Coalition warfare

By Ranger, Victoria Craddock

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In recent days

the soundtrack to life at MalaMala hasn’t been the “krit-trrrrr” of the returning Woodland Kingfisher, nor is it the “dee-dee-deederik” of the Diedrick Cuckoo, rather, it’s been the deep, bellowing “ohhhhffff” of lions roaring.

If you read the last blog on lions you may recall the statement, “for the most part, we like to think we have our finger on the pulse”. The events that have unfolded in the last few weeks may serve to prove this wrong.

Before we sink our teeth into the meat of the topic, let me set the scene. The causeway is the closest river crossing to MalaMala Camp. It is nestled in the north-western part of the property. Lately, the MalaMala and southern Eyrefield sections of the reserve have been under contention between the Northern Avoca males and the Gowrie males. Since we are now consistently seeing the Northern Avoca males around the causeway, it’s logical to assume that this area now falls into the southern reaches of their territory. With this in mind, imagine the excitement… and confusion… when a young coalition of four from the southern parts of the Sabi Sands rocks up roaring and ready to rumble.

On the 8th of November, we were introduced to a coalition who arrived on a mission. I use the word ‘introduced’ rather loosely as this coalition is usually only encountered periodically in the southwestern parts of Charleston, our southernmost property. This was, however, their debut to the northern parts of MalaMala. With reverberating roars, the four young males of the Ndhzenga coalition (aged between 5 and 6 years) came in hot! Lions will not vocalise in an unknown area unless they are there to cause instability and challenge the authority of the dominant males in the area.

All through the night lion bellows interrupted the slumber of those in MalaMala Camp. With eager anticipation, everyone was on the deck earlier than usual the next morning, ready to resolve the mysteries of the evening past.

Within 10 minutes of the first vehicle leaving camp, the first Ndhzenga male was found. He appeared unscathed as he urinated, kicked up ground, and roared on the ridge between the Manyeleti and Mlowathi rivers. Not long after this, a second male was found. The combination of an old injury to his front left leg and a newly eviscerated groin area, left this lion looking a little worse for wear. Not much time passed before a third male was found, nursing a bite wound to one of his front paws. The fourth male (the one with the abdominal protrusion, was not found that morning. Nor has he been seen on MalaMala since). All of the evidence indicated that a brawl had taken place during the night.

Though they were not found on the 9th, the Northern Avoca males were found on the 10th, with no obvious injuries. Oddly, when they were seen on the 14th, they both had puncture wounds that looked to be a few days old. This could suggest any number of things:

  1. 1. The Ndhzenga males fought amongst themselves on the night of the 8th as they competed for mating rights with a Kambula lioness. The injuries they sustained are inconsistent with that of a domestic spat (which is more likely to be head lesions), but this would not have been a ‘normal’ domestic spat. The males were in unfamiliar territory with heightened aggression levels and this lioness was new to them. She would certainly have added some aggression of her own to the mix. The situation was a tinderbox and it doesn’t take much of a spark to trigger an all out brawl between lions.
  2. 2. The Ndhzenga males and Northern Avoca males did in fact meet in warfare on the night of the Ndhzenga advent on MalaMala, and the wounds on the Northern Avoca males somehow went unnoticed by the rangers on the 10th.

Whatever unfolded in the days following the arrival of the Ndhzenga males, it has clearly given these young guns some semblance of security as members of this coalition have been viewed frequently in central parts of the property since the 8th.

Two behaviourally noteworthy sightings include:

  • Five members of the Kambula pride vacated the area of an elephant carcass when a Ndhzenga male announced his arrival on the scene. The Ndhzenga male bypassed the carcass in pursuit of the lions who had fled the scene.
  • A roar-off between two Northern Avoca males and two Ndhzenga males occurred across the area of Piccadilly triangle. The Northern Avoca males appeared to have conceded territory as they progressively moved north, increasing the distance between themselves and the arrogant intruders.

In all of the pandemonium, it is interesting to note that the Gowrie males kept a remarkably low profile. Could they be that the veterans of the area are acting in wisdom, letting the brazen new coalitions maim one another while they keep their cubs safe and maintain their condition without the stress of injury?

In the weeks ahead, much turbulence can be expected as three mighty coalitions employ various tactics to secure the land that will ultimately lead to mating rights over the prestigious Kambula pride.

Travelling to MalaMala