The last time I saw 20 lions together was the Mhangeni pride with 12 cubs and all four Majingilane on a buffalo kill back in 2016.
To round a corner and come across twenty lions, except with no cubs and no big males, was quite a shock. Understatement.
To be honest I didn’t know there were twenty at first. I was bumbling round the north of Londolozi, looking for something to photograph, when suddenly there in front of me was a pride feeding on a downed buffalo bull. A group of maybe eight or ten lions were feeding on the carcass, and scattered in the grass around were a few more prostrate bodies, their bellies bloated with buffalo meat.
In the initial excitement of the discovery, I was too excited to pay much attention to the exact breakdown of numbers. My initial assumption was that this was the Nkahuma pride, who had been on Londolozi for the past few days, and although I hadn’t seen them myself I knew them to be to be about ten- or eleven-strong.
Repositioning the Land Rover to a better photographic spot, I saw more heads dotted around, and at first count I made it 14 lions. Something was definitely up! No pride on Londolozi currently numbers that many.
Looking at the feeding group again, it was clear that there was an above-normal level of aggression around the buffalo carcass. With so many lions with full bellies, and so much meat already having been consumed, what would normally happen would be the odd snarl between individuals feeding next to each other but not too much more, especially since no big males were involved. What was happening instead was a constant sinister growling; the low throaty rumble that only comes from a lion when it is properly angry. That behaviour and the fact that there were way more lions than there by rights should have been (I had by now counted 16), suddenly made it obvious that there were two prides here.
Ranger Andrea Sithole joined the sighting shortly afterwards, and approaching from the opposite side, counted a further four lions in the long grass, bringing the total to 20!
With them all being scattered around in thickets and covered in blood and dirt, I’ll be honest that I didn’t have a clue who was who. The great majority seemed to be sub-adults, and going on a combination of numbers and make-up, Andrea concluded that it was the Nkahuma pride (consisting of 5 adults and 6 sub-adults) feeding alongside the Mhangeni sub-adults (8 young males and 1 female).
This is by no means the first time that this has happened on Londolozi, nor will it likely be the last, but I imagine that it would come down almost entirely to circumstance: risk vs reward.
In this instance, three factors combined that made both prides reason (probably the wrong word, but it makes the most sense) that to feed side by side with some kind of amicability was better than a violent confrontation.
Firstly, there were no cubs involved. Lionesses are fiercely defensive of their offspring, but in the Nkahuma pride, all the young lions were roughly the same age as those in the Mhangeni group. With neither side needing to defend small offspring, aggression levels would likely be lowered.
Secondly, there were no adult lionesses in the Mhangeni group. Had big Mhangeni females been present, the outcome would likely have been very different, as they would have had far less tolerance towards the Nkahuma lionesses than their younger and therefore less intimidating offspring.
Lastly, neither pride is territorial in the area, so this encounter may well have been a lion version of “I-won’t-tell-if-you-won’t”.
The Nkahuma pride may well be moving into the northern reaches of Londolozi, expanding into the void left vacant by the Tsalala pride (although the single Tsalala lioness is still roaming north of the Sand River), but as it stands, we have yet to see them exhibit any sort of territorial behaviour. The Mhangeni sub-adults are just that; not yet adults. They are therefore still too small to attempt to claim a territory. Plus they are almost exclusively male, which most likely means they will be pushed out of the area for good in a year or two.
Come nightfall, one of the big Nkahuma lionesses moved off into the shadows, and within minutes her soft grunting contact call was heard. On cue, the rest of her pride got up in response to the call and melted into the darkness, leaving the Mhangeni sub-adults still feeding or lying with full bellies. With so little meat left, as one can imagine after 20 lions had been tucking in for 12 hours, there was no point in sticking around, and the next day the Nkahumas had moved north and out of Londolozi once more.
We still aren’t sure which group killed the buffalo to begin with, but given the firepower of 5 adult lionesses, the smart money would probably be on the Nkahuma pride.
Although the hope is that we start seeing more and more of them on northern Londolozi, that probably won’t mean anything good for the young Tsalala lioness. All is not lost for her however; there’s no guarantee she won’t be able to reproduce and start a pride of her own, and going on the unpredictability of lion dynamics in the Sabi Sand Reserve in years past, who’s to say she won’t even join another pride? It’s happened before, with the Tsalala young male joining the Sparta pride and a young Sparta male joining the last group of Mhangeni sub-adults (the females of which eventually became the Ntsevu pride). With the nine Mhangeni sub-adults currently wandering the reserve, some extra experience would be a welcome addition to their would-be pride.
She’s still young, she’s still healthy and anything could happen. That’s what makes it so exciting.