The first time I saw the Sparta Pride they were lying prone on the Southern end of the Londolozi airstrip. There were 10 of them there, including the Tsalala young male and the two Sparta males. This was in late 2010, just as the Majingilane were tightening their grip on the central Sabi Sands, and the Sparta Pride as we knew them then was about to undergo a massive upheaval.
Over the next few months, the three sub-adult males would be forced to leave by the new Majingilane coalition, cubs would be killed and even some of the adult females would fall under the teeth and claws of the Majingilane. I remember so well the tragedy of the passing of one of the older Sparta lionesses in early 2011. Defending a zebra kill about 2km south of the Londolozi camps, buying precious time for some of the other lionesses to get the cubs to safety, she had her back broken by the big males. With incredible courage, she managed to drag herself a long, long way to Pipeline Pan, following the trail of the pride, but succumbed to her wounds 48 hours later.
Thinking about it now, the Sparta pride has not been seen close to the Londolozi Camps in almost two years. This area has fallen increasingly under the control of the big Tsalala lionesses. Conflicts between the two groups have inevitably resulted in a Sparta Pride retreat, and one clash over a wildbeest kill last year resulted in the death of one of the Sparta cubs.
As the fortunes of prides ebb and flow, as they increase in size and strength (both the individual lions and the prides themselves), so to do their territories shift, as the balance of power changes hands.
The Styx pride used to be seen South of the Sand River to the East of Camp, whereas now you’ll be unlikely to catch a sighting of them anywhere outside North-East Marthly (Londolozi’s northern section). The Sparta pride were regular visitors to the airstrip when I arrived at the reserve, yet now the strip and the hills around camp is the almost-exclusive domain of the Tsalala Pride, lions who generally didn’t show themselves too far South of the river a few years ago.
The new lions on the scene, the Mhangeni pride, have been seen moving further south in recent weeks, operating in the shady border area between the Tsalala and Sparta territories. A risky move, especially considering they had all 9 cubs with them during the few days they spent there.
I am of the opinion that the Sparta pride is on the rise. With 6 young lions all over a year-and-a-half, some of them approaching two years in fact (5 of them males), they are starting to look more and more like a formidable pride rather than three lionesses and their cubs.
The males are growing in stature everyday, and it won’t be too long before they are as large as their mothers. Although they will eventually leave the pride, whether forced out by the Majingilane or new males, they will still have a year or two in which to add serious firepower to the pride when on the hunt. Successful hunting and more lions in the pride may well equate to a higher cub survival rate, and if the next few litters contain more females that survive to adulthood, the pride will grow.
Time will tell whether I’m right or wrong, but they are truly an awesome pride to behold these days. Will they reclaim lost territory as their increasing numbers begin to outmuscle the Tsalala pride? Who knows. I’m very excited for the forthcoming months.
Speculation and theorising are part and parcel of working in the bush. While we can interpret behaviour on a day-to-day basis, there are way too many variables at play to accurately predict what the status of the various prides will be 6 months from now.
All we can do is head out in the morning, find their tracks, and follow where they may lead…
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell