The Charleston male lions
Text: Dan Bailey | Photographs: Dan Bailey, Greg Baldwin and Pieter van Wyk
In April 2011, two male lions were born in the southern parts of MalaMala Game Reserve, in an area known as Charleston. These two young male lions were then aptly named according to the territory that their maternal pride held before them, which is why today they are referred to as the two male lions from the Charleston coalition.
Their early life was not easy, and from the start it seemed as if the chips were stacked against them. The Charleston pride got into conflict with the Selati Pride in January 2012 and killed all the members of the Charleston pride except for one lioness and the two young Charleston male lions. The two now orphaned youngsters were only around 9 months of age yet this was not the end. The only remaining lioness from the Charleston pride, in essence their aunt, undertook the monumental task of raising them as if they were her own.
The Charleston lioness miraculously managed to successfully raise these two male lions to independence which is quite a remarkable feat. The task of survival is daunting enough for young lions in a big pride with threats coming from new male coalitions seeking to take over the territory and with both the intraspecific and interspecific competition within the area.
The two Charleston male lions, now just under 5 years of age, are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They are starting to establish their own territory in the southwestern parts of the Sabi Sands Wildtuin (SSW) spending far less time on MalaMala. They however do return from time to time to check up on the Charleston lioness and her new litter of two 9-month-old male cubs.
The Charleston male lion coalition are young, strong, determined and highly charismatic lions that are now coming into their own. Together they started to push south and west a few months ago in order to acquire more territory and seek out a resident pride of females to take as their own and sire their own offspring. Their search pushed them further away from their known territorial range and into that of another coalition of two male lions known as the Jackledraai males on MalaMala or, to the rest of the SSW, as the Fourways male lion coalition.
As rule of thumb only the strongest, smartest and most determined male lions will survive and get the opportunity to successfully stake their claim on a territorial range, and with it take over a pride of females as their own and sire cubs. The pride of females in this case is known as the Southern pride, which consists of five lionesses in the southwestern parts of the SSW.
The lion dynamics being in a constant flux within the area with a huge amount of competition saw the Charleston male lions push further and further south and west and conflict ensued between the Charleston males and the Fourways males. There were reports that the two Fairways males had not been viewed for a lengthy period by some of our neighbours and when they were finally found again both the Fourways males appeared to have bad scars on their back legs and the one even nursing a bad bite mark in his spine. It is presumed that they had a run in with the two male lions from the Charleston coalition and were lucky to escape.
The Charleston males returned back east onto MalaMala Game Reserve and it was not long until they encountered more competition. This time they came into contact with another coalition of two different male lions which rarely frequent the area, known to others as the Kruger male and Solo. It is presumed that in their bid to claim dominance over the area and to protect the Charleston lioness and the two new young males within the Charleston pride they tracked down the Kruger male and Solo. The events were never witnessed by rangers but the body of the Kruger male was found on the eastern bank of the Sand River in the southern parts of the property. The Kruger male came off second best against the Charleston male lions and with the loss of the Kruger male it sent Solo running back into the Kruger National Park.
There was, in relative terms, peace for a while within the south western section of the SSW but by mid September this all changed once again. There were reports of conflict between the Charleston male lions and the Fourways males but this time around a giraffe carcass along the bank of the Sabi River. As the events were not witnessed the best explanation as to the scenario is as follows. The entire area over the past few months had experienced low rainfall and water became a limited resource. Vital for life and the only water remaining was to be found either in the dry riverbeds of the Sand and the Sabi Rivers. The predators aware of this often took to resting along the river banks, conserving their energy and waiting for the opportune moment to hunt when the prey species eventually came down to the river to drink. In this case a giraffe so happened to wander down to the river seeking to quench its thirst. The scene was set. The giraffe entered to river unaware of the lions and the two Charleston male lions saw an opportunity to take down a substantial meal. Lion hunting giraffe is not a normal occurrence but the two Charleston male lions being large, bold, and strong took the opportunity. Giraffe are very cautious when they come to drink and can spook very easily. The lions would of allowed for this to take place and with the panic the giraffe would of tried to escape the river bed but lost its footing whilst trying to exit the steep embankments of the Sabi River causing it to topple over and allowing the two Charleston males to pin down the neck and begin suffocating it.
This would of been no easy feat and also incredibly dangerous. Giraffes natural defense mechanism against predators is to kick violently at its attacker. If on the ground and neck about to be pinned down the legs would of been kicking frantically until it breathed it very last breath. This is when I personally believe the dark maned male lion from the Charleston coalition was kicked by the giraffe but luckily the hoof just clipped the corner of his jaw. The force behind a giraffes kick is immense and could easily account for the injury sustained to the jaw. Simply shattering the corner of the bottom right jawbone of the dark maned Charleston lion and leaving the bottom right canine hanging down.
