At 15 years old, the Tailless lioness has given birth to what we can only assume is her last litter of cubs. In a rather beautiful turn of events she has chosen to den them in the exact place her mother (who also lost her tail) gave birth to her 15 years ago. The very place the epic saga of the Tsalala Pride began. The story of these two lionesses is a truly remarkable one and the parallels in their lives go beyond the mere stumpiness of their rears. Today I’d like to recount how these legends have impacted the lion dynamics of the Sabi Sands and how despite all odds they started two formidable prides, alone. But in order to do this, we must go back to the beginning.
Let’s first discuss the original Tailless lioness. She was born in 1998 and had a difficult life as a youngster. In fact at just the age of four her mother died, leaving her as the only member of her pride. Shortly after this she gave birth to her first litter of two cubs around a rocky outcrop called Ximpalapala Koppie and miraculously raised them to independence. Lions are the only truly social cats in the world and rely on support from other pride members to successfully raise their young. This particular lioness began her adult life alone though and the success of this first litter should have served as a sign for what she would be capable of.
Jump forward a few years to 2005 and by this point, the ‘Tailless’ lioness (who still had her tail at the time) was with her now-bigger pride (made up of her original two cubs and a younger litter of four). She had killed a zebra and all seven lions were feeding on the carcass. The commotion and noise caused by the pride feeding drew the attention of a clan of hyenas who came into the area to steal the kill. By the time rangers arrived, a fight had ensued between the lions and hyenas and the older lioness had been very severely mauled. A hyena had managed to bite her tail and remove a large chunk from the base of it. What progressed over the next few days shocked everyone as this lioness actually chewed away her own tail to curb the infection, a desperate last resort for survival. For many weeks she could hardly move and was unable to hunt. As a result she lost two of her cubs to starvation. What she gained though was an enormous amount of respect from those who witnessed her fight for her life. She had proven the extremity of her strength and resilience.
Then in 2010, the Tailless lioness would show her resilience and character yet again. At the time the Majingilane coalition arrived on Londolozi, the Tsalala pride numbered 11. Fathered by the Mapogo males, the youngsters were not Majingilane blood and in the typical spirit of a lion takeover, the Majingilane males killed four of the Tsalala cubs in the space of a few months. This left the Tsalala Pride in a precarious position. The pride had to make a decision. What transpired was that two of the adult lionesses in the Tsalala Pride (Tailless lioness’ daughters) left their natal pride, choosing to move off and mate with the newly-dominant Majingilane coalition. The Tailless lioness could have done the same. It most certainly would have been the easier decision to make to abandon the cubs and begin again with the new coalition but she did the opposite. She gathered the remaining cubs, headed into the north west of the Sabi Sands and subsequently raised them on her own. In almost the same way that her adult life had begun, she was once again raising cubs as a solo female. The subsequent pride that she saved was the beginnings of what we all now call the Mhangeni Pride. This pride is now the largest in the Sabi Sands and has even had to split recentlydue to its size. It is amazing to think how different the lion population would look had this female not gone out on a limb to save these cubs.
Although the cubs were all a similar age and we can’t be sure, we believe that the cubs that she saved were actually her daughter’s and not her own. Essentially they were carrying her genes but it is incredible that she would risk her life to raise these youngsters, proving the strength of their social nature and the power of pride relations. Although we can never know her reasoning and although we try not to attribute human emotion to it, it seems she willingly made this sacrifice for the greater good and future survival of a pride she had fought so hard to begin.
In 2011, the similarities between the two lionesses I speak of really began to get bizarre. One night the Tsalala Pride caught and killed a zebra beyond the southern boundary of their territory. During the night hyenas stole their carcass and when rangers found the pride the following morning, the adult lioness (Tailless lioness’ very own daughter) had had her tail bitten clean off by what we can only assume was a hyena. Within the space of a few short years, both mother and daughter had met the same fate in some eerily similar circumstances. The Tsalala Pride was in huge danger at this point because of her injury but just when rangers thought the newly injured lioness would die, the original Tailless re-joined her natal pride and helped them to kill a buffalo after ten days of not eating. After she had fed with them she returned to the Breakway Pride. Once again the Tailless lioness had come to the rescue.
This lack of a tail wouldn’t be the last similarity though. The way in which the original Tailless lioness chose to save cubs that weren’t her own by taking them to an area away from new dominant males looking to kill them was to be replicated by her daughter, the current Tailless lioness.
Back in 2015 the Matimba males arrived at Londolozi. They were not the fathers of the Tsalala Pride cubs (these youngsters had been fathered by the Majingilane) and therefore posed a significant threat to their survival. At the time the pride had three adult lionesses (Tailless, her sister and her daughter) and four sub-adult cubs (three males and one female). What followed was the current Tailless lioness taking the four sub-adults, of which she was the aunt and moving them to safety, to raise them alone. The two remaining females mated with the new Matimba males and have subsequently sired five youngsters from this coalition. The Tailless lioness and four cubs have formed what we call the Tsalala Breakaway Pride and have been on the move/ run throughout the Sabi Sands until now. Remember that not only is this lioness now responsible for hunting for these youngsters and trying to teach them to hunt, she is also having to traverse areas that are not actually within her territory. This means that she is having to dodge other lionesses and coalitions of males that would not appreciate the presence of this breakaway pride. This feat is a remarkable one and at the moment, all youngsters are fit and well.
To raise young as a lone lioness is a strange occurrence and one can’t help but wonder if this lioness observed and learnt this behaviour from her mother. She certainly learnt some of her mother’s rather unusual hunting techniques. Both these lionesses are renowned for leading their prides on hunts during the hottest part of the day. This is most likely a carry over from when the pride was small and to hunt during the day meant they would have more chance to feed before hyenas got active in the evening. Prey species may also be less aware during the day or may concentrate around water holes and shade, making them easier to locate. It’s shown us that there is so much more to lion dynamics than we realise, that pride behaviour differs from area to area and that their social systems and decision making are incredibly complex. Maybe it’s also shown us that there are even more loving elements to a pride than the mere instinct of gene continuation we’ve attributed to them in the past.
A few days ago I watched this old lioness, with her easily recognisable stumpy tail, climb up to a rocky section of Ximpalapala Koppies. Two of her month-old cubs bounded out to meet her and she settled down to let them suckle from her in the grass. At the base of the Koppie lay the four sub-adults she was responsible for saving. It struck me that 15 years ago another ranger could have been witnessing this identical scene. A tailless lioness, nestled amongst the same rocky outcrop, beginning a pride with just two tiny cubs. She could never have known at the time the legacy she was creating and what resilience she would teach both her daughters and all of us lucky enough to watch their stories unfold over the years. In the moment it struck me that we’ve now seen the Tsalala Pride come full circle in a crazy sort of symmetry. Two lives sharing scarily similar parallels, one ending where the other began. These lions have certainly left their mark and we can only hope that their bloodline is carried forward in the Sabi Sands for many more years to come.