Very few things can match the excitement you feel when there are lions roaring near to camp, especially if you hear them just before you set off on a morning game drive.
This particular morning was no different and after a quick discussion with tracker Ray Mabelane, we agreed that we needed to head straight towards the Sand River downstream from camp and find whichever lion was roaring before he disappeared into palm thicket. A sense of anticipation hung in the air as we arrived in the area where the calls had emanated from. We rounded a bend in the road and there on the opposite bank of the river we saw him!
Once we had crossed the river for a closer look we were able to establish that the lion was one of the Birmingham males. It struck me as odd that none of the four Birmingham males had ventured into this area for a quite some time – there must be a reason for this foray into the north western reaches of their territory. As we followed him it became clear that he was on the scent of something. His relaxed stroll gave way to a more determined gait. Every so often he would stop, lift his head and sniff the air before continuing on his path. The next hour consisted of this repeated stop-sniff-walk routine as the lion gradually increased the intensity of his movements.
Suddenly, we heard baboons alarm calling from the trees next to the river a few hundred yards upstream from where we were. The lion immediately made a beeline in that direction. We decided to loop around and cross back over the river and wait for him to emerge on the far bank. As we arrived at our pre-determined spot we were amazed to find that the baboons were alarming at the lone Tsalala lioness who was lying in the palm thicket, completely oblivious to the fact the there was a big male lion heading straight towards her.
The tension was high as we sat watching the lioness reclining on the sand, unaware of what was about to unfold.
The next minute, the male lion erupted out of the thicket and the lioness took off at full sprint! We could barely keep up as the pair of lions disappeared in a cloud of dust. The lioness was running as though her life depended on it (which it may well have) while the male gave chase.
By the time we had caught up, the two lions had run about 400 meters in a time that would make any sprinter jealous. The male seemed to lose a bit of steam and this gave the female a chance to put some distance between her and her pursuer. The male resorted to a fast trot as he continued to follow the female through the thick bush. We followed him for a while as he frantically searched for the lioness.
After some more fruitless searching, the male decided to lie down temporarily and rest, which gave us a chance to contemplate what we had just witnessed. We were perplexed, to say the least. The puzzle was made complete a few hours later when ranger Shaun d’Araujo saw the Birmingham male mating with the Tsalala female. Could we have just witnessed a potential rejuvenation of the Tsalala pride?
As is often the case in sightings like this, there are more questions than answers, and lions in particular are difficult creatures to understand. The initial fleeing of the Tsalala lioness may have simply been her natural reaction to the appearance of an unknown male. And likewise, the male’s chasing may have simply been his natural chase response.
Let’s hope after these initial encounters, both lions will become more relaxed in each others’ presence.