This event with the giraffe kill was never witnessed so simply remains my theory. After these possible events, the reports state that the two Fourway’s males were seen moving in the direction of the giraffe carcass. It is believed that the two male lions from the Fourway’s coalition encountered the Charleston coalition on their kill and a fight broke out over the carcass. The fight would have been serious and injuries were sustained on both fronts. It could be said by some that the dark maned Charleston male lion received the damaged jaw and from the fight with the two Fourways male lions. Yet, I state otherwise as it is an injury that is very uncommon and if it was from a bite, or even a blow to the jaw from the paw of one of the Fourways males there would not have been enough force to cause such unique localised damage. This scenario would also have caused far more cuts, open wounds and the presence of scar tissue around the jawline and nose would’ve been evident today.
Taking into account the fierce competition between lions, especially between male lions in the wild together with the information provided as to how the dark maned Charleston male lion possibly received the injury to his bottom jaw; I’d like to voice my opinion on comments that are often made when lions get injured. Please remember this is Africa, and these are wild animals that are fighting for life and death on a daily basis without any interference from man. One of our followers made the following comment: "Why don’t you let the vets decide to dart him, so that they can gently and carefully put the tooth back in place”. “Sure, he will appreciate that, and then be a lot more comfortable and be more aesthetically pleasing?” - Fair commentary and we appreciate the concern for his wellbeing. Yet, the comment at the end infuriated me due to the fact that that these animals are wild and free, in part thanks to tourism, but as wildlife conservationists, veterinarians and rangers we will never intervene in order to fix a "so-called" problem just so that an animal is more aesthetically pleasing to ones eye, and make for a so-called ‘picture perfect’ photograph. As a matter of fact at the time of the incident a highly qualified veterinarian did come and pay a visit to the area and observed the dark maned Charleston male lions injury. After careful observation the vet decided that there was no immediate threat to the lion and that rangers in the area should monitor him for signs of infection. The incredible thing is that these animals are so resilient and since September when the incident took place there have been no signs of infection. He has fully recovered from this naturally occurring injury and as to date carries on as per usual. The only difference now is that the bottom right canine hangs precariously and might possibly fall off in the near future. The last time I viewed him it was hanging on thinner and thinner threads. Even if it doesn’t fall, it will not hinder him in any way. Indeed it must’ve been extremely painful at the time but it has just made him that much stronger and tolerant to a higher pain threshold.
The up-close portrait photograph I took of the dark maned Charleston male lion with the hanging bottom right canine was a few months ago whilst he was still recovering from the injury. I took the photograph shortly after he quenched his thirst from a pool of water not far from the bank of the Sand River on Charleston in MalaMala. Both the Charleston male lions were present at the time and were both nursing full stomachs as together they successfully managed to kill an adult buffalo bull. This in itself also shows the sheer character and strength of these two Charleston male lions; as it is not an easy feat to bring down a large bull. They have an incredible bond and together as a team and are a formidable force.
As it stands today rangers on MalaMala Game Reserve view the two male lions from the Charleston coalition less and less. We understand that they have reached the point in their lives that they need to spread further and further away from the maternal Charleston pride's territory in order to establish themselves and hopefully sire offspring in the near future. It appears that they are in the process of ousting the two male lions from the Fourways coalition. They continue to assert their dominance over the area and seem to spend more and more of their time with the five lionesses of the Southern pride. Yet, reports state that prior to the ‘take-over’ by the Charleston male lions the Fourways males had successfully been mating with the lionesses of the Southern pride. Now as it stands the one lioness from the Southern pride has two young cubs that most likely are the offspring of the Fourways males. Only time will tell. There is always the possibility that the Charleston male lions also successfully mated with the lioness without anyone knowing. However, as it goes with any new take-over by a new dominant coalition of male lions of a pride of females, if any cubs of the predecessors are present the new males will probably kill them. It is a sad and harsh reality. Yet, this is natures way and it ensures that the lionesses shortly come back into oestrus again and then the worthy, stronger genes of the new dominant male lions carries on within the pride. This could take place with the two Charleston male lions in the near future.
To conclude I would like to make reference again to the photograph of the Charleston lion with the hanging bottom right canine. I believe the idiom, “A picture is worth a thousand words” is very apt in encapsulating the entire life story and character of this individual male lion as well as his brother. I chose to take a closeup shot of his face surrounded by his large mane, his confident stare and his drooling mangled bottom right canine. This single still image conveys the intricacies and complexities of life as a male lion in Africa. The photograph shows his unique character, but also tells a story as to the lives and hardships faced by all male lions in their attempt to become King.
I leave this photograph untitled but would like to add the following poem, in a short few lines. It reads as follows;
Once more into the fray,
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live and die on this day.
Live and die on this day.