In Greek mythology, the River Styx formed the boundary between the earth and the underworld. In some versions, the Styx had mythical powers and could render someone invulnerable. Legend has it that Achilles himself was dipped in it in his childhood, acquiring invulnerability, with the exception of his heel, by which his mother held him.
The Styx pride of lions, rare visitors to Londolozi in modern times, is certainly not invulnerable. Recent incursions into Sparta pride territory could place the young lions in the pride at risk, yet at the moment, their intrusion is being heavily buffered by the two Styx pride males. Fathered by the Majingilane and approaching four years of age, these young males are well past the stage at which they should have been kicked out by the pride males, but given that there currently don’t seem to be any (the Majingilane coalition having long-since abandoned the pride), there has been no pressure for these two to leave and become nomads, as male lions traditionally do, and they are still with the pride as a result.
Whether nomadic or not, male lions will eventually reach an age at which they seek out lionesses to mate with, and it seems that the two Styx males have reached that point and set their sights on the Sparta lionesses.
The Sparta pride is another pride that has seemingly been left to their fate by the Majingilane since their move west, and as such are without protection against the two Styx intruders. One of the young Sparta males was killed by the Styx males earlier this year, and of course the pride will be hoping to avoid another such loss.
So it was with hearts in our mouths a few mornings ago that we heard reports on the radio that the Styx males had been found chasing the Sparta pride on central Londolozi. Was this episode going to have another tragic end to it?
A single lioness had broken off from the pride and been pursued by the Styx duo, but thankfully as the morning heat descended, there had been no casualties, and all the lions settled down into the shade to snooze out the day. The Styx males were lying approximately 1km from six of the Sparta pride, and the single Sparta lioness was still unaccounted for.
Fast forward to the afternoon game drive. A couple of rangers headed for where the males had been left in the morning, in order to sit and watch events unfold into the evening, but lo and behold, the males had moved. The six members of the Sparta pride were still lying where they had been left at around 9:30am, but for the time being, no-one could establish just which way the males had gone.
Ranger Melvin Sambo was driving nearby, and following the sound of some impalas snorting the alarm, soon found the missing Sparta lioness, moving slowly through a large clearing, softly contact calling for the rest of her pride.
The afternoon was still warm, but the sun was slowly moving towards the horizon, so tracker Mike Sithole and I decided to join Melvin with the lioness, reasoning that the pride was still fast asleep and the males were still missing.
She continued to utter her soft grunts as we arrived, and we settled down in the shade to watch and wait.
A nearby group of impalas were grazing out in the open, knowing full well the lioness was there, but recognising that she was not in hunting mode and so not too concerned. Occasionally one of them would lift its head and give off a warning bark but otherwise things continued peacefully, with the lioness still calling.
After 15 minutes or so we noticed an impala about 60 metres away give off an alarm, and we suddenly realized that he wasn’t looking towards the lioness, but looking beyond her into the clearing. Turning in our seats, our pulses began racing as we immediately spotted the shapes of two male lions, 150 metres off, moving in our direction.
THIS was what we wanted to see!
They were approaching behind a thicket line, and not immediately visible to the lioness. Was it them she had been calling? Or her pride? More on this later.
The males closed the gap to about 60 metres before the lioness saw them, and she immediately got up and moved in the opposite direction, from the males and her pride, which we initially assumed to be a bad move. The males instinctively gave chase, and the next few minutes were incredibly exciting, trying to keep up with three running lions, dust being kicked up by their paws and the males stopping at one point to give off a full-blooded roar.
The lioness eventually made it to another nearby clearing, but all three animals were visibly tired by now, and all three stopped for breath.
Surprisingly, the lioness did not continue moving away, but instead rolled around in a very submissive display, and we realised that she may have actually been intending to entice the males away from the rest of her pride, where a confrontation could have easily led to the deaths of one or more of the young Sparta males, her offspring.
Things repeated themselves for the rest of the evening, with the lioness moving off and the males pursuing, until they would all stop and she would tease them a little more, rolling on her back in a submissive gesture. When asking Melvin about it later, he was adamant that that is what the lioness was doing; trying to lead the two intruders away from her pride. While we were in the sighting, the males made no real attempt to advance and try to mate with the lioness, so possibly they were acting more on curiosity and instinct than anything else.
The final act to this incredible evening was finding the rest of the Styx pride themselves, not more that 400m from where the Sparta lioness was leading the two young males on a song and dance around Londolozi.
The males have been seen a couple of times since the evening described above, but as yet there is no sign of the Majingilane coming back east to defend their territory…
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell