Tracks in the dust. Roars on the night air. The Tsalala pride sniffing bushes where an unknown lion(s) had clearly passed by the night before. These were the only signs we previously had of the Matimba males’ presence on Londolozi. We knew they’d been here, but their tracks invariably crossed over our northern or eastern boundaries and the lions themselves were long gone. Three nights ago however, on a random evening drive, two of us were lucky enough to have a huge male lion with an enormous mane walk out of the darkness at us. It was one of the Matimba males, viewed for the first time on Londolozi.
There had been some exciting lion activity over the previous few days, with the Tsalala Pride being chased by the Styx males twice (more on this in a blog coming next week) and becoming separated, and the return of three of the Majingilane.
A chance to see the Majingilane is too good an opportunity to pass up, so ranger Dave Strachan and I jumped in a vehicle after dinner to see if we could find them again. Greg Pingo and Andrea Sithole had left them heading steadily south, not too far from camp, but it seems we were too late on the trail, as after scouring the area for awhile we had come up with no signs of them. Dave suggested we head a little further east, down towards the river, in the direction the Styx males and the Tsalala youngsters had been seen heading earlier that evening. If we couldn’t find the Majingilane, we’d settle for any other lions as a close second. As it turns out, it was an inspired suggestion.
The night was pitch black and windy. The impalas were nervous. Conditions were perfect for predators on the hunt.
We came down onto a prominent clearing not too far from camp, and all the spotlight revealed at first was some huddled groups of impala and wildebeest. A pitch black night is not a good time for prey animals to move about too much, as they can’t be sure what’s out there, particularly when it’s windy and their senses of smell become confused. As a result, the herbivores often find it prudent to sit tight and await the dawn. Driving up towards the crest, we saw a group of impala faintly illuminated in the headlight beam, running across the clearing. Thinking something may have spooked them, Dave swung the spotlight in that direction, but we only saw a lone wildebeest trotting along behind the impala. We presumed that in the darkness the impala had heard the wildebeest moving and had got a fright. How wrong we were, as from out behind a gwarrie bush walked one of the biggest male lions I have ever seen! Identifying individual lions or leopards in the beam of a spotlight can be slightly more difficult than in the day, as the light can play tricks on your eyes, but one thing was clear; neither Dave nor I had ever seen a lion with a mane so impressive. This was no Majingilane, nor was it a Styx, Fourways or Matshipiri male. Having heard of the Matimba male with the enormous mane, this was the only lion we thought it could be.
We followed him for a while, trying to capture some footage. He was moving steadily towards the river, but luckily for us was staying in the open. We looped ahead to wait for him and hopefully get a view of him walking straight towards us, and as we rounded a thicket about 60m ahead, we came across a herd of impala, as wary as any others we had seen that evening. Not wanting to influence events, we turned our lights off according to protocol and sat waiting. All was still for a few seconds, but something must have spooked the impala, for they began running uphill towards where the lion was approaching in the darkness. The sudden increase in hoofbeat volume accompanied by what can only be described as a strangled-off bleat and a thud told us that something had happened, so we switched on the spotlight and drove forward, to see the lion with a dead, fully-grown impala clamped firmly in his jaws, carrying it with no more difficulty than if it had been a newborn lamb. His immense strength must have made the impala’s death instantaneous, it was just the antelope’s bad luck that it, out of all its herd, was the one that happened to run pretty much straight into the lion’s jaws. The lion carried the carcass into a thicket and began feeding, his huge paws holding the body down while he ripped large chunks of meat off. We left him like that after about 45 minutes, still feeding. By morning he was gone.
How many times have the Matimba males, alone or together, wandered onto Londolozi in the dark of night and left again before we know anything about it? It is not uncommon for us to find tracks of male lions who we can’t immediately identify, and I think that, at least in our north-eastern areas, there’s a fair chance that some of them may be left by the Matimba males, performing a reconnaissance on fresh territory.
Will he/they be back? I think so…
Written and Filmed by James Tyrrell