indeed, with four growing lions to feed and care for all alone in a region littered with established prides and challenging coalitions; the odds were certainly against them.
The familiar Tailless female had long been known as a strong and courageous hunter and seemed to lead the Tsalala pride for several years since the death of her mother. And so to see her disappear into unexplored territory with the responsibility of four young lions was fascinating, but not only their fate was to be tested, but that too of the two lionesses she left behind.
Their initial breakaway and absence was fast and somewhat discrete, but soon there were reports of them starting to find their footing in the northern areas of the Sabi Sands. With many surrounding prides and even more coalitions to avoid, the Tailless female moved the four sub-adults constantly throughout the Sabi Sands and eventually beyond its northern and eastern boundaries into the Manyalethi concession and even into the Kruger National Park. With no lionesses to help the Tailless female hunt, the sub-adults were forced to learn fast and start taking part in pulling down large prey with their leader (especially as three of the four sub-adults were high-quantity demanding males). The nomadic lifestyle was their only option, but they had a powerful warrior holding the reigns.
As the absence of the Tailless female grew longer and longer and it was only through other reserves’ reports that we could know her rough whereabouts, and at least her survival, but the aura around her spirit never died. Stories of the wise Tailless female and her daring, selfless attempt to secure the pride’s succession were stubbornly told by rangers and trackers at any opportunity, but still I feared their inevitable overpowering and death away from home. I thought the task would be too great.
The first time that we saw the Tailless female back on Londolozi after the split from the pride was in late December 2015 and three of the sub-adults were still with her. It was only one of the young males which was missing and another had awful bite marks to his lower back and looked too mangled to continue; a sure sign they had encountered more mature males and were lucky to be alive.
Despite the clearly complex circumstances, I was ecstatic to see her alive and well and impressed she seemingly managed to keep three of the four sub-adultswith her until then. I hoped it was time to rejoin the Tsalala lionesses as a full pride again but that was not the case. After several days they were gone again, and only ever seen on Londolozi once more… Until now.
To my total surprise one morning the Tailless female and her four (now much larger) sub-adults were found in the south-western open areas of Londolozi hunting buffalo, and all in great condition. It was a surreal feeling to watch her move through the dry Open Area’s grassland with unmistakable prowess as she did many years before. Not only that, but her support group of sub-adults were convincingly much more matured now and an integral part of the breakaway pride.
A previously crippled young male now carried only scars and the start of a heavy mane, and the previously missing male was very much alive and present. All three males had a hint of maturity to them as they focussed on the cooperative hunting between the five lions; a sight usually seen only amongst hunting lionesses while sub-adults get bored and playful (especially the young males). It was evident that they had all learnt well and fast from the exceptional Tailless female in order to survive, and it now seems that their early maturity could do them well in the future.
Just as always, we cannot know the fate of this breakaway pride and can only await to see what unfolds. Will they rejoin the growing Tsalala pride now that the sub-adults are a year older and presumably no longer threatened by the dominant Matimba males? If so, this could only be done by the Tailless female and sub-adult female as it is expected the three sub-adult males will begin their nomadic journey to full maturity. Or, with a seemingly un-aged Tailless female and a fast-learning and potentially leading young lioness, will the two establish their own territory and complete the process to becoming their own pride by reproducing with dominant males?
Either is possible, with countless opportunities in between. It is unbelievable enough that the Tailless female is still alive and so capable, and to have raised and prepared the four sub-adults so sufficiently it really is testament to why she has acquired legendary status for so long.