The Tables Turn

One of the many wonderful aspects about having spent so many years in the Timbavati (and no, a growing waistline is not one of them) is the fact that one gets to watch the lives and stories of the animals around us unfold.  A couple of weeks ago we were heading to the east to look for the two Skorro male lions when we stumbled upon another two male lions enroute, and I began recounting my understanding of their recent history – and remember, it is just that; my piecing together of events, and not necessarily hard facts as no one is around watching these lions for 99 percent of their lives.  The guests were enthralled by the soap-opera like nature of the story, and it was their reaction that prompted me to sit down and write about it, especially if these two lions are going to be hanging around for a while.

The story picked up a few weeks prior when there was a radio call that two male lions had been found trailing a large herd of buffalo not too far from Nkhari Homestead, but the guides were not sure exactly who the two young male lions were.  To the best of my knowledge, we didn’t have any young coalitions walking around this part of the central Timbavati, so I was filled with an anticipation that often enters my world when I am about to see a lion I have never seen before.  Arriving at the sighting, Ginger was sitting with his lights out so as not to disturb the lions’ chances of a successful hunt as the buffalos grazed no more than 50m away from us, seemingly unaware of the presence of potential danger.  In the dim light surrounding us, a ghostly figure of a lion soon emerged and walked past us.  As the second one came into view, there was something odd about how it was moving.  As the buffalos drifted off leaving the lions just lying there watching them, we shone some light on them to get a better view.  The youngest male was a strong and healthy looking individual – although still a couple years off of his prime – but his partner was an older male, who was looking in decent shape…until he stood up.  It soon became apparent that this lion had a severely injured – if not broken – back left leg.  The muscles had atrophied, and it was clear that he couldn’t put pressure on it.  Things did not look good for this lion, and thinking that this was a recent injury and would make his survival difficult we left the sighting feeling a little glum at the prospect that this lion might not be around for too much longer.

Upon returning to camp, I sent photos of the lions to a friend who is an expert at identifying lions and piecing together their histories and he quickly came back with an answer that took me by surprise.  The limping male was not a new lion as I had suspected, but rather the last remaining Monwana male lion.  The surprising side of the story was two-fold; firstly, that this lion with his injured leg that we thought would soon succumb to his injuries had actually been walking – or rather hobbling – around like this for a well over a year already and had clearly come to terms with dealing with it.  Clearly he was not about to simply roll over and give up; he was a fighter.

The second surprise was the identity of the young male lion with him.  During lockdown, we had a film crew using Tanda Tula Safari Camp as a base from which to film a feature film about lions, and we spent four months following different prides of lions across the Timbavati landscape and ended up spending a great deal of time with the Giraffe Pride.  During the filming period the Giraffe Pride endured a pride take over when two young Monwana males moved into the area from Thornybush and ended up killing the Giraffe Pride’s dominant male, the impressive Black Dam male – a male incidentally believed to have fathered the two Monwana males.  Taking over the pride, the Monwanas began following the Giraffe Pride and exerting pressure on the young lionesses and the single young Giraffe male to leave the pride.  We saw these males chasing the pride on several occasions, and the young Giraffe male did his best to flee to avoid conflict with the Monwana males, and  only return to his natal pride when the males were off patrolling their newfound territory.

After the filming concluded (for those interested, you can watch it in Disney Plus – it is called Malika: The Lion Queen), we stopped following the story of the Giraffe Pride so closely, but were able to keep up with the fact that the Sumatra and Hercules males had moved in and taken over as the pride males.  One of the Monwana males picked up a bad limp, so when the remains of a male lion were found near Plains Camp, it was simply assumed that it was the limping Monwana male.  My friend proved that he wasn’t only good at identifying living lions, but also dead ones, and soon confirmed that the dead lion was not the limping Monwana, but in fact the other brother.  Having lost his brother and not having full mobility, I think we all simply wrote off the last Monwana male and forgot about him.  But, as I have to continually remind myself about, one can never write any animal off!

Exactly how he managed to do it was a little unexpected considering how the story had unfolded up to this point.  Just where the turning point came is not precisely known, but at some stage in the past year the limping Monwana male went from being an aggressor that chased the young Giraffe male lion around, to one that sought an unlikely bond with a brother he probably didn’t know he had.  As both the Giraffe male and the Monwana males were sired by the Black Dam male (albeit to different prides), they are actually half-brothers (although neither lion would actually “know” this).  I would love to have been around to see how this change in attitude towards one another came about; after all, it was a complete 180! The Giraffe male went from fleeing for his life every time the Monwana male pitched up to being the primary reason that he is alive today.  The Giraffe male surely cannot gain a great deal of benefit from a three-legged partner that struggles to hunt and would be of little use in a fight with other lions?  Yet, despite this, the pair have formed an incredible bond that seems to be working to benefit both parties.  Not that this story needs any further anthropomorphisation, but the Monwana male would have needed a change in attitude to get into this bonded coalition.  Did he go cap in hand to the Giraffe male and tone down his aggression knowing that this would be the only way he could survive with his injured leg?  And if he had this weakness, why did the Giraffe male sense this and attack him?

I’m a big believer of animals’ innate ability to weigh up risk and reward when it comes to differing situations, and I can only imagine that rather than some complex and emotional explanation about how the brothers decided to help one another, both lions looked at the situation surrounding a chance meeting that brought them together, assessed it and both quickly came to the conclusion that there would be fewer risks involved in “getting along” than there would be in fighting one another.  In addition to avoiding the risks, there would be some benefits to both parties – even if they were weighted in favour of the Monwana male – and rather than smacking the living daylights out of one another, they moved off together.  And together they have stayed.

How long this coalition will last is not known, and even less certain is how long they will stay within the central Timbavati considering the presence of more powerful coalitions to the west (the five Vuyela males), the east (two Skorro males) and the south (Hercule’s and Sumatra).  But what we do know is that nature has once again proven that animals seldom read the textbooks we write about them, and one should always expect the unexpected in the bush, even when the stories do start to sound like soap operas!

Until next time, cheers!