The Tsalala lioness has been confining her movements almost exclusively to the Sand River. The thickets provide perfect cover in which to hide her cub and hunt, and the game paths that head up- and downstream are currently littered with her tracks.
Often her cub is accompanying her, but now that it’s roughly 6 months old, it can be left for longer and longer periods of time while the mother is hunting.
We have had a number of agonising sightings in which the lioness has returned after being away for over 24 hours and then spent long, long minutes calling for the cub with no response. Our anxiety levels rise, the lioness calls louder and louder, and just when we – and maybe she – think the worst has happened, she gets an answering call from the palm thickets, her ears prick up, and she trots towards where the young female is emerging from hiding. These reunions are always heartwarming to watch, but of course, we worry that one day there will simply be no reunion, and no answering call will come from the thickets.
The lioness is hunting successfully during daylight hours, focusing her efforts mainly on the bushbuck and nyalas that are to be found in high numbers in the Sand Riverbed, but has been robbed by hyenas a few times in recent weeks as the sun starts to set. She cannot hoist kills into trees, and I imagine finding just a solitary lioness on a kill would be a bonus for the local clan. If the Tsalala female in her solitary lifestyle has adapted her behaviour to hunt more like a leopard, it might be that the hyenas treat her more like a leopard as well.
The Birmingham male with the hanging dreadlock in his mane still ventures upriver every week or so, in a likely attempt maintain his status over this lioness. With him around, still scent-marking and still vocalising, the hope is that other prides and coalitions stay away, increasing the cub’s survival chances.
The further afield the Tsalala female ventures, the more likely things are to go wrong, so I think the best we can do for now is to hope that she remains localised, staying in the same stretch of Sand River that has been so familiar to her since infancy. In a few months time, the rain will arrive, thickening the bush away from the river and providing her with a glut of young impalas and wildebeest to hunt.
She – and more specifically her cub – still has a long and dangerous road to tread, and it’s way too early to make predictions.
Outside chance, though? put your money on the cub, and see how big the payoff is…