Picture this: it’s 6.00 AM, you’re on the game drive vehicle and the fresh air is whistling past your face.
Our objective for the morning is to find lions.
Our specific intention – along with two other ranger/tracker teams – is to track and find one particular Ntsevu lioness. We decide to drive through a riverbed where we know the pride like to spend time, and it pays off…
Upon crossing the riverbed, we find tracks of a lioness, and tracker Trevor Makukule and I get out to have a look on the road, only for one of you, the guests, to turn around and spot two lionesses walking in the clearing behind us – success!
Just as we approach the lionesses another vehicle sees them too; they follow one of them, us the other. The lionesses part ways and after about 20 minutes of spending time with the respective lions (they were some distance apart, we couldn’t actually see the other vehicle), I get the update through the radio: “Robbie, if you copy, this lioness has cubs, she has just picked one up and moved it from one thicket to the next. We think there are more here, we are going to leave and make space for you to find out for yourself.”
I had to pause for a moment, because if this was true the cubs were going to be very young – surely less than a month – because nobody had seen lion cubs on the reserve in ages. We make our way to where the other lioness was and wait patiently for her to return to her original position. After waiting about 15 minutes she returns and disappears into the thick bush. And then…
Although it was brief, this has to be one of the most memorable moments for me to date. I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed a mother lioness carrying her 2-3 week old cub across the road, out in the open. This is an incredibly rare occurrence, one that guides might only see once or twice during their guiding careers.
We didn’t want to put any undue pressure on the mother and so left her and her cubs alone in a dense thicket, most likely a new den site in which she would keep them stashed for the foreseeable future. There are various protocols that the ranging team puts in place upon a discovery like this, the most important being to drastically reduce vehicle pressure on the area as much as possible, so as to respect the sensitivity of the lioness and her very vulnerable cubs.
And so, after waiting to see how the situation developed, we managed to pay a visit to the area two days later. The update was that there were in fact four cubs that were less than a month old. From tracks in the area we could see that the mother had been returning regularly to this den and there was another lioness in the vicinity as well.
We set out early and went straight to the last place the lioness and cubs had been seen.
At first there was no sign of life until we drove around the thicket and saw a lioness, most probably the mother; great start!
We waited for about 15 minutes and then heard little whimpers being let out by what could only have been the cubs; we were in luck! The cubs were so hidden that we couldn’t see any of them, but I had faith that soon the mother would want them to suckle and so we needed to be patient.
We left the den temporarily and Trevor and I brought the coffee, tea and snacks into the vehicle, anticipating that it might be a long wait. Upon arriving back to the lioness we discovered that she was contact calling for her cubs to come out of the thicket. After a few minutes of soft calls being given off by her, the cubs emerged… five of them, not four! I couldn’t believe it – I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
They nursed for a while and then the mother got up and moved slightly further away only for them to go for round two. This isn’t a pleasant affair for any lioness, having five cubs fighting over her only four teats in order to get milk leaves her in some obvious discomfort.
After playing out in the open for a while the cubs followed their mother back into the thick vegetation and just like that they disappeared. After having 30 minutes of pure euphoria watching these tiny lions suckling and playing around with each other we parted ways with them and went to go and digest what we just witnessed with a cup of coffee and rusks (although the coffee was now slightly cold!)
The dynamics of the Ntsevu pride are complicated at the moment and the future of these cubs remains uncertain, but one thing is for sure – new life is always a great sign and with other lionesses potentially synchronising their birth cycles we hope to see another litter or two in the coming months!