One of the most wonderful parts of my job is being able to watch animals as they grow and develop. I have been with Garonga for just over 2 years now and over that time I have watched the Garonga pride: add four brand new members to its ranks; seen the younger pride members develop and hone their hunting skills; journeyed with the youngest female as she fell pregnant, gave birth to her first litter of cubs and raised them through their critical first year; but most importantly I have watched as the cubs developed personalities of their own. I have watched as the pride has grown and built their strength to arrive at the point today when they are the strongest they have been for many years, and I want to share some highlights from that journey with you.
When I first started at the lodge the Garonga Pride consisted of three adult females: a grandmother; a mother; and a daughter. The middle female (the mother) had two very young cubs, just over two months old. The pride was protected by a coalition of two dominant males who were both born into the same pride but were about eighteen months apart in age, we know them as Kalahari Junior and Zamula, with Zamula being the younger of the two. The dominant males were strong, proud and impossible to challenge.
When I first started at Garonga the cubs were just old enough to be moved short distances by the pride. They were curious, playful, and confident. A lot of their time was spent finding something unusual to chew on, jumping on the adults in the pride and plotting their next surprise attack. The adults were incredibly patient with the cubs, including the dominant males. One memorable sighting involved the pride successfully hunting a young giraffe and the dominant males refusing to let the females eat until the cubs had arrived and had their fill – Kalahari even used the carcass as a pillow whilst he waited, making sure there would be food left for the cubs! The cubs were the stars of the show and boy did they know it!
The Garonga Pride’s cubs mid-2018 stars of the show and the heart of the pride. ©Sophie Barrett
In early July 2018 we had a nasty scare – we had found two dead lion cubs and we weren’t sure which pride they had come from, was it our two cubs that were lost or were they from a rival pride? (Follow the full heart-pounding story here). This question burned within the team as, after finding the cubs, the Garonga pride went to ground and we didn’t see so much as a whisker of them for 3 days. Needless to say this grated on our nerves so much that we had to go and track them down! Tracking lions has always been a favourite hobby of mine. It tends to be more straightforward than tracking leopards and there is something indescribably thrilling about seeing lions on foot. Initially we found the females but there was no trace of the cubs around, so we turned my favourite hobby on its head and followed the female tracks in reverse to see if they had hidden the cubs somewhere safe. To our delight we found them safe and well, patiently waiting for the rest of the family to come back to them!
As the months went by the cubs grew bolder. One afternoon we even saw them trying to stalk a fully grown giraffe. They were incredibly playful and especially loved anything they could climb! We noticed that the youngest adult female in the pride had developed a fairly short temper whenever the cubs wanted to play with her and she had begun to look distinctly swollen. There was only one conclusion – she had to be pregnant with her first ever litter of cubs! In September we had a wonderful, wonderful surprise. The youngest female had given birth, in the early days we saw three tiny cubs. We even got to watch when she moved them from their initial den-site into a more protected one. In nature life is full of ups and downs, and sadly one of her cubs didn’t survive the first few weeks. The mortality rate amongst lion cubs in the wild is incredibly high with about 50% of cubs dying in their first year; interestingly it is estimated that for every cub that survives to be a year old lions will have copulated about 3,000 times!
Incredible photos of the lioness, a first time mother, moving her cubs – only a few days old – to a new den site! Photos by past guest Doris Braun.
It was fascinating to see how the older cubs adjusted to the new additions in the family. At first they seemed unimpressed, they had been thoroughly upstaged by their tiny relations but gradually a truce was formed. The older cubs continued to build upon their playful personalities and their antics made sure to keep the guests attention on them too. In October 2018 we watched as the youngest cubs were brought to their first ever carcass. The youngsters were puzzled by it to begin with and far more excited to be out of the den site and able to play freely but eventually their mother convinced them to examine the carcass and, at about five weeks old, they tasted meat for the first time. Soon all four cubs were getting along famously, the younger two were seldom seen far from the older pair and we are sure they must have been sharing tricks on how best to entertain our guests.
