Life (noun); the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.
An accurate but very brusque definition of a word that means so much.
Living out in the wilderness, one can see that in some ways, yes, life can be cheap; insects are snuffed out constantly, impalas are killed in droves almost daily, and even an apex predator may be ushered from this mortal coil in an instant for only one single foul step.
But living out here, one is also inundated with examples of organisms fighting with everything they have for life, for one last breath or one more day of growth, to accomplish whatever task set for them by the universe before they are no longer counted in the great census. My blog today is dedicated to that desperate grasp on life that is ingrained in us all, with a particular focus on one subset of the dominant pride in the southeastern parts of Londolozi.
The Ntsevu Pride has undergone some significant and interesting changes during my three-year tenure as a guide here in this Lowveld paradise that is Londolozi. The pride themselves are the result of several incredible stories of survival that stretches all the way back to 1998, – and further, I am sure.
And there are so many more stories in the archives if you feel like diving down that rabbit hole!
In particular, though, my focus is on two individuals that have been removed from the main pride for some time. About a year ago, I stand to be corrected on the exact period of time, the four (now three) Ndhzenga males arrived on the scene, causing quite an upset in the lion dynamics of the area. Amidst this chaos, one female and one of her older daughters with four cubs between them (three belonging to the older female and one to the younger) decided they weren’t having any of it; they upped and left, headed west toward the semi-neutral zone that is our Western Sector ever since the Othawa male met his maker all the way back in 2021.
The cubs must have been about a year to a year and a half old at this point and these two females did an incredible job of keeping their little sixsome out of danger month in and month out. They roamed in and out of the Ndhzenga territory but kept a low enough profile that they never seemed to be noticed by the new dominant males, at least outwardly.
And then there were Four.
But sadly, this state of affairs was ultimately untenable. There are so many dangers to young cubs and without the power of the pride to protect them, the cubs were lost, one by one. The youngest cub was lost first, quite early on, shortly followed by one of the older female’s cubs. That left one mother, her older daughter and two cubs. One very surprising aspect of this dynamic was that the older daughter refused to leave her mother’s side, despite having very little reason to stay with her. By this, I mean that the female was likely undergoing oestrus cycles and instinct would be driving her to return to the main pride to mate with the new males, the Ndhzenga Males. And yet she stayed at her mother’s side, some other system overriding that urge to procreate. Perhaps an urge to protect her pride was the stronger of the two instinctual drivers.
And then there were two.
But time was not kind to one of the cubs. Or to their mother. One of the cubs was sadly lost in another unknown incident; a few rangers witnessed nail-biting close calls – such as when ranger Dan Hirschowitz watched a horde of 20-something hyena mob the small group, with the older females clawing their way out of the fray while the cubs scrabbled up two spindly Tamboti trees – but nobody ever witnessed the exact cause of death of the three little ones. But the crux of it is that they were lost. And finally, tragically, the first of the original six Ntsevu Females was recently lost, again, cause unknown. Her body was found through the descending of a host of vultures. This was an especially sad day for us all, as although we know we should not let ourselves become attached, it is hard not to admire the strength and resilience of this sisterhood of six and to watch the first of them fall was definitely a blow.
And that brings us to about two weeks ago. Tracker Phendulo Ndlovu and I were on a mission to find lions with our guests. There had been very little sign and we were almost at the point of acceptance that today may just not be our day when we came around the corner and beheld that most breath-taking sight, a huge male lion head staring out the grass right at us.
And the excitement only grew when we looked down the road and there were two more females! But then we looked further… And there, about 100m (300 yards) beyond the two lionesses sat another female, clearly anxious; her back stiff, her neck craning to watch for any movement in the male, her ears flat.
And then we heard her contact calling as well, she was clearly distressed. And the pieces all fell into place, this was the cub, now about two years old, and that must mean that one of the middle two lionesses was her older sister/cousin that had been looking after her for the last few weeks after her mother had died. They had returned to the pride! Or at least they were trying to. The situation was tense; the male staring intently at the youngster, clearly unsure about this newcomer, but also somehow very relaxed around her caretaker (who, remember, has been missing for almost a year) who lay serenely in the road, unperturbed by the curious male.
Eventually, the young lioness worked up the courage to creep up the road toward the sleeping females and tucked herself squarely between the two. A great sign was to see how the older lioness, one of the original Ntsevu Females, permitted her long-lost niece to greet her with a head rub and even returned the gesture, a very special moment indeed. One can only imagine how that young female must feel, both nervous and excited at the prospect of joining a fully-fledged pride, likely safer in the fold than she has been in the last year of her life. Regarding the female that had been the youngster’s caregiver, my assumption is that her drive to procreate had finally come to the fore and that after losing her mother/aunt, she felt that the risk of returning to the pride was less than that of trying to survive for another indefinite period without any added protection.
And that was how we left the scene; the youngster was seemingly accepted by at least one of her aunts and the Ndhzenga Male, perhaps not content, but neither was he outwardly aggressive toward the youngster. I personally have high hopes for these two survivors and it has been such a privilege to witness this massive chapter in the ongoing saga of the lions of Londolozi first-hand.