Recently Billy Connolly had me in fits of laughter. I wish I could say that that was in person as he hilariously narrated a game drive that we were on together, but it was, unfortunately, only a video. Nevertheless, the sketch in question had me laughing uncontrollably as he set about explaining how, in his old age, he had begun shouting at TV characters on particular shows that he enjoyed. One of those characters was a Wildebeest in a nature documentary who was being stalked by a few lionesses. He acted out how he thought these lionesses would communicate in order to plot an attack on the hapless, unaware wildebeest. He imagined them using hand signals and facial expressions as they crept closer to the grazing wildebeest. I certainly have not done the sketch any justice by explaining it but if you have ever seen lions and wildebeest on safari then the combination of his Scottish accent and his large mop of hair imitating a hunting lioness will have you in stitches.
After the laughter had subsided, it did actually get me thinking a little bit more about lions and what they actually say to one another. In particular, I thought back to a recent sighting I had of the Scar-nosed Majingilane. Much has been written about him and the other males in this coalition over the years but at around thirteen years of age (approximation) he is regarded as an old male lion. On this particular evening, we were winding our way back to the lodge at the end of our game drive when we came across him lying in an open clearing. We excitedly drove a little bit closer, switched off the Land Rover and sat in silence for a few a minutes, taking in the sight of this battle-scarred animal lying only metres from our vehicle.
He was lying with his head down but his eyes were open, and every now and then he would roll over onto his back and stretch out one leg as far as it would go. This was a promising sign, as lions will usually do this as they start to wake up. After repeating this a few times he sat up and started sniffing the air before letting out a massive yawn, exposing his worn but no less impressive incisors. As he exhaled we heard him let out a low, deep grumbling sound and at this point I knew what was coming next.
His head was close to the ground as the roar started, and as it got louder he raised his muzzle until he was staring directly into the night sky. The sound of his roar was felt not only by our ears but by every bone in our body. As it slowly subsided I could feel everyone shift slightly in the car as they moved for the first time after having dared not move during it for fear of interrupting such a jaw-dropping experience.
He flopped his head back down, and we all looked at each other with big smiles on our faces after witnessing and experiencing the roar of a male lion.
One of the first questions I was asked by the guests was “why he would be doing that?”. It was a very normal question to get and I quickly explained how it could be for a combination of reasons, including advertising that he is still dominant over the territory. He may have also been trying to call his brothers or find some of the lionesses that move through the area. It was a pretty standard answer that you can find in any field guide and, technically, it was correct: those were some of the reasons why male lions roar. But even as I answered the question, those reasons I gave didn’t feel adequate.
Here was a male lion in the twilight years of his life, who had been dominant in the area for over half a decade. His face bore an impressive array of scars from years of fighting, not only for survival but also for dominance. Here was a male lion who had fathered who knows how many cubs and whose genes will remain in the Sabi Sands for many years to come. Here was a true icon of his species. I felt guilty for giving such a standard textbook answer and so we started chatting more about what that roar could mean.
There are three Majingilane Males left in the coalition and a few days prior we had seen the trio together. It was one of the few occasions that I had seen them as a full group. We had actually been following two of them as they responded to the calls of what we discovered was the third brother. It was incredible to witness the affection that these three old brothers had towards one another as they enthusiastically rubbed their heads together and groomed.
How did they come to be separated again now and was it out of choice or circumstance? In the latter stage of their life, it would be the safer option to stay together for strength in numbers in case they were to be challenged by younger rivals. Maybe the roar we had just heard was a desperate attempt to try and find his two other brothers because he was uncomfortable and felt vulnerable being alone?
It could have meant something completely different. Maybe, as the textbooks suggest, it was just a dominant male lion advertising his territory and alerting would-be rivals to stay away from it, or was he trying to call a lioness from the Mhangeni Pride with whom he had been mating with a few days earlier? Could it just be that it’s habit, and every evening when he’s on his own he roars for no reason in particular other than instinct? It’s unlikely that it would be for no reason at all, but then it begs the questions as to whether lions do have different roars for different occasions or was he just using the same roar that he has used his entire life which can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending what circumstance he finds himself in.
If we were to get scientific it would be very interesting to have recorded the roar of this male five years ago and compared it to what we had been hearing that night. How different could it be? Would the pitch and length be the same? If it wasn’t, what would that tell us? One thing for certain though is that whatever the roar of a male lion means it will always send chills down your spine. Whether it is right next to the car and you cannot concentrate on anything else in that moment because you can feel it all around you or whether the distant rumble breaks the silence of the night from kilometres away, there is that same feeling of awe just knowing that Africa’s apex predator is calling.
I am left wondering though, what would Billy Connolly have made of this particular sighting?