A big coalition like the Birmingham males (four-strong) will invariably be split up a lot of the time.
Breaking off as individuals or pairs allows them to cover more ground and secure their territory more effectively. One tends to see this with all successful large coalitions. The Majingilane for instance were only seldom encountered as a full unit of four, and only once have I seen the Birmingham males all together, although if they stick around for the next few years I’m sure we’ll see them together more.
Although the traditional view of lion prides is of females all living and hunting together, the reality is that just like the males, female groups also split up fairly often. A lot of their splitting up revolves around their oestrus cycles and birthing; when ready to mate they will necessarily have to split away to find a male, assuming there isn’t one accompanying the pride at the time. Also, when raising cubs, it’s imperative that the mother returns to them often in order to nurse them, and if the pride happens to be far away, that just means that the mother will be living in an enforced isolation for awhile, hunting for herself (which she is more than capable of doing).
The fun for us is that with all this splitting up of the two main groups of lions that are currently dominant over Londolozi’s Eastern sections (Birmingham & Ntsevu), most mornings – and therefore usually the evenings as well – present a smorgasbord of lion activity, with multiple sightings often being the norm.
One male will be with two females, another two males with 3 females, and the 6th female will be off by herself somewhere. Come nightfall and they all have to try and find each other again.
Males start roaring from their respective positions, and the evening chorus is filled with their deep bellows as they all try to establish where the others are calling from. The current state of the six-strong Ntsevu pride (one lioness with cubs, another possibly pregnant) means that there is still a substantial amount of mating going on between the various members of the coalition and the females.
A few nights we were sitting with four of the Ntsevu females as the sun set. With skinny bellies, we knew they would want to hunt, and the almost constant calling of the male impalas in full rut might as well have been dinner bells sounding all around us.
We followed the lionesses for about 45 minutes as they weaved in and out of the thickets. Although they passed a number of rutting impala rams, it was still quite light – not yet ideal hunting conditions – and they were spotted before they could commit to a final rush.
As darkness fell properly, the roars of a male began issuing up into the night sky from a waterhole only a few hundred metres away, and it was interesting to note that only one of the lionesses trotted off to actively seek out the male. Scampering through the darkness, she found him within a minute, and immediately began initiating copulation. The male, although seemingly interested at first, ended up doing little to commit to the mating, and as it turned out, the female seemed to lose interest as well after a few minutes, particularly once the rest of the pride had caught up.
Could it be that when mating with a big coalition, lionesses, once having mated with one or two of the males, are only properly interested in then mating with the other males of the group? I know that in bigger coalitions, males sometimes kill each other’s cubs, more often than not because they themselves haven’t mated with the female in question, and are therefore less likely to be able to recognise their genetic investment in her offspring. Maybe the first female to rush off to find the male had already mated with one or more of the Birmingham males, but soon after uniting with the individual in question, realised he was one of them and was therefore not worth as much from a mating point of view.
Possibly. But with six different females mating with four different males and all switching partners over the last few months, it quickly becomes hard to keep track of who has mated with who and there’s no way that we can say for sure.
The male, after having roared and to all intents and purposes summoned the four lionesses to him, had the good sense to keep quiet after that, as the females returned to their hunting attempts on the ever-rutting impalas, whose nasal grunts and roars formed a constant ambient noise.
Eventually emerging onto a large clearing, the lions had their work cut out for them with the sudden lack of cover, so we left them to the hunt.
These fluctuating dynamics are deja vu in many ways from late 2010 and early 2011 when the Majingilane were still establishing themselves, although not as disruptive. I seriously doubt the Birmingham males will be able to rival the 8-year hold that the Majingilane had on large portions of the Sabi Sand Reserve, but they’re certainly off to a good start.