A phrase many will be familiar with is, “You win or you learn”. In the African bush, the harsh reality is that the learning part can sometimes be substituted by death. Simple mistakes can be fatal.
For one of the youngest Ntsevu lion cubs, that was nearly the case recently, as a rash decision on his part (I don’t actually know if it’s a male or female, so I’ll stick with “him” for now) left him alone for 48 hours in an area fraught with large predators that could easily have made a meal of him.
Ranger Guy Brunskill and I were following the full pride with the Birmingham males in tow, which at 23 lions is a fairly impressive sight. Less than 10 minutes after we joined the lions, they had surprised a wildebeest cow that had fatally remained near a thicket line, and taken down her calf. One of the Birmingham males had immediately appropriated the kill for himself, and, realising they were unlikely to get any of the food themselves, the other 22 lions carried on walking into the night.
Except for one cub.
This plucky 6-month old decided to do a full 180 and trotted back along the pride’s line of march to where the big male was still feeding. After receiving a few cuffs around the ears when attempting to sneak in close, the cub was eventually allowed to feed alongside the male.
The concern amongst everyone on the the two Land Rovers present was about what would happen when the meal was finished. The pride had long since vanished, and the male was unlikely to take responsibility for seeing the cub back to its mother. We left the two feeding lions, one small and one large, and managed to find the pride again over a kilometre away. We spent some time with them, watching some hilarious interactions with some rhinos, before we left them once more and they melted into the blackness.
The cub’s fate we could only guess at.
Driving the area the next day, tracker Judas Ngomane suddenly signalled me to stop for what he initially thought were fresh female leopard tracks, but soon realised they were the tracks of the cub from the night before, wandering around off course, heading in the opposite direction to that in which the pride had headed. We didn’t follow the tracks but our concerns were now very real, as we knew just how many hyenas the area boasted. The Ntsevu pride had meanwhile been found about 5 km away, with only three of the youngest litter present.
The fourth – the cub who turned back to feed with the male – was missing.
Early the next morning when discussing our plans for the drive, we decided to try and track down the pride and see if they had managed to find the cub, or he them.
Our first discovery was two sets of male leopard tracks, heading directly towards the thickets where we had last seen the cub. Not a good start, as a male leopard would almost certainly attempt to kill an abandoned lion cub.
Then only a few hundred metres down the road, clear tracks of the pride from only a few hours before told us that they were moving back into the general area in which the cub had been lost. Looping round to the far side of the thicket, we were relieved to have them cross the road directly towards the site of the kill, and about 50m further on, reemerge (the tracks that is) with the very clear tracks of a small lion with them. It may have been one of the other cubs, but Judas was adamant there were now four sets of small tracks, whereas previously there were only three.
A few minutes later and about a kilometre down the road, Ranger Sandros Sihlangu found the pride. We drove there quickly, excited to see if the missing cub was among them, but the grass was long where they were sleeping, and we couldn’t get an accurate count.
Thankfully Sandros later confirmed that all four small cubs were present. The cub had survived 48 hours alone.
Lions are funny creatures. They sometimes make bad decisions that can cost them their lives. If they survive, chances are they will learn, and hopefully not repeat the same mistake.
The cub’s bad decision was to turn back, choosing the short term possibility of a meal over the much safer option of staying with his mother and the pride. Then after he turned back, the pride didn’t notice and simply walked off into the night.
The following night, I like to think that after a quick head count the pride realised someone was missing and headed back to find the cub. It’s unlikely that this is exactly what transpired, but then again, their tracks did head directly back to where they had left the cub, from quite a long way away, so one can’t help but feel that their initial impulse when they got going that evening was to head on a rescue mission.
Whatever it was, I hope they don’t give us another 48hr scare like that for a long time!