Change is the only constant we have out here. Animals come and go, and more significantly – since it flows right past the Londolozi camps and through the middle of our reserve – the Sand River ebbs and flows.
I took a photo recently of the last remaining Tsalala lioness crossing the Causeway, and while looking at it later on my computer, it struck me just how much things have changed in a year-and-a-half, but so slowly that we hardly notice it happening:
The female stood resolute, walking the same Causeway she has done many times before, but her situation was (is) a very different one compared to last year in May, when this photo was taken:
Back then the Sand River was flowing strongly, and the Tsalala pride – while not exactly the most formidable group of lions – at least counted as a pride. With four cubs to raise, the young lioness and her aunt (Tailed female) were, as was their wont, spending a lot of their time in and around the Manyelethi and Sand Rivers where the game was concentrated and the hunting was somewhat easier. They were seen regularly from the camp decks and there was hope that the Tailed lioness might last long enough to see them through to independence.
It was not to be however, and the arrival of the Birmingham males, as well as suspected clashes with the Ntsevu pride, resulted in the pride being slowly whittled away.
At the same time, a relatively average rainfall over the 2017/2018 summer – not enough to fully recover from the two preceding years of drought – meant that the Sand River dried to a trickle before it usually would in winter of this year. I take that back, as the Sand River usually wouldn’t dry up at all. Historically it would flow strongly all year. But that’s a whole other story…
Anyway, it seemed as though the state of the Sand River and the state of what remained of the Tsalala pride were inextricably linked. The river had been such a stronghold of theirs for many years, and now that it was essentially failing, so was the pride.
The photo of the single remaining female I have come to see as something far more symbolic than I originally imagined. For me, it is completely representative of the pride’s (mis)fortunes.
A lot of the changes in the bush are gradual, particularly when it comes to the landscape. Water levels slowly drop and grass slowly wilts, with the day-to-day change being imperceptible. It is only when comparing photos like this, taken over a year apart, that one can fully appreciate how different the environment her has become.
Change goes in both directions however, although the rates of change from good to bad in the environment and in the wildlife population are not the same. After good rain, the environment bursts back to life quickly, while for a lion pride to recover will take years.
To go the opposite way, from good to bad, wildlife can be killed in the blink of an eye and a pride can be decimated overnight, while the deleterious effects of low rainfall take awhile to really become evident.
It’s certainly not all doom and gloom though. Since the above photo was taken, rain has fallen, and enough has come down in the Sand River catchment for it to start flowing again. Although the pictures of the lone lioness pacing the bone-dry Sand River don’t scream of hope, she was in actual fact seeking out one of the Birmingham males to mate with. She has been viewed with a couple of these males on a number of occasions, and it is very possible that she is pregnant.
While the river came down in a couple of hours, and the recent rains have seen all the bushwillows across the reserve start budding, it will be a long time before we can start using the Tsalala name with the word “pride” after it, but if there comes a time when we can, it will be one of the most remarkable lion stories I have ever come across.