When one thinks of Africa it is synonymous with the thought of wide open savanna plains dotted with herds of wildebeest, zebra, elephant, and impala, to name a few. But there is none more iconic than the powerful African lion. Seeing your first lion in the wild is a moment few will forget. This is often accompanied by seeing these magnificent animals in a big pride of multiple lions. This was my first experience at Londolozi a few years ago, when the Birmingham Males were the dominant coalition that we would set out looking for almost every drive.
I remember the day like it was yesterday. We set out early in the morning and no more than a few minutes into the drive we heard the bellowing of a male lion’s roar followed shortly after by another. With anticipation, we moved toward where we thought it was coming from.
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Lions prefer big open clearings rather than dense thickets to advertise their presence and so we checked clearing after clearing. Each time we heard the next roar we’d narrow our search as we could feel ourselves getting closer and closer. We decided to check a waterhole that sits adjacent to a large clearing and there we found them! Twenty-one lions were all settled up in the clearing including two dominant Birmingham Males with the full complement of the Ntsevu pride at the time. The Birmingham Coalition had been the dominant coalition at Londolozi since 2018 but, like everything in nature, nothing lasts forever.
What happened to the Birmingham Males since then?
During the course of 2021, the condition of one of the Birmingham males deteriorated quite significantly and was last seen towards the end of 2021. Coincidently at a similar time to when the Ndzhenga Males arrived. This meant there was only one male left of the original four males that had arrived at Londolozi in 2017. We saw a noticeable change in his behaviour as he stopped roaring, most likely to not bring any unwanted attention to himself.
The cubs that he sired in 2018, 6 males and 5 females, had now got to an age where they had started venturing out on their own away from their natal Ntsevu Pride. He spent the next few months in the company of these sub-adults where he could benefit from both the safety in numbers and the benefit of hunting with them. This lasted only a few months and soon we would come across the Ntsevu sub-adults alone without the last Birmingham male. For a few weeks, we had no sign of him and wondered where he’d gone or what had happened to him.
A new coalition was born
The Nkuhuma Young Male was born in 2017 when the Birmingham Coalition was still dominant over the Nkuhuma Pride in the northern stretches of our reserve. This means that he was sired by one of the Birmingham Males and so he is either the son of the last remaining Birmingham Male or at least one of his brothers. Meaning we were due a surprise new coalition that, to be honest, nobody saw coming. The Nkuhuma Young Male had spent the majority of his nomadic young male journey on different parts of our reserve. Mostly his time was spent north of the Sand River or in the southwestern section of our property.
During this time he had joined forces with the Styx Young Male who was on a similar journey of trying to fly below the radar of any dominant males while trying to gain both experience and size to hopefully one day hold his own territory. Just at the point where we thought these two young males were starting to establish themselves as a coalition an unexpected turn of events resulted in the death of the Styx Young Male. This all happened quite timeously for both the Nkuhuma Young Male and the Birmingham Male.
His father/uncle had also recently undergone the loss of his coalition partner and within a relatively short space of time, we heard that these two males had been seen together in the western sector of the Sabi Sand. The Birmingham coalition had new wind in its sails but where would it take them?
In an area like the Sabi Sand Game Reserve with such a high density of lions, it makes sense for male lions to join forces. Territories are forever shifting and new coalitions are always trying to expand their territories to encompass better land with more prides of females. Towards the end of 2021, a new coalition of four Ndzhenga Males staked their claim on what was previously the heart of the Birmingham territory in the eastern part of Londolozi. In the west, the Plains Camp Males are a rising force to be reckoned with and are equally trying to expand their own territory.
This, in my opinion, put pressure on the Birmingham coalition and with great surprise, we found them back on our property only a few days ago. Having the chance to see one of the first male lions I had ever seen on Londolozi again brought a strange sense of nostalgia that I had not expected. But with two strong coalitions flanking them on either side what is to be expected of this coalition of two on either side of the youth and experience spectrum?
Where to next?
It’s never easy to predict what will happen in the future let alone in an ever-changing environment like Londolozi but it’s impossible to not run through the different permutations anyways. The Birmingham Male was born around 2010/2011 with his new accomplice still to reach full maturity; evident in his not yet fully grown mane. Something I’ve learnt in my time as a ranger is that you should never underestimate the resilience of a male lion, especially one that can boast the experience the Birmingham Male can. The Othawa Male learnt this the hard way and paid the ultimate price. The two fascinating aspects of the return for me are the following:
How will this affect the Ntsevu Pride dynamics?
The Ntsevu pride have spent most of 2022 mating with the Ndzhenga Males, however, so far there have been no successful litters that have made it more than a few months. There are still two Ntsevu lionesses that have been moving around the reserve, quite successfully, keeping their cubs (sired by the Birminghams) safe from the threat of the new Ndzenga coalition. Within only a few days of being back, we have already seen the Birmingham Male with two other Ntsevu Lionesses. Will they branch off from the rest of the pride and start to mate with the new, yet old, Birmingham Coalition? We’ve seen it before with both the Mhangeni Pride and the Ntsevu Pride where new prides are formed with females branching off from their natal prides.
What will happen if they cross paths with the Ndzhenga Males?
This is the most exciting aspect in my opinion. As mentioned before, there is no substitute for experience but both the Birmingham Male as well as the Ndzhenga Males have this in their locker. The territory of the Ndzhenga Males is a considerable size which means that they will often be seen alone patrolling different sections of it. If the Birmingham Coalition ensures they are always not too far apart and happen to come in contact with a lone Ndzhenga Male out on patrol it could become very interesting to see what transpires.
Most if not all Rangers dream of the day of seeing big male lions come to blows. It is the epitome of the African drama that we get to see unfold on a daily basis and one that hopefully I will be there to witness. Whichever way it turns out I, for one, will always marvel at the ability of the lion dynamics to continue to throw new spins when we least expect them.