A Morning in the Life of the Tembe Lions

28 May 2019 |

There are some days, working as a Wildlife ACT volunteer, where you can search in vain for an animal – sometimes not even finding radio signal for those with tracking collars. And then there are times when everything can change in a second and an incredible story unfolds right in front of your eyes. The following was one of those times at Tembe Elephant Park.

As we rounded a bend into an open area of wetland, we suddenly came upon a known, but uncollared female lioness with her three yearling cubs. We’ve observed this small but wonderful family on a few occasions and witnessed the lioness clearly teaching her cubs to hunt and kill their prey. This morning the cubs’ focus seemed more on play, with social head-rubbing and licking, and relaxation. These little Tembe Lions are curious and suitably aware of us and our vehicle, but brave enough to play-fight, yawn and lay down together in relaxed companionship on the road in front of us.

The Male Tembe Lions Appear… 

Their mother was vocalising – likely calling to another lioness with whom she has a strong social bond. We heard a response, and as she prowled a little further down the track, one of the cubs suddenly sat up to attention, peering intently beyond the corner in front of us. Then all three cubs leaped up and bolted past our vehicle! Thinking it might be an approaching Buffalo that had disturbed them, to our joy appeared two collared male Lions (five-year-old brothers) moving towards the cubs’ mother. We had been scanning for these males for several days, and although we had found signal on several occasions, we had yet to sight them.

Male Tembe Lions Fighting. Photo by Rene Verhaar
Male Tembe Lions Fighting. Photos by Rene Verhaar

The lioness turned and rapidly moved towards the lead male as the cubs raced in the opposite direction and into the bush behind us. The lioness intercepted the first male, and as he followed her into the bush, the second male rushed forward and a fight for dominance broke out for the right to mate with the next available female.

Male Tembe Lions Fighting. Photo by Rene Verhaar

In amongst the commotion, the sounds of the roars and growls of the male Tembe Lions vibrated through every cell in our bodies. It’s an indescribable sound. They rolled over and over – crashing through the bush for at least ten minutes, whilst the uninterested lioness left them to check on her cubs hiding nearby. Finally, one male reappeared from the undergrowth – face bloodied and with a slightly bleeding front leg, but essentially uninjured. The second male followed shortly – clearly the victor with a bloodied face but no other identifiable marks on him.

The intricacies of Lion lives are complicated, but it’s unlikely that these males would fight to the death or harm the cubs, particularly as one of the males is indeed their father.

Tembe Elephant Park is wild country. It’s a truly unique 30,000 hectare reserve situated in the sand-veld ecological zone and consisting mostly of closed woodland, secondary thicket formation and an extensive wetland system. Given its sheer size and the fact that this lioness and her cubs are uncollared and can’t be tracked with telemetry equipment, we were incredibly lucky and privileged to happen upon this magnificent spectacle of wildlife, living as it should, and protected by the dedicated monitors at Wildlife ACT and the superb team at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. This was an experience that none of us will ever forget and I cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone that is interested in the natural world around us and sees beyond the constricts of our human-focused ways of life.

The Wildlife ACT monitoring team at Tembe collects valuable data on Lion movement patterns, behaviour and general conditions and is part of a bigger team within the reserve. Within this team they provide a supporting role under the supervision and guidance of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. This partnership helps to conserve priority species such as Lions to enhance their chances of survival in the foreseeable future. The information that is gathered through the monitoring sessions helps Ezemvelo make informed decisions to effectively manage animals in game reserves such as Tembe.

Text by Wildlife ACT Volunteer Rowena Hawksley