In a tumultuous morning of lion interaction, the Kruger male finally caught up with Solo and the Eyrefield male. What transpired however was unexpected and still left us wondering what the future holds for the lions of Sabi Sabi.
The morning began like any other. Land Rovers filled with excited guests left their respective lodges eager to see what the bush held in store for them. Before long, news came in that Jonas had located the long absent Kruger male. We have not seen this dominant male for a few weeks on Sabi Sabi and had wondered if we had seen the last of him with the arrival of Solo and the Eyrefield male, aka the Sparta males.
However, this morning he looked in great shape and was walking with purpose… All of a sudden, he broke into a trot and was lost in the undergrowth and despite our best efforts, 30 minutes later, there was still no sign of him. In the meantime however, other male tracks were found close to the scene and adrenaline levels raised as we realised that his demeanour must be due to the presence of the Sparta males. Soon, Solo and the Eyrefield male were located close to Little Bush Camp along with a solitary female from the Southern Pride. The larger Solo was busy mating with the female and the noise being generated had no doubt drawn the attention of the Kruger male. As I was waiting to be called in to view the sighting, Zulu, my tracker, suddenly whipped his head round speaking frantically to me in Shangaan and gesticulating wildly for me to speed up. After I calmed him down and persuaded him to translate for me, I discovered that there were fresh male lion tracks on top of the vehicle tracks and sure enough, 200m later, we found the Kruger male on the road, moving directly to the area of the Spartans!
I knew that we were in for a wild morning but the next hour or so were somewhat unexpected. Instead of racing towards the intruding males, the Kruger male was taking his time, stopping to smell the air, scent mark and listen. The sounds of the mating pair were obvious even to us such was our proximity and I could not work out why he wasn’t rushing to defend his territory?! If anything, watching his body language, he looked tentative, unsure of how to approach the situation – it would be a 2 vs. 1 confrontation after all. The overwhelming impression that I got from following his oddly slow progress was that he knew what had to be done but did not want to face it! We tend to think of lions as remorseless killers that will defend their territories to the death when faced with opposition, but for the first time in my career I realised that the prospect of such a confrontation must come with a huge amount of emotional stress. We tend to resort to human emotions in animal encounters but I can only pass on to you my emotions at the time.
Slowly, the Kruger male approached the area, taking about 30 minutes to cover a few hundred meters. It felt like it was all pre-arranged to ensure the maximum amount of anticipation for the watching guests. By now, I could see the other vehicles waiting with the 2 other males and the lone lioness but still no charge from the dominant male! By now, Solo and the lioness had moved about 100m from the Eyrefield male who was happily dozing in the long grass. Perhaps this was the Kruger male’s plan all along. If he could isolate the younger male, perhaps he could dispatch of one of his threats without having to deal with both at once. Once he got about 100m of the young male, the Kruger male’s demeanor changed.
His body sank low into the grass and his pace slowed even more. This was stalking behaviour. His shoulder blades were all that were visible as his muscular font quarters delicately tested the ground before placing any weight on it to ensure the element of surprise was not lost. The mirage of orange slinked through the long grass as the gap was closed to within 50 meters. Then 25, and finally 10. The poor Eyrefield male was still sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware of the 200+ kilogram ball of tensed muscle that bore down on him. I had goosebumps. I was convinced that he would wake up at the sound of my heart pounding with anticipation. We have all been waiting for this moment for months and finally the trap was set and I was there! But still the Kruger male refused to engage.
Whether a noise tipped him off or not I don’t know but the Eyrefield male stirred. Slowly he looked over his shoulder and saw the Kruger male bearing down on him. His eyes left no doubt that he knew he was in serious trouble. Lions are not known for their emotiveness but it was clear that he was beaten. He took 2 or 3 panicked paces before realising that running was futile. Instead, he turned to face the male and sank low to the ground, exposing his stomach and uttered a pitiful whimper, a plea for the Kruger male to show compassion at his submissive behaviour. The Kruger male held all the cards and removal of one of his competitors was there for the taking. I held my breath waiting for the inevitable.
But the Kruger male seemed confused by his younger opponent and instead of hammering home the advantage, seemed to be content with his dominance and let out a semi-roar before turning his back to scent mark on a nearby bush. The petrified Eyrefield male saw his opportunity and took it. While the Kruger male’s back was turned, he shot off into the bushes. The Kruger male was quick to respond however and took off in pursuit.
For the next kilometer, we followed as the Kruger male chased after the fleeing male but never really trying to close the gap. This, it seemed was just a message. The gap between them never reached less than about 20 meters and the Kruger male seemed content to merely chase the youngster roaring at the top of his lungs as he went. Content that his unambiguous message had been received loud and clear, the Kruger male eventually let him be and turned his focus to his more equally matched challenger. Whether this decision will turn out to be a mistake remains to be seen….
During this fracas, Solo and the female has started moving in the other direction and the Kruger male wasted no time catching up to them, no doubt full of confidence after dispatching the youngster with minimal effort. He trotted back from whence he came, roaring every couple of minutes, leaving no doubt as to what was in store for Solo. This however is where things took a strange turn. According to Elliot who had stayed with Solo, upon gaining visual contact, the Kruger male stopped. Solo was not running scared. In fact, he was marching back up the road, approaching the Kruger male! The Kruger male took one look at Solo and rather than engaging in mortal combat as we all expected, turned tail and fled into the bushes?! By all accounts, Solo made no great effort to follow him and instead changed direction no doubt to meet up with the female once more. Elliot and the other rangers were unable to relocate any of the trio in the very thick vegetation so what happened next I cannot tell you for now…
I have been in this industry for over 7 years and have witnessed takeovers from male coalitions in the past but I have never experienced this type of behaviour before. Why did the Kruger male not take out the Eyrefield male when he had the chance? Why did he not engage Solo and instead choose to flee? Will he get another chance or is his 2 year tenure as dominant male of the Southern Pride over? What will become of the sub adults and the current batch of cubs? For now, I cannot wait for the clock to tick 4 o’clock so that we can attempt to track down the main players and continue to bring you up to date with what is turning out to be a fascinating saga. Whatever happens, you will be the first to know!