As MalaMala rangers, it is our job to develop a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of our animals. Studying through observation provides valuable insights into the lives of our big cats. Though we may never fully understand the intricacies of lion politics, for the most part, we like to believe we have our finger on the pulse. Every now and then, nature humbles us and we’re left puzzling at the behaviour of the animals we observe almost daily. Before I dive into one such humbling moment, let me introduce you to some of our lions.

The Kambula pride consists of 6 adult females, 7 subadult females, 6 subadult males, and 11 young cubs. The upper reaches of their territory extends into southern Eyrefield, the lowest reaches seem to be around central Charleston. Their territory has a substantial girth and even spills into our neighbours to the west and the Kruger to the east. Because of the position of their territory, and the size of the pride, they are the lions we see most frequently.

The Gowrie males are living legends of MalaMala. Having moved south, from more northern properties, around September 2015, they have held territory and sired cubs for 6 years on MalaMala. Until recently they have been the undisputed kings over the Kambula pride. The operative phrase being “until recently”… Enter the Northern Avoca males.

The Northern Avoca males are a coalition comprising of two brothers (a third brother detached from them some time ago) who reign over the Nkuhuma pride (a large pride whose territory includes central and western Eyrefield and extends into the properties both to our north and west). At 8 years of age, the Northern Avoca males are in their prime and acting accordingly. In recent months, they have been viewed frequently on MalaMala, making their intentions clear by killing cubs from the Kambula pride and mating with lionesses from the pride.

On the morning of the 17th of October, several lions were found feeding on a buffalo carcass. While it is common to view lions feeding on an eviscerated bovid, the composition of the group and the events that unfolded in the days that followed left us scratching our heads.

Typically, subadult lions run for the hills when they encounter any male lion that is not of their paternal coalition. We have seen this behaviour countless times between the subadults of the Kambula pride and the Northern Avoca males, as the latter make steady advances to take over the Kambula pride and clench prime territory from the Gowrie males (see more on this in our monthly game reports).

On this particular morning, the composition of the group included two adult females from the Kambula pride, six subadult males and seven subadult females. Shortly after the carcass had been found, a gate-crasher arrived in the form of a Northern Avoca male. Initially, the Northern Avoca male approached with caution, before he gave chase to four of the subadult males. Interestingly, the fifth subadult male watched the ordeal, then proceeded to trot in the direction of his fleeing brothers while sixth simply continued feeding on the carcass. Not much time passed before the subadult males developed some gumption and returned to feed. The composition of the group remained much the same when they were viewed that afternoon.

On the evening of the 17th, the Gowrie males were found in a drainage line, just north of MalaMala Camp, less than 800m from the buffalo buffet. With their honed senses, the Gowrie males must have caught wind of the feeding activity because come morning game drive, it was the Gowrie males who took centre stage at the buffalo bonanza. Given that the Northern Avoca male had shown no intention to leave, there is every likelihood that the Gowrie males would have encouraged the Northern Avoca male to evacuate. Naturally, members of the Kambula pride were around to enjoy breakfast with the Gowrie males.

For about an hour, the buffalo carcass was left unobserved. By 9 am, the subadults from the Kambula pride had moved southwards away from the kill. The Northern Avoca male, who until this point had not been found, must have been keeping an eye on the scene as he was found moving back into the area from the west. The sight of the Northern Avoca male evoked the ‘flight’ response in the subadults and they bolted off in the opposite direction. This behaviour is in keeping with what we expect and have seen before.

As the Northern Avoca male made a beeline for the carcass, tension built. Remember only an hour ago, the Gowrie males were left feeding off the carcass. In an anti-climactic fashion, the Northern Avoca male reached the totally-devoid-of-Gowrie-male scene, scent marked, and began feeding with the two lionesses who remained.

By the afternoon drive, all that resembled the previous 48 hour fiasco was a parliament of vultures, a black boss, a nibbled skull, and a picked clean buffalo vertebra.

This saga provides myriad interesting factors to examine, here are the two I feel are most fascinating:

  • It is a rarity for lions from separate groups to come together without bloodshed. In this scene, we saw three different groupings of lions over the course of 48 hours. The most interesting was the relative tolerance that the Northern Avoca male exhibited towards the subadult members of the Kambula pride.
  • The Gowrie males, having the confidence to enter what we now perceive to be Northern Avoca male territory, suggests that this coalition is still a force to be reckoned with and should not have their previous tactical retreat misconstrued as a surrender.

For fear of misinterpretation, and out of respect for the authority of the bush, I will not offer a concise conclusion explaining the behaviour of these majestic beasts. I will, however, offer this, the situation that unfolded was driven by a ‘need to feed’. Often we see animals tolerate their foes when food is involved. Perhaps this is why the subadults fled from the Northern Avoca male in the Sand River, yet felt comfortable feeding beside him at the carcass.

As always, we will continue to pay attention to the developing dynamics and will do our best to keep you posted with all things lions!