The Southern Pride – our beloved lion pride, with which we have been lucky enough to share the same environment since our beginning as Lion Sands River Lodge in 2001. It is a long-lived pride, with stories of loss and triumph we can only imagine. But what we do know with certainty is that its lions are resilient and they are fighters.
The Southern Pride is facing a turbulent time. You may remember that the Charleston Males stopped patrolling Lion Sands regularly over a year ago. They essentially abandoned their Southern Pride and its several young cubs, leaving them vulnerable to attacks and takeovers by other males.
Since then, the Southern Pride has kept a low profile. Its lions move discreetly through Lion Sands and our neighbouring properties, venturing quite far to seek asylum. Without the presence of the Charleston Males, and with other male lions, like the Tsalala Males, moving into the area, they are not safe. It’s unfortunate, but deadly confrontations are an inevitable part of a pride’s existence.
Male lions are well known for the practice of infanticide, and coalitions in their prime can only rule for so long before younger and stronger males move in and take over power. Unfortunately for the Southern Pride, confrontations with the Tsalala Males and others have resulted in the deaths of not only its cubs, but also of its adults fighting to defend their young.
The pride appears to be down to just four lions – one adult lioness, one adolescent lioness and two cubs – a bleak number considering that one year ago they were a strong pride of 16 individuals. Seeing them march in unison down the road towards you was a mighty sight. But there is still hope for these lions. In the decades of the pride’s existence, their numbers have grown into the 20s, and have also dwindled to less than five. While it would seem the odds are against their survival, if history is any indication, they may be able to make a comeback.
‘Floppy Ear’ – a battle-scared, fierce and no-nonsense lioness – leads the Southern Pride. She is a mother to countless cubs and has been known, on several occasions, to lure males away from her cubs by coming into a false estrous. I spoke to one of our long-time trackers here, Juice Khoza who remembers Floppy Ear as a young lioness. She has braved an unrelenting war on survival. Despite being feared dead, she emerged on 7 March, seen on safari holding together the remaining members of the pride.
Approximately 18 years old, her survival is truly an impressive feat and, in my opinion, captures one of the things that make the stories of lions so inspirational – their incredible resilience. She is thin and injured now; how did she outlive all of the younger and fitter lionesses? In a fight, she must be ferocious and cunning, with an incredible will to live. Sadly, her time will eventually come but, for now, we are happy to see her as a surviving lioness of their recent decimation.
But what will become of the Southern Pride when Floppy Ear’s time inevitably comes? It’s impossible to imagine that it could be entirely wiped out, since the Southern Sabi Sands has been dominated by this pride for decades. It’s possible that the remaining members could survive on their own (we’ve seen it before with the Charleston Female), or link up with another pride. Or perhaps this will be the end of an era. I certainly hope not. But if I’ve learned anything about lions, it’s that they have a way of surprising us.
Words and photos by: Charlotte Arthun