The September cubs are brought to their first ever carcass, after much cajoling from their mother they come to see what all the fuss is about, meanwhile the older cubs are seeing, optimistically, whether they can catch food of their own! ©Sophie Barrett
The limelight for the younger two wasn’t to last for long however, in November 2018 the pride spoilt us yet again. One afternoon in early November we tracked the pride and, when we found them, we saw not four cubs but SIX! It is amazing how quickly you reconsider what a “small” cub is! The cubs must have been a couple of days old at most. We held our breaths and sat and watched as their mother, the oldest female in the pride, suckled the cubs, washed them and then carried them right past us and into the setting sun.
Truly magical moments as the eldest female in the pride cares for her newborn cubs and carries them past us into the sunset – the pride is now complete! ©Sophie Barrett
The first year is critical for lion cubs so, as the months went by, we watched the pride. Lions are highly social animals and if there are any cubs that need to be suckled they can go to any female in the pride who is lactating. This behaviour is known as allosuckling and helps to strengthen the bonds between different members of the pride. Pretty soon all six cubs were inseparable. When we sat with the pride, almost any direction we looked we would see cubs being suckled or playing with one another. All too quickly they were growing up. We would find the adults had left the cubs behind whilst they went to hunt and the cubs were no longer hiding, and waiting for their mothers to return, but exploring. One memorable morning they found a mound of dirt we had dug out of the bottom of one of the dams in order to help it keep its water for longer. This proved to be the best toy the cubs had found so far. With one cub running along the top of the mound, little avalanches would be caused and the rest of the cubs chased around madly trying to catch the sliding sand!
Changing from little to large! Some highlights of the cubs as they grew over the years. ©Sophie Barrett
Before we knew it the young male cubs had started to develop their beards – this is the first stage of growing a mane and a sign that our cubs were turning into the lion equivalent of teenagers, and all too soon they would flee the nest. In October 2019 we found the three young males separated from the pride for the first time. Male lions are usually pushed out of their birth pride around two and a half to three years old. Our cubs had another year or even eighteen months to go to reach that mark and the eldest cub spent most of the sighting calling dejectedly for the rest of the pride, whilst the younger two seemed to revel in their new-found freedom. However, it was a reminder that the Garonga Pride won’t always look as they do now. As time goes on the females may even feel grateful that their sons will leave.
We are seeing the young males are starting to behave more and more like their fathers, they are fighting more aggressively for larger shares of the pride’s kills and with a pride that now numbers eleven that can mean little or no reward from successful hunts for some members of the pride. Happily when the young males do leave the pride they will almost certainly stay together, the bonds they have formed in these early years will last them a lifetime. As we move further into the winter the lions’ dominance in the reserve only increases. It becomes harder for the antelope to find enough food and as they lose condition it becomes easier for the lions to catch them so, at least for now, the pride is secure and a force to be reckoned with. We know, however, that change is coming, the dominant male coalition is being challenged more and more regularly by a coalition of two younger males and it is only a matter of time before they too are forced to leave the pride. The kings are reluctant to give up their thrones for now but a sighting with a dominant male holding his head high as he limps past the game viewer is becoming more and more common. When the new males eventually take over we may well be rewarded with more cubs! It is a privilege and a joy to watch these animals as they grow and to sit alongside the pride as they go through their natural fluctuations. Spending so much time with them allows their personalities to shine through and the changes the pride goes through means every sighting is unique and to be treasured. One thing is certain, the Garonga Pride has a special place in the hearts of both guides and guests at the lodge and we hope to enjoy their adventures together for many years to come!
The Garonga Pride, a force to be reckoned with. Enjoy this slideshow of the pride over recent months as the males have started to grow in their manes and meal times have turned into every lion for themselves! ©Sophie Barrett