I don’t know if everyone knows the history of the Mhangeni pride, one of the newest and certainly one of the biggest prides in the Sabi Sands.
These 13 lions are not one of the more historically established prides of the area, like the famous Sparta pride, who’s fortunes have been followed ever since Londolozi became established as a photographic safari destination.
No, the history of the Mhangeni pride is far shorter but no less dramatic. 5 years ago, this pride did not exist, but these days they enjoy centre stage as one of the more popular prides to view in the central Sabi Sands.
Lion dynamics can be complicated at best, so I will try to keep things simple here and look at the pride itself, ignoring for the time being their impact on other lions in the area.
In early 2010, a new and powerful force reared its head from the north. The now mighty Majingilane came tearing into Londolozi, chasing out the reigning Mapogo and establishing themselves as the dominant coalition in the area. As many people will know, after a pride takeover the new males set out to kill all the cubs still dependent on the adult lionesses, as killing them will bring the females back into oestrus. The males also don’t want to waste energy helping to rear cubs that aren’t theirs.
2010 saw a turbulent year for the Tsalala and Sparta prides. Losing cubs to the Majingilane and being forced to accept them as the new dominant force in the area, it was many months before the dust settled and the pride females began mating with the insurgent coalition.
What happened in the Tsalala pride in particular, has now become the stuff of legend.
The old and original tailless female, who sadly died in 2013, did an unprecedented thing, and took it upon herself to take her granddaughters, young lionesses from the Tsalala pride, away from the threat of the Majingilane males, into uncharted territory to the North and West of Londolozi, there to rear them to full independence. The young lionesses in question were still heavily dependent on their mothers, and as such would most likely be killed by the Majingilane if they were caught.
I heard stories of the tailless female from rangers when I arrived at Londolozi in late 2010, but it was a long time before I saw her for the first time, as she made a brief return with the young lionesses onto her home soil. For the most part she stayed away, hunting for the young females until such a time arrived that they were capable of catching their own prey.
In 2012, with this small renegade group of lionesses having already been branded the Tsalala Breakaways, the older tailless lioness rejoined the Tsalala pride. Our hopes were high that all the lionesses would rejoin, forming a single, much larger pride, but it was only the old lioness who made her way back to her daughters. Her granddaughters, meanwhile had other things on their mind…
They were fast approaching the age at which time they would become sexually mature. They were already hunting proficiently for themselves, quite capable of surviving in this hostile area, but with new urges coming over them, the next step was an obvious one; seek out males with which to mate.
The irony in the whole story is that the dominant males with which the young Breakaway females would have to mate were the Majingilane, the very same males that once wanted to kill them, and had them fleeing with their grandmother into the wilderness.
The story, as it turned out, was a happy one, with very successful mating attempts taking place. Although one or two of the first litters were lost early on we believe, the current crop of 9 youngsters are survivors of an original group of 10 cubs. In an area in which 50% of young lions are not expected to survive their first year, to get 90% through to over a year-and-a-half, on what is essentially the adult lionesses’ first proper attempt at raising cubs, is nothing short of phenomenal. Once we finally realised that any hope of them rejoining the Tsalala pride was gone, we decided to rename them. The first litter of the pride was often stashed in the Mhangeni drainage system, and we felt the name had a nice ring to it, so the Mhangeni pride is what they became.
We are probably less than a year away from the big females birthing new litters. If there are no casualties among the sub-adults from now until then, we will be looking at a pride of 13 hunters; an unbelievably powerful force.
They aren’t there quite yet, but for now, under the continued protection of the Majingilane, the Mhangeni pride females continue to lead the sub-adults through the Sabi Sands, on a pathway leading to a place as one of the greatest prides in the region.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell