By Sara Gardiner
Born into a dusty barren world, where the colour green did not exist. Their mother was part of a large pride of lions (about 10 or so). In those first months, she kept them safe, within a forested area on a steep hill, while the rest of the pride roamed to hunt. With just two of them, she was not willing to risk anything. In those first weeks, we caught glimpses of this lioness with her two young lion cubs on Matetsi Private Game Reserve and kept a respectful distance. When they were a little older, she brought them down to December Pan to drink and roam across the dried-out earth. Occasionally, the pride would connect with them and their father seemed quite proud of his two little ones. We continued to see this pride, often with the cubs and their mother from September through to November/ December.
When the first rains set in and the vegetation started to thicken, it seems the pride split off to different areas, most likely intending to give them all a better chance of survival. The mother and her cubs remained relatively close to camp and were even seen on one occasion in mid-January hunting baboons near the lodge area. Over the first few months of this year, the lioness and her cubs were sighted only very rarely with the pride, and it seems they were left completely. The condition of the cubs started to deteriorate, and it was clear that the mother was struggling to hunt by herself to feed her young ones. March was awful, we stopped seeing the mother, her cubs became skeletal and they were always seen by themselves. Something must have happened to the mother, though we have never been able to confirm what it might have been. We speculated that maybe she died from a snare, crocodile attack, or buffalo defense because she would not have left them.
We kept seeing the two lion cubs around Namakana and Kudu Alley areas, their condition was not good, and it was clear that they were not getting food. Although this was heartbreaking, Matetsi Private Game Reserve is a true wilderness area, and we do not interfere with nature, and so we do not feed animals in the wilderness under any circumstances, even such dire ones as these. In early April there was a sign of hope, a male lion (with a distinctive dark mane) on a buffalo kill was joined by the two emaciated lion cubs. The large male showed obvious strong paternal instincts toward the little ones. Under the guard of their father, who kept them safe from hyenas, the cubs remained on the kill for three days, feeding up and enjoying their fill. However, the cubs were alone again.
Ophious our senior guide recounts, “We saw them trying to ambush some impalas in an open space but not knowing where and when to start, unfortunately, the hunting technique is not known at all, as they were out of cover completely, still too young to know the meaning of cover.” Their condition started to worsen again, and they looked so frail. In mid-April we all breathed a sigh of relief, the dark maned lion and his whole pride reunited with the cubs and the cubs were seen feeding on a baboon carcass. Over the next few days, from a very respectful distance, we observed that the pride accepted the cubs and bonded with them. The lionesses were seen demonstrating their protective instinct over the youngsters and they appeared to be in good hands with their new family. Now, with a good source of food, these cubs can grow into a strong pair of fighters. Even after a couple of days with the pride, they looked much healthier than when they were spotted on the buffalo kill. “How they survived for so long without a mom, exposed to all the leopard and hyena lurking around. They are going to be a tough pair.”
Thank you to the Matetsi Victoria Falls guiding and conservation teams, as well as our guests, for their insights and photos with which we have been able to tell the story!