One of the many privileges of living and working in the bush is the chance we have to follow the life stories of different animals. One of the more complex and therefore more fascinating stories to follow is that of the local lion population and how all the different individuals, prides and coalitions interact with one another. Sometimes you join the constantly evolving story halfway through and are immediately enthralled by what a particular pride has gone through and other times you join a story right at the beginning as you witness newborn lion cubs at the start of their tumultuous journey.
The Tsalala Breakaway Pride has a story more complex than most. Towards the end of 2015 the Tailless Female split from her sister and her sister’s daughter, and took with her the four sub-adults from the pride in what we can only speculate was an attempt to protect them from the recently arrived Matimba Males, who at that time were looking to establish themselves in the area as the dominant coalition. Not being fathered by the two Matimba Males would have meant that the four sub-adults, which included three young males and one young female, would have had a strong chance of being killed. What made this all that more incredible was the fact that her actions were very similar to that of her own mother, which Amy Attenborough wrote about in her post a few days back.
The year that followed would have been an incredibly tough one for the Tailless female and the four sub-adults as we followed their movements through second-hand reports from the reserves around us. She made a brief appearance back on Londolozi during that time and the pride did not look to be in very good shape. They were only seen for a day or two and then were gone again leaving us to speculate their fate. It was towards the end of last year that they made a more permanent return to Londolozi and it was exciting to see that all five of them were still alive and that the sub-adults had grown up considerably.
During the months that followed they spent the majority of their time moving all over the reserve. Often we would see just the three young males by themselves, a sure sign of their continued progression towards maturity and independence. Normally they would have already been ousted into their nomadic years, which is the period of time between independence and territorial dominance, but have enjoyed an extended time with the pride owing to the lack of big males in the area. They will need to get a lot bigger before being able to properly compete with territorial males, which usually happens only after 5 years of age. This may even see them being forced out again and bouncing between territories of other dominant male lions for another year or two before they can successfully defend a territory of their own.
Around the end of last year, we started to notice that the Tailless female was showing signs that she might be pregnant. With much excitement at the prospect of new lion cubs on the reserve and being able to witness the next chapter in the story of this dynamic lioness we tracked her movements with a little more fervor.
We began to see her spending more and more time in the vicinity of Ximpalapala Koppie in the northern parts of the reserve. Often we would see her tracks heading up to the koppie itself. With so many nooks and crannies on this boulder-strewn outcrop it would make the perfect den site and the excitement mounted. In the weeks that followed we saw the three young males as well as the other young female join up in the area and now the entire Tsalala Breakaway Pride was being seen on regular occasions around Ximpalapala Koppie.
At least one vehicle would head out towards the koppie every game drive in search of these lions and on arrival at the koppie the binoculars would come out to help scour every inch of the rocky outcrop in search of the lion cubs. We knew the Tailless female had given birth because we could see suckle marks and signs of lactation on her teats each time she came down from the koppie on a hunting excursion.
Eventually about three weeks ago one lucky vehicle spotted two little heads poking up over the boulders at the top of the koppie as they heard their mother returning to the den site. A couple of subsequent sightings have confirmed that there are two cubs in the litter and we estimate them to be about 6 weeks old.
This begs the question as to who the fathers of these cubs may be as this will be of vital importance to their survival going forward. About five months ago, which is when these cubs would have been conceived, the two Matimba Males were being seen regularly in the same area that the Tailless female was, so it’s most likely that they are the fathers, but we also can’t rule out the possibility that it may be one of the Matshipiri Males or even one of the Majingilane Males as fathers due to the distance and area that the Tailless female had moved through during that time.
The two Matimba Males have been conspicuous by their absence over the last few months as reports of them much further to our north surfaced. However, there have been recent developments in the last week which has seen the lighter maned Matimba Male returning to Londolozi in this last week with reports of the darker maned Matimba being not too far away as well.
With Ximpalapala Koppie lying roughly on the boundary between the territories of the Majingilane Males and the recently returned Matimba Males it will be interesting to see in which direction the Tailless female takes her cubs when it comes time to leave the den site.
There was speculation at first that the Tailless female and the young female may rejoin the Tsalala Pride but despite being in relative close proximity over the last few months this does not seem to be the case. With the arrival of these new cubs to the Tailless female it would seem that it may be the first step in establishing a new pride and territory, together with the young female, of their own.
Will the return of the Matimba Males spark the dispersal of the three young males of the Tsalala Breakaway Pride as they continue their journey to maturity? How will the Matimba Males react if they come across the Tailless female and her new cubs? Is it time for the young female to mate and have cubs of her own?
Regardless of all these questions and speculation there is no doubt that the story of the Tailless female will be told for years to come. She has held legendary status for quite some time now, and is still hunting effectively as she advances into the twilight of her years. The arrival of her new cubs is just another exciting chapter in a fascinating story that is still unraveling each day and all we can do is continue to tell it.