The summer rains have arrived and for some, waking up to the sound of light rain on the thatched roofs of the lodge is a daunting feeling. What has happened during the night, where have the animals moved to seek refuge from this rain and what is the possibility of seeing anything? It is a challenging time, it is a time to dig deep and encourage each other to work hard and to work together to find animals and tell the story of their lives.
Yesterday morning this was the exact case. Waking up after an early morning shower, the clouds lay low over Londolozi, and a mist of light drizzle hung in the air, just dampening our faces as we headed out in search of Lions.
With guests wrapped up, warm and trying to stay dry, we headed for the last position of the Tsalala pride to track them down. I explained to my guests that Lions are a predominantly nocturnal cat and the chances of them moving during the evening were high. Our task would be to track their lives for the past 12 hours. Where they had moved, what they may have encountered and are they still together as a pride, full bellied or still in search of a meal?
The first signs of the Tsalala pride, which now includes 4 very young cubs, were tracks crossing North over the Sand River. This is were we needed to be, the perfect start to an early morning. When any ranger or tracker finds tracks of an animal, it is important to assess the tracks and gain some information from them. What animal they are from, in which direction they are going and how fresh they are. This is when the fun begins and on this particular morning, after heavy rains during the night, most of the tracks were washed away leaving myself and tracker Life Sibuye picking up the pieces and stitching the puzzle together.
One would think that with very young cubs, the Lions would not move very far, the cubs battle to keep up, racing on their little legs and they need constant encouragement to follow their mothers, who in turn need to look out for any danger that may approach. Even though Lions are on the top of the predator hierarchy in Africa, small cubs will fall prey to many other predators like Hyenas, Leopards and other Lions. Their movement, therefore, is never erratic, it is structured, precise and patient. Any crackle in the bush, an unfamiliar noise and sign of a threat is assessed and measured for the safety of all.
With this being said, after 2 tough hours of tracking, in the rain and through dense vegetation, over clearings, and through riverbeds, Life was still in pursuit, some 4 kilometres from our first tracks. Patience is a key element out here, and it is important to understand that nature has its ways. It will provide where necessary, and it will reward where needed. Our search continued, on foot and in the vehicle, seeking any sign, more tracks, an impala alarm call, the presence of vultures or a contact call from a Lioness to her offspring. After almost 3 hours of intensive tracking Life spotted some Vultures sitting in a dead Leadwood tree. Could this be them? A cautious approach in the vehicle revealed a bloodied 9 week old Lion cub, perched in the fork of a fallen tree in a clearing. The excitement and relief was overwhelming. We had found the pride. They had moved a total of 6 kilometres and were now feasting on a young Giraffe.
Whilst sitting in the sighting, a discussion arouse about how fresh we thought the kill was and whether the Lions had killed it or not? And with further thought and judgement, we speculated that the kill was a few days old as it had already begun to rot, which led us to believe that the Lions did not kill it and that they had been attracted to the area through the scent, a testament to the extremely good sense of smell these animals have. Was there another predator close by that was also attracted to the smell? Hyenas? A Leopard? It was definitely a possibility, and with further investigation we noticed that there were only 2 small cubs feasting on the stolen kill. Where were the other 2?
We began to speculate more, and together, myself, Life and our guests worked through a tale of the night in the life of these Lions. When the Lionesses had approached the dead Giraffe, were there Hyenas there? And had they possibly lost 2 of their cubs to the jaws of a Hyena, as the Tsalala pride have experienced many times before? Or were they lying close by out of view?
All of a sudden Life spotted a Leopard, the Nanga female. Hidden out of sight of the Lions, watching them feast on what may have been her kill? Was she there first, feeding with her cubs and was then chased away when the Lions arrived? If this was the case, what was the fate of her cubs and where they in the vicinity?
We decided it was a good idea to head over to where she was, no more than 100m from the Lions and interpret her behaviour. Had she also been attracted here by the scent and was looking for a free meal? Another piece of the puzzle was revealed when Life spotted one of the Leopard cubs high in the branches of a Marula tree. The story began to come together. The Nanga female was calling the cub, ever so softly, encouraging it to come down from the tree and retreat to safety away from the Lions. We searched each and every tree in the area for sign of the other cubs, to no avail. Had she already managed to get one to safety and was returning for the second? Did the Lions even know she was there?
The Nanga female eventually managed to get the cub to climb down the tree toward her, however, half way down the stem, a Lioness heard the claws of the cubs ripping into the tree, lifted her head and ran toward the tree. This forced the little Leopard cub to change its plan and hold on for dear life. A Leopard is no match for an enormous Lioness, powerful, and protective over her own offspring. The plot thickened.
The situation now saw a pride of Lions feeding on an old Giraffe kill, with 2 cubs missing, a female Leopard in close range and her one cub stuck in a tree close by, with no sign of her other cub and a Lioness at full speed on the tail of the mother Leopard who fortunately managed to spring into the fork of another Marula tree a few hundred metres from her cub. Both safe and out of reach of the Lions, the Leopard lay in the trees patiently. The Lionesses below, peering up at an arch rival.
What is now the current standing of these two amazing creatures and their offspring? Have the Tsalala lionesses lost 2 of their cubs that they have so patiently raised until now? And where is the missing cub of the Nanga female? Sometimes in the bush, speculation is all you have. A mind of imagination, story telling and puzzle building We cannot see everything that plays out in these wild lands, and for this reason we try to gather information and piece the story of Londolozi together.
Written and Photographed by: Mike Sutherland