If you were fortunate to visit us between September 2019 and March 2020 and sight 2 young lion cubs, this is their story.
They were born into a dusty barren world, where the colour green didn’t 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 wasn’t risking anything.
In those first weeks, we caught glimpses of this lioness with her cubs, 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. Their father seemed quite proud of his two little ones. And mother and cubs were very relaxed when we would come across them.
Excerpts from our Guides’ and Guests’ Sightings Reports
14 September: Lioness with cubs at Katombora West
15 September: Lioness with 2 cubs at December Pan
Insights from Ophious: “It’s all about nature, just amazing to see this pride growing. We saw 7 animals together including this big male. They are now heading towards the water hole where we saw 1 lioness with 2 cubs aged about a month old, it’ll be another “Get Together” of this pride, as the new members will be introduced to the pride.”
16 September: 8 lions + 2 tiny lions cubs at Namakana Pan.
Sangweni took a lovely video of the cubs” “It’s playtime for cubs. The lioness with cubs has recently introduced the new pair to the pride. The bond is instant and strong, the older cubs seem to be jealous of the new ones as they frequently smack the smaller ones during playtime (not captured on video).” [click to play]
Early Oct: Guests Laura and Eric photographed this beautiful moment of mother and cubs drinking. Many thanks to them for sharing this image with us.
Meanwhile, Crawford captured this incredible image of the father. “While this male lion was drinking from December Pan on Matetsi Private Game Reserve, this awesome golden hour light embraced him and cast a stunning reflection in the water, making for the perfect picture moment. He’s the alpha male of a pride of 11 that has 2 small cubs (around 2 months old), and we suspect he appreciated this moment of calm and serenity just as much as we did.”
We continued to see this pride, often with the cubs and their mother from September through to November/December. The pride was very relaxed. When the first rains set in and the vegetation started to thicken, it seems the pride split off to different areas, most likely with the intention of giving 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 the year, the lioness and her cubs were sighted only very rarely with the pride. And then 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 and her cubs became skeletal. The cubs seemed to have lost their mother, 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. She wouldn’t 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 by feeding, 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 3 days, feeding up and enjoying their fill.
The Buffalo – a field report from the conservation crew
“In early April, a big crocodile that is living in the seasonal stream that flows under the Grace Bridge at Matetsi Victoria Falls attacked a buffalo that was drinking at the water’s edge. The buffalo managed to escape, and the team confirmed the truth in what people say about wounded buffalos… they are very grumpy indeed!
The next day, the guides picked up the tracks of the wounded buffalo, which, unfortunately for him, showed the tracks of both a lion and some hyena following close behind.
The following morning, a large male lion was found on a buffalo kill (thought to be the same unfortunate creature), with vulture perched in surrounding trees waiting for their turn to feast…”
However, after that the cubs were alone again. Ophious 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.
Then, in mid-April we all breathed a sigh of relief. The dark maned lion and his whole pride reunited with the cubs. The cubs were seen feeding on a baboon carcass.
Over the course of the next fews 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, appeared to be in good hands with their new family.
Now, with a good source of food, these cubs have the possibility to 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, with all the leopard and hyena around, boggles the mind. They going to be a tough pair.”
27 April: tracks of buffalo being followed by lion just past Namaqua Pan, heading south toward Westwood Vlei. Evidence of 2 small cubs in the pride. And a large pile of lion droppings – evidence that the pride had eaten within the last few days – most likely another buffalo.
Thank you to Ophious, Sangweni, Praise, Decent, Crawford, Simba (and other members of the Guiding team) as well as Jono and Ian for their insights, photos and videos. As well as guests and colleagues for additional photo and video content. As this story has been pieced together from sightings reports and recalled moments, it may not be 100% accurate – but we wanted to share it with you as we feel it reflects not only the harsh realities of nature at times, but also encourages us to always have hope.