It starts with that heart-stopping moment that I see Prof’s hand twitch; his fingers splay out from the handle on the bonnet of the Land Rover, that subtle signal to stop. He’s seen something. He hops off of his perch at the front of the vehicle as soon as the engine stops. He looks up, his eyes lit up with excitement, and beckons me over.
“Look, the lion was here. Male. He was moving quickly. Running!”
We walk down the road as he paints the picture for me,
“They were moving quickly up this road at first. But look here. Here you can see these tracks on top of those ones; here they were running back down the road!”
We march back to the vehicle, our plan formed. We must follow these tracks and find out why this lion was in such a state, intrigued to find out why he was running, as there’s no sign of anything being chased.
As we now drive down the road, Rob’s hand sweeps through the air, motioning for me to keep going, he’s still got the tracks heading down the road. We reach a T-junction and the tracks continue into the bush. We decide to loop around to try and find them again on the other side of the block. Tracks this fresh are as clear as anything to the hawk-eyes of my partner, practically glowing in the sand (at least to him).
They cut East. We follow. They cut South. We follow.
A vehicle ahead of us has seen something and we know exactly what it is. Just as expected, lies one of the two Birmingham males. Then we spot two Ntsevu lionesses feeding on an impala ram, not 10m away from the old male. Upon examination, we note that he’s definitely not full.
But why is he not feeding then?
The answer to this question comes to us as we see the Birmingham Male stand up; he’s bleeding somewhat and limping quite badly, keeping the weight off of his back left leg. Weakened by some recent encounter, to the point of not being able to compete with these females for a portion of their kill. Bear in mind here that a male of this size will usually easily dominate a kill, especially a relatively small one like an impala ram.
Throughout this whole tracking event, the radio has been very alive with three other rangers tracking a pair of male lions further North. They’d heard roaring that morning and were searching the area where the vocalisations had come from. Almost at the exact same moment that we discovered these lions after our merry chase, so did our fellow teammates find another coalition of lions in the north.
And thus the pieces all fell into place. That roaring from the north was the Northern Avoca Males, a formidable coalition of two brothers dominant in the northern parts of Londolozi. This pair has rarely been seen south of the Sand River. What we believe happened early that morning was that this Birmingham Male had heard these males roaring and advertising their presence. He marched in from deep in the south, directly toward the intruders with the single-minded determination of a dominant male lion.
That instinct to defend his territory against an unrelated male pushed him into a confrontation with the Avoca Males. In this instance, unlike the previous encounter with the marauding Othawa Male, it appears that this Birmingham Male came off second best, and lucky to escape with his life.
We spent a short time with this male before he stood up, stretched somewhat gingerly, and limped off out of sight, clearly injured but to what degree we were not sure.
Desperate to get closure on the whole event, we were intrigued to see the state of the Northern Avoca Males. We made that our mission for the afternoon. The one Avoca Male was barely moving, laying in the shade of a thicket, his brother, however, was sporting a severe limp showing us that the Birmingham Male managed to get at least one good shot in before he was chased off by the pair.
Lion dynamics continue to fascinate us here at Londolozi as we watch what will surely turn into a massive power shift amongst the dominant males in the area. Who knows what might happen over the next year. Theories we may have but in the end, given time, the bush will reveal all and the best thing we can do is enjoying watching it unfold. If you have theories of your own, please share them in the comments section below.