From Boys To Men - Timbavati Tales #8
One of the most special things about being based in the same reserve for a number of years is the ability to watch the animals grow up. And in the last couple of weeks, I had the privilege of watching three lions that I have been watching since small cubs, eventually turn into real lions!
When I first saw the three Sohebele boys, there were little cubs of about 5 months old, lined up alongside one another drinking at a puddle along the course of the Timbavati’s Nhlaralumi Riverbed; a bit further away, their sister rested with her mother, while their pregnant aunt lay near the most impressive male lion I have ever laid my eyes on; the Legendary Sohebele Madoda, his main hair blowing in the light breeze. A few months later, two new cubs were born, taking the pride to a total of nine lions.
Being the resident pride in our area, we got to follow their lives on an almost daily basis, and by seeing them so often, I got to learn their behaviour, and favourite areas and quite quickly, the whole pride worked their way into my heart. However, a dark cloud was looming large on the horizon. The impressive pride male was aging, and a number of male coalitions were pushing in from all directions; one day, as if sensing the end was near, the mercurial Sohebele male walked off, never to return to his pride.
With this safety net suddenly removed from their territory, it was not long before the trouble started following the pride, and as the three Sohebele Boys were now about 2 years old, and mom was ready to mate again, it didn’t take long for her to seek out a male to mate with, and once this happened, the three boys and their two female sisters were left to fend for themselves...this would not have been an issue of they knew how to hunt. But they didn’t.
Day after day we would find them, and almost immediately after the sighting was radioed in, someone (usually me!) would ask the ranger with them if they had eaten. But day after day, the answer stayed the same; “no”. And with each one-syllable answer, my hopes of seeing these lions make it to adulthood diminished. One brother in particular was in an extremely bad way – skin and bone, could barely walk to keep pace with the other sub-adults (and it always touched me that his sister would stand and wait for him to catch up); so poor was his condition that the guests would ask not to see the lions as their state was so depressing.
The pride then disappeared for a couple of weeks, but when they returned, they were feeding on an impala kill – but it was a bitter sweet moment, as the skinny brother did not return with them – in my mind, he was dead, and it was a blessing in disguise. So you can only imagine my shock when a short time after that, the lost brother pitched up, and they were once again reunited with their mothers. This happy moment was short-lived as it was not long after this that three young male lions moved into the area and systematically killed off the pride’s lionesses. Within 9 months, all four lionesses were killed, leaving only three young, undernourished males to fend for themselves, and to potentially evoke the wrath of these much bigger males in the area.
The Sohebele boys moved east into the mopane woodlands of the Kruger, and I didn’t expect to see them again. Months would pass with no sign of them, until one day, we found lion tracks on the Kruger Boundary, and then we found them...one...two...and three! All the brothers were still alive, and while looking like they could do with a meal, they were all in much better shape than when they left; even the large growths on the skinny male’s elbows were all but gone now that they were eating a bit more regularly.
A few months went by before they pitched up again, this time trailing a buffalo herd, and over the course of 2011, we generally only saw them when they followed breeding herds of buffalos into the area, mostly taking out calves and young females. But the real challenge for any lions is to take on a buffalo bull. Weight over 800kg – most of it muscle, the rest bad attitude – buffalo bulls are formidable opponents, and many lions lose their lives tackling such adversaries. However, it is worth the risk, because once the art is perfected, buffalo bulls can provide a ready supply of meat that helps turn most young male lions into real lions.
At almost 6 years old, the Sohebele Boys are small lions – looking more like lions of around 4 years old. Yet, they have the potential to grow into immaculate lions reminiscent of their father. But how? Well, a couple weeks ago, they learnt it! For the first time, we got to watch these males tackle a fully grown buffalo bull...and succeed! It was a long, harsh struggle – so harsh that they had the buffalo down and were eating it alive for 40 minutes before it succumbed to its injuries. Brutal doesn’t begin to describe it – yet while I felt sorry for the buffalo, I was just so overcome with joy and “pride” for my boys to see them in this position! To have faced all the hardships that life in the bush threw at them over the last 5 years, and to now be in a position to eat well, and feast like the kings they are destined to was one of my most special moments in the bush; my boys had eventually come of age...