The Ghosts and Their Darkness - Timbavati Tales #9
July 7th - My last blog was about the pleasure and emotional rollercoaster of watching three young male lions grow up in the Timbavati; but this month saw me enjoy lions for a totally different reason. The Timbavati is in an exceptionally fortunate position to have been included within an open system larger than Belgium, and as a result, the animals have the ability to roam in and out of the reserve to the adjoining Kruger National Park to the east, the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve to the west, and the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve to the north, as and when they please.
This has its pros and cons; on the one side it could mean that all the lions could move out of the area, but equally, new lions can move into it! This month saw two new sets of lions moving into our area; the first was a new pride of six lions that appear to have originated from the Kruger, but their ancestry is anyone’s guess at this moment. The second set of lions, and the focus of this update, is a coalition of two male lions that have moved in from much further south in the Timbavati, and have already been dubbed the Ximpuku males, or “The Ghosts”; they are two mature but young males that have already made quite a mark in the area in a very short space of time, and could potentially alter the lion dynamics in the area quite drastically over the coming year.
They first appeared in May, way south in our traversing area – literally on our very southern boundary – but their appearance back then was unexpected. The southern lodges were following up on the Machaton Pride (the original pride discovered with white cubs back in 1975), then standing at 3 lionesses and 7 sub-adult males that had been found killing a buffalo cow the day before; but on arriving at the area, the Machatons were gone and had been replaced by two unknown male lions to all of. One of them was unmistakable; the younger of the two males had a radio collar that perplexed all of us, as we knew of no lions being collared in the area, but on digging a little deeper, we discovered that he formed part of lion research in the southern, non-commercial portions of the reserve, but had moved some distance north to end up here. The second, bigger and older male was uncollared and a beast of note, but little did we know they would stick around.
The Machaton Pride moved off safely on that occasion, but little over a week later, after being the last person to visit all ten lions as they fed on a fresh giraffe kill, I awoke to the news that these two new male lions had pitched up at this kill again, but sadly, blood had been spilled, and one of the young Machaton males was tragically killed in the encounter; only his lifeless body was found the next day. The poor Machaton Pride were now on the run within their own territory, and seemed very unsettled until their last remaining pride male made a welcome return to temporarily keep these new males at bay, and for a while, we saw no more signs of them.
A few weeks passed, our “new” pride of six had come and gone back to the Kruger, and 20km north of the Machaton Prides territory we were getting a bit desperate for lions, so when we woke to roaring lions close to camp one morning, a fellow guide and I had one mission; track down the lions. Narrowing down our search to a large block of land, we knew the lions were close, and this was confirmed as the two males carried on roaring into the morning. The trackers were hot on their trail, but they found the spot where the lions had been resting for a while but had gotten up and moved off – possibly on their approach – and we were puzzled as to just which males these could be, as true to form over the last couple of weeks, tracks for two male lions entered our area from all over, and despite tracking through the morning, tracks invariably crossed out of our reserve on the total opposite side before the “culprits” could be located; it was like they were ghosts!
We sort of assumed that the lions were two of the three Mahlathini males that rule the northern sections of our traversing area, so when we eventually got lucky that morning and bumped into the two males as they were missioning back towards the Kruger in the east, we could almost not believe just who they were – and there was no way of misidentifying them with that collar; it was the same murderous males from the deep south, now more than 20km north of their “usual” stomping grounds!
We were all flabbergasted at just how far these males have moved over the last while, and just by following them and seeing the purpose in their movements, it easily explained how they could effortlessly cover 15-20km a night as they criss-crossed the reserve looking for prides to take over! Their sojourn north did not mean that they had forgotten about the Machatons in the south, and in the interim, they had once more run into the pride and killed a second young male – now leaving the pride at 3 lionesses and 5 young males; and you can be rest assured, the assault is far from over.
Fortunately though, these two males that like roaring all night, leaving tracks across the reserve but seldom show themselves have become a bit more predictable in their movements as they have latched onto the movements of a breeding herd of 500-plus buffalo that have remained in the north the last few weeks – this has supplied these “ghost” males with a meal or two and their tracks are often found near to the breeding herd of buffalo wherever they roam, leaving them only occasionally to continue scouting the areas to the south and the east.
Their arrival and presence in the area will pose some interesting times ahead for the lions of the northern Timbavati – will the Mahlathini males be able to keep them away from the Timbavati lionesses and their 5 cubs? Will the three young Sohebele brothers wisely steer clear of these Ghosts and remain in the Kruger? The new pride of 6 has three lionesses of a prime age that are there for the taking, and could well settle into the northern sections under the protection of these males, eventually filling the void that was left when the Sohebele Pride were killed out in 2009? And most importantly, how will the Machaton lionesses cope in the face of this continued onslaught? The lone Timbavati male is no match for these large new-comers, and the young males of the Machaton Pride are far too young to be left alone to fend for themselves, meaning that the most likely conclusion to this whole process is not bound to be a happy one.
If indeed my worst fears are realised and the darkness in these Ghost males continues, and all the Machaton young males are picked off one by one, that would mean that in their 4 year tenure of the central Timbavati, the Timbavati boys would have failed to add even one lion to the population – a dismal failure for three lions that promised so much.
This is sadly the harsh reality of the real bush, and pride take-overs are an everyday occurrence in the life of lions; survival of the fittest in its most brutal form. The next few months may be difficult to watch, but as mentioned, it is the start of some interesting times ahead, so be sure to keep following my blogs to see just how things turn out!