Three mornings ago we bumped into the non-injured Matshipiri male and followed him for 100 metres through the chilly dawn until he lay down in a clearing, looking about him. His face bore many cuts and gashes, and on his spine was a fresh puncture wound, with a thin trickle of blood running from it down his flank. Ranger John Mohaud was joining us in the sighting, and we could see his vehicle approaching, when suddenly his urgent voice came over the radio “There are two more males here approaching rapidly!”
Looking towards John’s Land Rover, we suddenly saw the shape of a young male lion emerge from the bushes, and then a second, both moving quickly with heads down, clearly on the scent trail of the Matshipiri male.
Needless to say heart rates spiked, but none more so than that of the Matshipiri male, whose head suddenly snapped round as he heard the other males footfalls, and then took off, running for his life. Seeing him flee, the two other males, by now identified as the Avoca young males, immediately gave chase. Luckily we were in relatively open country, which allowed us to follow the lions on a crazy ride as they ran at high speed through a succession of clearings towards the Londolozi airstrip. The two young Avoca males were roaring as they went, but the Matshipiri male remained silent, with only escape on his mind. His saving grace came on the far side of the airstrip, where a thick band of vegetation a couple of hundred metres wide lay between the next clearing. With visibility far reduced, the pursuing Avoca males lost sight of the Matshipiri male, who cut west out of the thicket, while his chasers, having lost sight of him, emerged about 20 seconds later, but continued on the same north-west trajectory they had been following.
Camp staff had a loud awakening as the Avoca males continued to bellow as they swept past the camp access roads, just as the sun began to peer over the horizon, but of the fleeing Matshipiri male there was no more sign. The Avoca males continued to roar intermittently as they tried to find his scent trail, but as an hour passed they eventually gave up and fell asleep next to a local waterhole.
Discussions back at camp revolved around the chase, and how lucky it was that it hadn’t been the Matshipiri male with the broken leg that the Avoca males had found, else he may well have been killed, being unable to run.
Ranger Greg Pingo, returning late from drive, had more news. During the early parts of the chase that morning, the Avoca and Matshipiri males had run past a big waterhole not too far from the airstrip. What no one had noticed however, being so fixated on the running lions, was that right next to the waterhole, lying in one of the inlets, was the other Matshipiri male, the one with the broken leg. He must have been there for two days, since the Ntsevu lionesses had killed a young giraffe close by and he had joined them to feed on it. With that having been his only decent meal in goodness-knows how long, he was in a badly emaciated condition, and in no condition to get in a fight with rival males. No wonder he kept quiet as his brother ran by.
This was by no means the end of the story though. Realising that there was a good chance that the Avoca males might find the injured Matshipiri male that evening, Greg and Alistair Smith returned to sit with the younger coalition after dinner. The two lions got up and began retracing their steps, and as expected, it wasn’t long before they caught the scent of the injured Matshipiri male, and had found him within a few minutes. Needless to say, Greg and Alistair expected fireworks, but nothing like that happened. Instead of rushing in to finish him off, the Avoca males simply circled him at a distance, scent marking every bush and tree, but doing nothing to initiate a physical conflict. The Matshipiri male, injured and helpless, simply lay there growling. Unable to run off or rush in to attack, he simply had to await his fate.
Interestingly, the two young males, after scent-marking, simply walked away.
Why would two male lions, apparently intent on taking over the territory, leave their seemingly defenceless victim alone? Is it a case of not kicking a man when he’s down? Did the fact that the Matshipiri male no longer represented a threat to them meant that they weren’t interested anymore? As I understand it from Greg and Al, the injured male had his vulnerable rear end backed up into a bush, meaning the Avoca males could only attack his front, which could still have been very dangerous for them. The risk of attacking an already severely injured foe would not have been worth it. Just how down-and-out the Avoca males could sense the Matshipiri male to be no one can say for sure, but I imagine they would have had a fair idea from his emaciated condition. Also, with him not being able to run, the chase response would not have been triggered in the antagonists, so they contented themselves with merely scent-marking, establishing their dominance in front of him, then roaring as they moved off.
With lions it is sometimes simply a numbers game; without his brother, the uninjured Matshipiri would have felt far more vulnerable, and his instinctive flight (on a number of occasions buy now) would trigger an automatic chase response in the Avoca young males. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the Avoca males arrived two months ago, before one of the Matshipiris broke his leg. As a pair of larger male lions, I don’t think the Matshipiri males would have had much trouble in dealing with this new threat. This is a moot point though, since what has happened has happened, and the Matshipiri coalition seems to be losing their hold, although nothing has been concluded.
The really fascinating thing in this situation for me is the youth of the Avoca young males; only having been independent since last year, I would never have imagined two males with such short manes to have fancied their chances of taking over a territory. They have obviously been able to establish how weakened the Matshipiri males are with the broken-leg male effectively hors de combat.
I remember when the Majingilane moved off Londolozi a few years ago; there was a succession of coalitions of two that moved in and were then driven off again by the next big males to come along. The Styx males were supplanted by the Fourways males who were soon ousted by the Matshipiri males, who tended to stay south with the Sparta pride (more on them in a blog next week), leaving space for the Matimba males to move in from the north.
It is quite possible that these young Avoca males, if they do succeed in either killing or driving off the Matshipiri pair, may well be ousted in the not-too-distant future by an older and bigger coalition that wanders in from the Kruger Park.
Three of the massive Birmingham males were seen in our northern areas yesterday morning, and the rumours of the Mantimahle males continue to loom from the south.
I imagine that we’re in for some interesting times, which most likely doesn’t bode well for any cubs currently on Londolozi.