[Editor’s Note: This post was recently found in the Draft folder of Londolozi blog posts from early 2018. For some reason it never got published at the time of writing. We liked it, and the story is still relevant (apart from the change in coalition size) so here it is…]
Little is known locally of their origin but there were six of them in the beginning and they came from a property known as Birmingham in the Timbavati; a conglomerate of privately owned concessions bordering the Kruger National Park’s western boundary.
By the time they were first seen in the North-eastern corner of the Sabi Sand Reserve they were down to five. Apparently one had been killed in a dispute with older, more experienced lions and they were on the run.
They’d been seen lying in the shade of a magic Guarrie tree alongside an open clearing in the middle of the day looking hot and dejected. But their eyes still shone whilst their manes – at least two years shy of full magnificence – betrayed their youth and inexperience.
A year later they roared their way into a melee involving two other established coalitions at least a kilometre further south of where they’d first been seen.
Territory had become a priority for the Birmingham males and – like the Majingilane and Mapogo coalitions before them – they made an entrance. The catalyst, sadly, was a new killed white rhino bull that had died of his wounds in a territorial fight.
Driving into a Combretum thicket peppered with vultures and full bellied hyaena, hot on the trail of lion tracks, is usually as exciting as it gets on an early morning drive but on that particular day, it was a bleak and desperate scene. Those who were there saw two full grown male lions, one with a particularly dark and fulsome mane, casually gnawing on the two ton carcass. Not five minutes in, two other male lions of roughly the same size and age, charged in, almost catching them off guard. With a thumping battery of incessant growling, a fight ensued. The bush exploded as white-backed vultures erupted into the overcast sky and spotted hyaenas bolted for cover. Neither coalition backed down as they roared at each other from close quarters, all the while, marauding hyenas whooped for reinforcements.
Suddenly, five other males appeared out of the long green grass some fifty meters away. They were equally spaced apart from each other, but all had their eyes wide open and fixed on the scene before them. Not a moment later, the cacophonous confusion was shattered as the Birmingham males, a volley of ferocious tooth and claw, rushed in on the scene. The original four males, self-preservation foremost in their minds, were in full retreat. As the drama shifted elsewhere, the dying echo of roaring lions reverberated through the surrounding bush. Eventually the Birmingham males returned to the carcass one by one, alert, looking wildly about them as though still searching for the one responsible for the death of their sibling. Unhurriedly, they began to feed.
Now they are four. But what they have lost in numbers they’ve since gained in size and experience; experience honed by ceaseless quarrel with their neighbours. They have successfully climbed over the wall of youth, mated and driven away or killed many of their foreseeable competitors. They are a force to be reckoned with. Long may they reign.
Not six nights ago I sat next to a fire with my sleeping bag draped over my shoulders against the pre-winter cold. I was on the ‘graveyard watch’ on Londolozi’s Ranger selection course. Two hours earlier the Birmingham males had soundlessly walked through the moonlit Guarrie thickets around us like ghosts. Now all four of them roared from a clearing nearby. In that moment, in the dead of night, it was the only sound. Everything else fell silent. And it was an ageless sound, one that shook the stillness to its core. It was as though it carried a message and everything, including the trees, was listening. It was the same message that was once carried by the Majingilane and the Mapogo before them, one that proclaimed absolute dominance over everything and all.