Recently Billy Connolly had me in fits of laughter. I wish I could say that that was in person as he hilariously narrated a game drive that we were on together, but it was, unfortunately, only a video. Nevertheless, the sketch in question had me laughing uncontrollably as he set about explaining how, in his old age, he had begun shouting at TV characters on particular shows that he enjoyed. One of those characters was a Wildebeest in a nature documentary who was being stalked by a few lionesses. He acted out how he thought these lionesses would communicate in order to plot an attack on the hapless, unaware wildebeest. He imagined them using hand signals and facial expressions as they crept closer to the grazing wildebeest. I certainly have not done the sketch any justice by explaining it but if you have ever seen lions and wildebeest on safari then the combination of his Scottish accent and his large mop of hair imitating a hunting lioness will have you in stitches.

After the laughter had subsided, it did actually get me thinking a little bit more about lions and what they actually say to one another. In particular, I thought back to a recent sighting I had of the Scar-nosed Majingilane. Much has been written about him and the other males in this coalition over the years but at around thirteen years of age (approximation) he is regarded as an old male lion. On this particular evening, we were winding our way back to the lodge at the end of our game drive when we came across him lying in an open clearing. We excitedly drove a little bit closer, switched off the Land Rover and sat in silence for a few a minutes, taking in the sight of this battle-scarred animal lying only metres from our vehicle.

The Scar-Nosed Majingilane Male. Photograph by James Tyrrell

He was lying with his head down but his eyes were open, and every now and then he would roll over onto his back and stretch out one leg as far as it would go. This was a promising sign, as lions will usually do this as they start to wake up. After repeating this a few times he sat up and started sniffing the air before letting out a massive yawn, exposing his worn but no less impressive incisors. As he exhaled we heard him let out a low, deep grumbling sound and at this point I knew what was coming next.

His head was close to the ground as the roar started, and as it got louder he raised his muzzle until he was staring directly into the night sky. The sound of his roar was felt not only by our ears but by every bone in our body. As it slowly subsided I could feel everyone shift slightly in the car as they moved for the first time after having dared not move during it for fear of interrupting such a jaw-dropping experience.

He flopped his head back down, and we all looked at each other with big smiles on our faces after witnessing and experiencing the roar of a male lion.

The impressive roar can be heard from several kilometres away.

One of the other Majingilane Males lets out a roar early one morning. Photograph by James Tyrrell

One of the first questions I was asked by the guests was “why he would be doing that?”. It was a very normal question to get and I quickly explained how it could be for a combination of reasons, including advertising that he is still dominant over the territory. He may have also been trying to call his brothers or find some of the lionesses that move through the area. It was a pretty standard answer that you can find in any field guide and, technically, it was correct: those were some of the reasons why male lions roar. But even as I answered the question, those reasons I gave didn’t feel adequate.

Here was a male lion in the twilight years of his life, who had been dominant in the area for over half a decade. His face bore an impressive array of scars from years of fighting, not only for survival but also for dominance. Here was a male lion who had fathered who knows how many cubs and whose genes will remain in the Sabi Sands for many years to come. Here was a true icon of his species. I felt guilty for giving such a standard textbook answer and so we started chatting more about what that roar could mean.

There are three Majingilane Males left in the coalition and a few days prior we had seen the trio together. It was one of the few occasions that I had seen them as a full group. We had actually been following two of them as they responded to the calls of what we discovered was the third brother. It was incredible to witness the affection that these three old brothers had towards one another as they enthusiastically rubbed their heads together and groomed.

The Scar-nosed Majingilane leads his brother across the Sand River

How did they come to be separated again now and was it out of choice or circumstance? In the latter stage of their life, it would be the safer option to stay together for strength in numbers in case they were to be challenged by younger rivals. Maybe the roar we had just heard was a desperate attempt to try and find his two other brothers because he was uncomfortable and felt vulnerable being alone?

It could have meant something completely different. Maybe, as the textbooks suggest, it was just a dominant male lion advertising his territory and alerting would-be rivals to stay away from it, or was he trying to call a lioness from the Mhangeni Pride with whom he had been mating with a few days earlier? Could it just be that it’s habit, and every evening when he’s on his own he roars for no reason in particular other than instinct? It’s unlikely that it would be for no reason at all, but then it begs the questions as to whether lions do have different roars for different occasions or was he just using the same roar that he has used his entire life which can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending what circumstance he finds himself in.

The Majingilane Coalition when there were still four of them. Photograph by James Tyrrell

The Majingilane coalition patrolling their territory, a few years back, across the river from Varty Camp. Photograph by James Tyrrell

If we were to get scientific it would be very interesting to have recorded the roar of this male five years ago and compared it to what we had been hearing that night. How different could it be? Would the pitch and length be the same? If it wasn’t, what would that tell us? One thing for certain though is that whatever the roar of a male lion means it will always send chills down your spine. Whether it is right next to the car and you cannot concentrate on anything else in that moment because you can feel it all around you or whether the distant rumble breaks the silence of the night from kilometres away, there is that same feeling of awe just knowing that Africa’s apex predator is calling.

