When the end comes for lions, it generally comes quickly.
Over the last two years, the fortunes of the Tsalala pride have been what we have come to expect from them; from down-and-out to new hope and then back again, with the peaks and troughs creating the kind of saga you couldn’t script. Upon the successful rearing of the Tailed female’s 2013 litter to independence, the pride entered into a new phase with the arrival of the Matimba males. Two new litters were born – a total of 5 cubs – and it seemed like the pride was going through a wonderful rebirth.
And then things went downhill.
The Matimba males moved out (for reasons we could never quite fathom), and the pride split once more, with the Tailless female breaking off with her 3-year-old niece, and the Tailed lioness staying with the 2011 lioness and their cubs. Both sets of lions criss-crossed a similar area, but despite the occasional meet-up, the rejoining we always anticipated and hoped for never materialised.
Over the next year, a series of setbacks hit the pride – both core and Breakaway parts – and we now find ourselves with an end-of-the-road, three-way split.
The Tailless female and her remaining cub are moving around by themselves, still apparently healthy, but alone.
The young lioness from the 2013 litter has been mating with one of the Birmingham males, and appears to be the last hope for the Tsalala name, as her mother, the old Tailed lioness, will probably be lost within the next 48 hours.
Isolated from her pride for weeks now, the lioness has been losing condition steadily, and the sad reality is that the iconic duo of Tsalala sisters is about to lose its first member.
Born in 2002, these lionesses have been at the centre of Londolozi lion viewing for more than a decade-and-a-half. Seeing their pride endure the changing of the guard of males multiple times – Mapogo, Majingilane, Matimba, to name but a few – the two sisters have both survived to the same age as their mother, the original Tailless lioness, who died at age 15.
Having celebrated their own 15th birthday in December, the pair are by no means spring chickens, and the day on which we lost one of them was certainly going to come sooner rather than later.
The inevitability of death does in no way make it easier to bear however, and the lioness will leave behind a void that will not easily be filled.
I try and distance myself from the emotionality of difficult sightings, knowing that it’s a bad road to go down, but this morning was a tougher one than usual, as we sat quietly with the lioness, watching her draw slow, yet almost peaceful breaths.
Many “firsts” of mine in the bush have been with her and her sister; first kill, first discovery of a lion’s den-site, first lions climbing trees. I always advocate the non-attachment approach with wild animals, but this is a hard one to process, as I guess despite one’s best efforts, time itself makes for the inexorable development of an attachment.
My last seven years spent watching her, week-in and week-out, are peppered with memories, far more than could fill a simple scrapbook.
She lies now in the shade of a Gardenia tree, next to a small pan that is surrounded by these same trees, the local name for which is Tsalala. It was this exact pan, and the original pride’s spending a lot of their time here, that gave them their name.
Without romanticising it too much, there is some solace in the thought that after fifteen years, with the inevitable end approaching, the old lioness has simply come home.