Much like how political constituencies need their representatives, it is becoming more and more the norm for wildlife populations to need a face towards which we as people can direct our emotions and potentially even our conservation efforts. A slightly vague metaphor I know, but my point is that the conservation message can be tough to spread about a population as a whole, unless there is an individual or at least small group of individuals that humans – who are ultimately going to be the ones dictating the course of a species’ future – can connect to on an emotional level.
Elephants have their big tuskers like Ahmed, leopards have their Vomba females and Leghademas, and lions have Cecil, Shingalana and the Mapogo, among others.
A sighting of a lion has an extra edge to it if there’s some sort of backstory; I can sympathise, empathise or feel for that lion slightly better if I have some understanding of its recent past. Yes, all lions go through their trials and tribulations, but I know that the Tsalala lioness for instance, brings up more emotion for me than would a random lone lioness in the Kruger National Park. Obviously I’m slightly biased on that front, but you get my point.
It got me thinking about just how many nameless lions there are out there, who are just as representative of their kind, but never get the same level of emotional following, mainly due to their complete lack of representation on social media, or any media for that matter.
The reality for many of the male lions in the Sabi Sands, despite featuring for a good number of years on the various blogs or Instagram feeds of the respective lodges around the reserve, is that they too end up in obscurity, consigned to a corner of the wider reserve where they don’t feature regularly in a blog or newsfeed.
The Mhangeni males, brothers to the Ntsevu lionesses, went that way. The current Tsalala males are hanging around and will hopefully establish themselves nearby, but a shift in the wind could see them scurrying for the horizon. And another trio for whom there were once high hopes have not been seen for a long time, nor would people likely recognize them if they were; the Sparta males of 2012.
The Sparta pride were placed firmly on the map by birthing the infamous Mapogo coalition, but after that, their raising of successful male offspring was limited. Under the reign of the Majingilane – the Mapogo’s successors – it seemed as though they might be on a firm wicket, with the three males born in 2012 attaining independence and eventually being pressured out of the pride altogether by their fathers altogether in early 2015. However much it looked like they were going to remain as a group of three, eventually entering their prescribed period of vagrancy, they were one of the unlucky groups whom fortune didn’t favour.
As is so often the case, one can mark for certain when one’s life changed irrevocably, July 16th was that date for the Sparta trio, as they were chased by their fathers and scattered, and as far as we know, never reformed.
And then they were gone. The male who prowled around with the Mhangeni youngsters was with them one day and the next he was not. And this is where the trouble lies, in that there’s no real closure when it comes to sub-adult male lions. Well at least not usually. Dispersal, although is crucial in maintaining genetic diversity, doesn’t allow for much closure when it comes to male lions. The ‘what ifs’ linger for a long time after they are gone.
The Kruger National Park is vast, and in some ways a little like Neverland; in our minds, that’s where dispersed males never age.
Londolozi alumnus Simon Smit, on a visit to the Kruger Park, saw two male lions near a road not far from Skukuza. Although he didn’t get a close-up view, he was convinced they were two of the Sparta males (although being Simon, we should treat that ID with extreme caution!).
Maybe all three linked up again. Maybe just two of them made it and are ruling the roost somewhere, with cubs of their own, lording it over a territory in some obscure wilderness block of the Kruger Park. Being born in 2012 means they would be hitting their prime right about now, and it’s certainly not an impossibility.
I think the beauty of the over-6-million-acres that we form part of is that it lends itself so readily to situations like this. There are so many possibilities out there; so many potential outcomes. Ones in which we can remain eternally optimistic about the animals that we once connected with, even if it was one-sided, even if it was for only a short period of time.