If you have visited Londolozi recently, your ranger may have shared with you a snapshot of the lion dynamics at present.
It may sound complicated at first. For example:
To the north, the Nkahuma Pride will sometimes venture into Londolozi. In fact ranger Greg Pingo saw them quite far south a few weeks ago along the banks of the Manyelethi River, not far from the Sand River upon which the Londolozi lodges are situated. We are hoping they may start frequenting the area more regularly.
To the north-east, the Styx Pride has also been making the odd appearance, but spends most of their time further north and east of Londolozi’s boundaries.
In central Londolozi, the single Tsalala Lioness has been hanging around the Sand River, and thriving. She is quite often seen lying on the sand banks of the river to the west of the Camps. In fact she was spotted by guests, moving through the reeds in front of Pioneer Camp.
In the South East, the Ntsevu Pride has been hanging around the Sand River, east of Londolozi’s boundaries but fairly often venturing into central and southern Londolozi.
Our interest for this post though, is in the west. The Mhangeni Pride – which until recently consisted of three adult lionesses and one sub-adult female – seem to have altered somewhat of late, with a couple more sub-adults re-joining. The pride have been spending a lot of time in and around the Sand River at Taylors’ crossing. The reason for their interest in the river soon became clear when we realised that at least one of the lionesses was heavily pregnant. It has now been about two months since we saw the pregnant lioness investigating the thickets. On top of this, a second of the three adult lionesses – also pregnant – seems to have separated off from the pride and headed for the river in the past week…
After having had several sightings of a lactating lioness in and out of the river over the last month, we now know for certain that she has given birth! This comes at exactly the same time that the Mhangeni Pride’s first litter, the Ntsevu Pride, are also raising litters of their own!
Now before we all get too excited, there are one or two things that must be made clear. The river where these lionesses have been spending a lot of time is pretty inaccessible. The cubs are still quite young – we suspect about eight to ten weeks old – thus they are still being kept well hidden. On top of that, the few times that the cubs have been seen out of the river have been in drainage lines or rocky sections of the western parts of Londolozi’s traversing area, therefore making any brief glimpse of these little ones a very special occasion!
My first and only sighting of these cubs thus far took place quite recently. Having set out with the intention of looking for this pride, we were fortunate that somebody else found them just ahead of us, saving us the tough and potentially dangerous job of tracking a lioness with cubs! They were found in a river bed with steep banks and limited access for vehicles. When we got our chance to view them, it was a bitter-sweet moment as our first view was really only the ears of one or two cubs and the back of the mother, fast asleep around a corner in the river bed… Patience is the name of the game out here though, as I have mentioned in many previous posts!
We waited through sun and rain, literally. In fact, it was the rain that got the lions up and moving, seeking shelter. Having sat for at least 4o minutes, nature provided us with a very special sighting from then onwards.
We were treated to some amazing views of the young cubs running towards us through open areas, often disappearing behind long grass because of their short stature. Being so young and vulnerable, we would give the pride a lot of space to move around and to listen for any potential danger, however the cubs would often walk straight towards us inquisitively by choice!
Although the sighting was heartwarming, there was a rather difficult side to it as well. The Mangheni pride collectively gave birth to 12 cubs (nine male and three females) between late October 2015 and mid-2016. Lion cubs usually nurse for about 6-10 months. Soon thereafter they begin to start following hunts, observing the adults movements and learning themselves through trial and error. During this phase, they rely heavily on the adults for food though, not having refined their hunting skills. These youngsters were pushed away around the end of 2017, being left to fend for themselves. This is probably because: i) the mothers would have wanted to start breeding again (lions have a birthing interval of roughly 2 years); and ii) 16 mouths are difficult to feed, especially when only four of the 16 are properly contributing to hunts. As a result of being pushed out early, the Mangheni sub-adults have been struggling and have fragmented. Some of them have died while others have been trying to rejoin their mothers, hoping for scraps of food along the way.
Throughout the time we followed the lionesses and the cubs, a young male from the lioness’ previous litter was trailing behind them at a distance. Whenever he got too close, the mother of the cubs would stop, turn, and growl. Harsh to watch how lionesses can abandon one litter for another.
We followed the pride for as long as we could as they headed straight back towards the river – a safe hiding place for the cubs.
We can only hope that these four cubs stay out of harms way for long enough to reach a size large enough to fend for themselves. As they grow older and their mother becomes more comfortable keeping them in more open areas than the river, maybe we will be lucky enough to see them more frequently. For now though, we will have to settle for a few sightings of the mother – still showing suckle marks – which tells us that her cubs are still alive and well…