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.

The original Tailless lioness who was born in 1998. This image was taken before her encounter with the hyenas that left her tailless.

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.

Ximpalapala Koppies: The rocky outcrop that has housed many generations of the Tsalala Pride’s cubs

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.

The Tailless female after the encounter with the hyena. Subsequent to this she actually bit her own tail off.

The Tailless female after removing her own tail. At this point the wound had begun to heal and she could move about and hunt again.

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.

The arrival of the Majingilane coalition was a very difficult time for the Tsalala Pride. These new males chased and killed four of the Tsalala Pride cubs in their first few months on Londolozi, forcing the Tailless female to leave her natal pride in order to save the remainder of the 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.

The original Tailless female with the sub-adults, photographed during the arrival of the Majingilane on Londolozi. Photograph by Adam Bannister

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.

The more recent Tailless female after losing her tail in the same set of strange circumstances as her mother. Photograph by Adam Bannister

The obviously recognizable Tailless lioness, photographed in profile as she crosses the Sand River.

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.

The current Tailless lioness looking in the direction of her pride’s newest threat, the Matimba males.

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.

The arrival of the Matimba males on Londolozi. These two males shook lion dynamics up once again, causing the current Tailless lioness to take the four sub-adults and disappear from Londolozi for over a year.

The Tailless lioness heading east with the youngsters. This lioness has traversed most of the Sabi Sands in the last year or so, dodging other territorial prides and coalitions of males in order to keep these cubs safe.

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 portion of the Tsalala Pride catching and killing a buffalo. This pride is renowned for hunting during the heat of the day when most lions choose to rest.

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.

The current Tsalala Pride crossing the Sand River with their five cubs. This pride carries the genes of these two legendary lionesses and we will have to see what the future holds for them.

Filed under Lions Wildlife

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

Media Team

Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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54 Comments

on The Epic Story of the Tailless Lioness: Then and Now
    Mike ryan says:

    Amy a fabulous story and thanks for sharing. We look forward to seeing some photos of her cubs and interesting that the four sub adults are still with her. Can you speculate who are the cubs fathers ? Thanks mike

    Colin says:

    Amy, what an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. It makes me just want to go and give that tailless lion a big hug, but on second thoughts …………

    Lee says:

    A wonderful tale (!) beautifully told. Thanks, Amy!

    Lynne says:

    Thank for that lovely story ! Hope it ends happily in the future !

    Darlene Knott says:

    Amazing story! Thanks for sharing, Amy.

    Amaya Pryce says:

    Amazing, inspiring and humbling. Thank you for this backstory!

    Danny says:

    Epic reading!

    Tony Goldman says:

    Thanks Amy for a wonderfully detailed story and have personally been fortunate to watch and photograph the Tsalala pride and the Mhangeni pride evolution over the last 9 years and look forward to see what happens to them in the future

    Lea says:

    What brave lionesses. A really amazing story of survival and teaching of these two magnificent ladies. The original tail less lioness surely taught her daughter valuable life lessons. I am sure the daughter will teach her offspring to do the same. Very courageous and magnificent cats. Thank you so much Amy for this beautiful blog – loved it.

    Mary Beth Wheeler says:

    What a lovely story, Amy! With Nick K., we searched almost daily for her and cubs a few weeks back; so happy she and cubs been located. Thanks for retelling the whole story!

    Dawn Phillips says:

    Wow, what an inspiring story. It is so amazing to hear the history of these incredible lionesses. I truly hope that we have the opportunity to see her in September when we arrive. It would be such a special event to see this amazing creature that I feel that I am becoming to know, thanks to these stories.

    Les Moodie says:

    A wonderful story Amy. Thanks for sharing it.

    Suzanne Myers says:

    Thank you Amy so much!! The Tsalala pride was the first I was introduced to… The 1st Great Lioness w/o her tail… We called and knew her as BB…. So you can guess, They are my favorite and hold a special place in heart! I loved the more detailed story of her you gave! It only made me LOVE her more!!!!!!

    Susan Strauss says:

    These lionesses are so inspiring – true hero’s saga journey! Facing incredible odds over and over, and making decisions in the best interest of the collective good.Thank you Amy for sharing the history of their journey. Tailless is a role model ❤️

    Audrey Kubie says:

    An amazing tale (no pun intended) of these phenomenal animals. This is such a beautiful description of these amazing creatures. Thank you!

    Jeff Powell says:

    Amy, an absorbing and well told story. The Londolozi blog is always a good read, but you’ve set a new standard. — thank you

    Mishal says:

    A brilliant brilliant piece One of my favorites blog pieces ever written you have done a fantastic job Amy
    You have shared the amazing story of my favorite pride and written it so well one can feel your love for that pride and those two females an excellent job Amy keep it up like I said before this is now my favorite blog piece .Thank you for writing it its perfect literally perfect .

    Mishal says:

    I agree with the above comment you have set a new standard for the blog .You have describe the incredible story with such compassion and passion keep it up

    Jurgen Vogt says:

    An awesome piece of research and a very well written story. Really captivating. Well done Amy

    Barbara Bethke says:

    Thank you so much for your fantastic blog describing the life of the tailless lionesses. I like observing lionesses and cubs because of their amazing family life.

    Ann Seagle says:

    I love these kind of stories. I am so fascinated by the dynamics of a lion pride. U told it beautifully. Thank u. Ann Seagle

    Lynn Rattray says:

    Awesome story and so well told!

    Jason_T says:

    I did not understand who gave the latest birth.

    Was the Tailless who was with the 4 young Tsalala lions (3 Males and 1 female)
    or
    the old Tsalala Lioness about 14-15 yo, who last year gave birth to 2 female cubs, and she is together with a younger lioness who has 3 cubs.

    who of those two?

    Amy Attenborough says:

    Hi Jason. Yes the newest litter is from the Tailless lioness (aged 15) who is with four sub adults and her two new cubs. Her mother, the original tailless, died back in August 2013.

    Wendy Hawkins says:

    Wow this is an amazing story! Long may she survive to see these babies grow up big & strong! Thanks Amy

    Chris says:

    A marvelous and moving story, amy. Thank you for sharing.

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