As they so often do, this sighting began with impalas alarming in the distance.
Ranger Sean Zeederberg and I were the closest, and between us managed to identify the rough area from which the alarms were emanating, so raced in opposite directions around an extensive thicket towards the big clearing where it seemed likely the impalas would be.
I passed a herd of the antelope that seemed agitated, like they had just seen a predator, but didn’t think too much of it as more impalas were alarming a few hundred metres away near the clearing. Sean arrived just ahead of me, and immediately used the most exciting word on the radio, “Located”, but the rest of his transmission I didn’t hear as I was concentrating on changing gears through a rough patch of road.
I saw his vehicle about 50m from me and hit the brakes, swivelling my head back and forth to try and ID whatever predator was there.
This was what I saw:
I find it incredibly ironic that only a few days before this, we had published a post on how big cats carry their cubs, and I had ended by saying, “I’m not going to hold my breath until the next time, if indeed there ever is one!”, and then within 72 hours the above photo was the view we had.
An Ntsevu lioness with her three tiny cubs, one of them being carried.
Only very small cubs are picked up by their mothers, as within a couple of months they are able to walk just fine and are a little too cumbersome for the mother to hold in her mouth anymore. These cubs we estimated at being about 6 weeks old. Sightings like this we will generally limit to only one vehicle viewing the cubs at a time, but Sean and I had arrived at pretty much the same moment from opposite directions, so deliberately hung back in order to give the mother space and for the cubs not to feel threatened. The lioness continued into the thicket, eventually settling down in a slightly more open patch where the cubs began clambering over her and Sean and I were able to get a view through the Gwarrie branches.
The lioness looked like she was going to be settling down for the morning, and since Sean was driving a group of guests with fellow rangers Guy Brunskill and Sandros Sihlangu, I moved out to leave only one vehicle there and allow the others the chance to come in later and hopefully get a view of the cubs.
Circling wide of where the lions were lying, I suddenly caught sight of another feline shape slinking through the bushes, only about 50 metres away. It was a leopard, and he’d caught sight of the cubs!
Working it out later it seems that the original impala alarming we had heard must have been concurrently made by two different herds; one that had seen the leopard and another that had seen the lions.
I’m going to digress slightly here and mention that this particular leopard – who turned out to be the Ndzanzeni young male – has recently taken a massive dive in the popularity ratings, as he recently killed at least one of the Mashaba female’s cubs, and possibly her entire litter. We will go into this another time, but in any event, he was about to stick his oar in once more when it came to small cubs.
He sat and stared intently through the thickets towards where the tiny lions were starting to nurse from their mother, when the big lioness must have caught his scent. A lioness defending comes is one of the most aggressive animals one can encounter in the bush, and she immediately leaped up and barrelled through the thickets towards the leopard. He wasted no time in beating a hasty retreat, and the last thing I saw was the lion’s tawny shape – her size emphasized in comparison to the much smaller leopard – running full pelt in the direction the Ndzanzeni young male had disappeared.
Growling and a whole lot of branches shaking and then an ominous silence suggested she had either caught him or he had made it into the safety of the tree. Thankfully it was the latter.
Unfortunately for us, the lioness decided that she didn’t want to expose her cubs to any more danger, and after deciding the leopard was no immediate threat, walked straight back to where she had left them and began leading them away.
The cubs had been born in the Sand River to the east of Londolozi, and after the leopard incident, the lioness must have thought that Londolozi presented too many immediate dangers, so straight back east she headed.
Ranger Guy Brunskill, moving in to get a quick view of the cubs after Sean had moved out, snapped the following stunning photos:
A large herd of buffalo has been spending time in the southern parts of Londolozi, and a few of the Ntsevu females and a couple of the Birmingham males have been trailing it, although they have yet to make a successful kill that we are aware of.
Should they do so, it would anchor the pride nicely for a day or two. Having said that, the cubs in this post are probably still too small to be taken to kills yet, and will most likely continue to be stashed in a den for a few weeks to come. One never knows with lions though, and stranger things have happened…
The Ntsevu females have yet to enjoy any success in raising cubs. One litter was killed by the very males that sired them (Birmingham), and another litter was killed by a female within the pride. A lot of what has gone on with these particular lions has left us scratching our heads, but with at least two litters currently being raised, and apparently a third lioness looking heavily pregnant, they at least seem to be off to a good start as we head into Spring. Maybe this time around the Ntsevu lionesses will meet with the same type of fortune that their mothers did when raising them…