September 2023

Survival of the Fittest

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Survival of the Fittest

In an environment like Singita Sabi Sands there have always been the ultimate predators which are lions. Lions are at the top of the predator hierarchy within this area. There is a territorial pride of lions that occupy the majority of the Singita property, and they are known as the Mhangeni Pride. The pride currently consists of five adult females, two adult males, and ten cubs of different ages - from six months to the newest member of two months.

The pride was seen feeding on a buffalo bull with all five females and nine cubs present. Lots of spotted hyena were in the area, as well as a pair of side-striped jackals. The next day we counted only eight cubs - one had gone missing overnight and we thought maybe a hyena took the opportunity of killing it. Spotted hyenas are ranked second in the predator hierarchy in this area, and will kill when it comes to competition over food sources. The next day the lions had moved off from the buffalo kill but we got reports that only seven cubs were now present so another cub had gone missing.

About five days went by and still only seven cubs were seen with all five females, and they had moved about two kilometres from the buffalo kill. The odds were against the cubs and survival on their own would be very rare. If they were lost and seen by another predator i.e. lions, leopards or hyenas they would be killed as they would pose a future threat when they are older and there is competition over food. Most predators compete and will kill young if found.

The pride had been seen steadily moving away from one of the main roads in the reserve. They were about one kilometre away from the main road when we got a call to say that two cubs had been seen moving around where the pride had come from. We were amazed at the fact they had survived six days on their own, but as they still hadn’t reunited with the pride their survival chances were unknown.

A day later we set out on safari to find the pride. We tracked what looked to be just the females that may have been hunting. The tracks went in circles and we were very confused! In due course we found the freshest tracks and the suddenly a loud bark was heard in the distance. We stopped and listened and the bark continued. The sound was a distress call from a kudu. We quickly made our way to the area and found the five female lionesses and one male lion. They were moving with intent in the direct of where we thought they had left the cubs.

They moved into an open area and the females started to contact call. While we waited for the cubs to pop out, we had a call from one of our guides on the radio stating that not far from our position there were two cubs drinking at a dam. Not being sure which cubs those were we waited, and soon after a few contact calls the seven cubs came out of hiding and started greeting their mothers! While this interaction was going on there was a lot of joyous noise from the cubs.

The mothers and cubs started moving and went down into a riverbed and left the male lion lying in the open area. We now realized that the two cubs seen not far from us were the missing two. With all the commotion of the greeting luckily the two cubs heard this and we got reports that they were now running our direction! We sat and waited patiently and soon the cubs came through the bush running for their lives. But then they saw the male lion out in the open and stopped immediately. Not knowing if this male was their father the cubs quickly went in the opposite direction and came towards our vehicles. They looked very stressed and couldn’t hear or see their mothers.

Right next to us the bigger cub yelped very softly but got no response. Soon after the smaller one of the two yelped ten times louder, and I could feel the emotion. Then, sitting listening in silence, these two cubs heard one of the females contact call in the riverbed and they ran as fast as they could in that direction.

We followed the two cubs and luckily got to see them reunite with the mothers and siblings. There was lots of excitement and running around but these two were very hungry they just wanted to suckle from the mothers. Soon after watching them settle down we noticed a new member of the pride that was suckling.

It’s not very often that we get to witness such events but it’s heart-warming and such a relief to know that they are safe and managed to survive seven days without help. They just kept their ears pricked and their noses stuck to the ground sniffing out their mothers and siblings.

Greg Heasman
By Greg Heasman
Field Guide