One of the best parts about being a field guide is that you can follow the stories of animals, you can watch cubs grow up and witness the change in dynamics within herds. Yet, as always within nature, there are moments of pure joy but also of great tragedy. I have been following the story of one lioness with particular interest. Her story is very interesting, she is blind in one eye (no-one knows how this happened) yet has still managed to rear her three cubs to survive their first year of childhood.
It was mid-February and the heat was stifling as the afternoon sun beat down upon the bushveld, there had been no rain for weeks and even though it was five o’clock in the afternoon the temperature was pushing thirty degrees centigrade. The lioness had successfully made another giraffe kill and although it wasn’t as big as the last victim, she and the three cubs were enjoying every last morsel.
Two lion cubs lay flat on their backs with their legs propped up under the shade of a bush, unmoving with full and bloated bellies after an afternoon of gorging themselves. The lioness and another cub still tucked into the carcass of the small giraffe.
The flies swarmed and buzzed, the vultures glared in envy from their perches above, waiting patiently as the smell of giraffe meat met their nostrils. The crunching of bones and ripping of flesh could be heard, ridiculing those animals who wanted an afternoon snack. A jackal was also spotted, appearing from the thicket behind, hoping that the lions would leave so he could grab a small morsel of food. He wasn’t brave enough to approach and confront this mother and youngsters by himself, could you blame him? After having their fill, the mother and cub also flopped down lazily in the shade before heading towards the nearest dam for a drink.
About a week later, vultures were circling in the area again and then they started to descend. When vultures start landing, it is often the tell-tale sign that there is a kill. We made our way to where the vultures were arriving and peered into the thicket, expecting to see the lioness with a fresh victim. Instead, the vultures were on the ground, fighting with one another, but under the same tree we could make out the ear of a single lion, unmoving. Very strange indeed. Normally a lion would have chased the vultures away or stirred at our presence.
We noticed lion spoor next to the road, some tracks showed how a lion had planted its foot but had been pushed back against a rock face against its will. It appeared a fight had taken place between two lions. It was hard not to imagine two lions battling for their lives, growling, snarling, slashing and biting as lighting hit and the rain poured the previous night. The lion under the tree still hadn’t moved so I took the initiative and tiptoed closer to take a look.
A young male lion lay there, his pelvis crushed and internal organs spilling out, he was almost cut in half. Flies swarmed all over the carcass, streaming into the mouth and eyes. Puncture wounds that resembled bullet holes and were as thick as my thumb and covered the lion’s neck. Only another lion could have done this.
Unfortunately, the casualty appeared to be one of the yearlings from the half-blind lioness. It is probable that a new male lion has entered the area and when this happens infanticide occurs. This is when the males kill all the cubs sired by other fathers, the killing results in the females quickly entering oestrus again allowing the new male to mate and pass on his genes. Although brutal, it is part of the natural cycle of a lion’s life.
It was a stark reminder that even the toughest of mums can only do so much for their young and that even the ‘King of the Jungle’ isn’t safe in a world where life and death is always on a knife-edge. I look forward to updating you on the outcome of the two remaining cubs.