I am left wondering though, what would Billy Connolly have made of this particular sighting?

Filed under Photography Wildlife

About the Author

James Souchon

Field Guide

James started his guiding career at the world-renowned Phinda Game Reserve, spending four years learning about and showing guests the wonder of the incredibly rich biodiversity that the Maputaland area of South Africa has to offer. Having always wanted to guide in the ...

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25 Comments

on What is the Connection Between the Majingilane and Billy Connolly?

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Marinda Drake

Wonderful blog James. I love the Majingilane males. Unfortunately missed them last week. The images bring back so many memories when they were all four together.

James Souchon

Hi Marinda, I hope you had a great time last week! It was always an impressive sight to see all four together.

Marinda Drake

James we had an amazing time. I remember one year at Londolozi the one Majingilane was on the airstrip on a misty morning roaring, calling his brothers. It was so special.

Callum Evans

Very interesting article, I was a but surprised to see the Billy Connolly link!! It makes sense that lions roar for reasons far beyond the parameters of the textbook answer.

James Souchon

Hi Callum, It’s funny how the mind works and that hilarious sketch of his really got me thinking about lion communication!

Callum Evans

It must be the accent!!

Ian Hall

Wonderful moment. I wish I could have seen it.

James Souchon

HI Ian, hopefully you get an opportunity soon. It really was a wonderful moment.

Darlene Knott

I too have witnessed this phenomenon, James. It is indescribable. Unless you have seen, heard, and felt this, you have no idea of how overwhelming this is. I have had the good fortune to experience this several times, but will NEVER tire of it!

James Souchon

Hi Darlene, it really does take your breath away. Glad you have experienced it a few times.

A B

I don’t know much about lions, except seeing them, but this blog is awesome aye- The Majinglane scarred lion has definitely captured my heart! Love the way it’s written and makes you curious what’s gonna happen next for sure.

James Souchon

Hi AB, each day something different happens out there! We will definitely keep you posted. Thanks for the comment.

Carolyn Whitaker

What a great post, James! It brings up so many questions in my mind. We were fortunate to have experienced impressive roars from the the tailless female and a magnificent male patrolling the road between Londolozi and Mala Mala. Both experiences thrilled me to my bones! Sandross brought us within yards of these awesome creatures during our three day stay. Londolozi is a magical place.

James Souchon

Hi Carolyn, I am so glad you had that experience. It really is a magical place!

Denise Vouri

There’s something so exciting about encountering one or more male lions during their moments of “conversation “ with one another. Sitting in a Rover, a few feet away from a large lion roaring, you can feel the power as the sound pierces the air, shaking being felt in the vehicle. It’s what one hopes to encounter on safari. Your blog is informative and interesting – the photos, images of warriors of their domain. Thank you for sharing.

James Souchon

Hi Denise, It’s one of the experiences on safari that you can never get enough! Thanks for the comments!

Lucie Easley

Very interesting questions, James. I wonder what recordings over time and in different circumstances would yield. The pictures of the 4 brothers together are just awesome. Thank you.

James Souchon

Hi Lucie, it would be a very interesting research project! Glad you enjoyed the pictures.

Judy Hayden

I am sure that each roar means something different to other lions. The roar is impressive and scary. What happened to the 4th male? I love those pictures.

James Souchon

Hi Judy, unfortunately he succumbed to injuries a couple of months back and passed away. Here is the link to the blog where James wrote about what happened. Thanks for reading

Joanne Wadsworth

I’m so glad that old Scar-Nose is still around to impressively roar. So much we don’t understand about wildlife….but it is fun speculating.

James Souchon

Hi Joanne, you are very right. Still so much to learn and still so much we will never understand!

Glenis Newton Jones

hi James. I love your photos of the majingilane male with the scarred face. I don’t think we came across him last year when we visited Londolozi, such a wonderful experience with Sean and Robby. My husband was also there in November with our son and family and once again returned with wonderful memories of the trip. I am so impressed by your photo that I am wondering whether you would have any objection if I used it as reference for a painting? I may enter it in an amateur art competition, but obviously need your permission to do so. Obviously you may have rules in place regarding use of photos taken by rangers, so won’t be offended if you refuse. 😌Incidentally, I have that Billy Connolly DVD, laughed until I cried, such a clever man.

James Souchon

Hi Glenis, awesome to hear that you had a great time. You are most welcome to use any images from the blog as reference for a painting. We would love to see a photo of it once you are finished. Good luck in the competition!

Michael & Terri Klauber

James, We have also wondered what they are saying! It’s fun to project the possibilities, but for the most part, it seems like they are declaring their dominance!

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