Long Live The King

The Pilansburg National Park may not be the Kruger, but it is indeed a very special place that can yield some fantastic wildlife sightings. Unfortunately due to its relatively small size, these sightings are often crowded with cars packed with noisy and ignorant people. Although we had many a sighting like this, this time the gods of the bush blessed us with a personal and eerie experience.

Coming over a rise along a riverine the wind picked up, the sun disappeared behind the grey, and a chill blew through the car. Perhaps coincidence or perhaps I may be correct, but the bush in general appears to have emotion, and the occurrences in an area can create a unique atmosphere that may not have existed a kilometre before. The air tightened ominously…

Out stepped a very large and weathered lion. He strode across the road into the wind, paused, raised his head and sucked in the scent it carried. His skin hung slightly on his bulk as he stood at attention.  In the distance the roars of another could be heard, unperturbed by this, he strode on seemingly finding purpose within the wind.

A wild lion’s life is a tough journey, captive lions can live up to 20 years, while wild male lions rarely make it past a decade. Our male was clearly at the end of his career. His face was scarred and had clear disfigurations that were probably the result of many deadly encounters with rival males. His teeth were nothing more than discolored mounds protruding from a jaw that hung open. The teeth were the most notable characteristic of his age.

This magnificent creature was likely once the ruler of this area, commander of his pride, chief of his harem, and father to many, who had lost his kingdom and was now reduced to a skulking scavenger, a nomad.

The air remained tense and roars continued to echo through the valley. The lion continued into the wind, his demeanor changed, attempting to be inconspicuous.  The wind brought the lion purpose; he headed up the hill, only pausing perhaps to ensure his isolation. We followed as he moved through the tall grass, occasionally he would turn his large head to look at us through his eye, his gaze piercing through the bubble of safety created by the car reduced me to a feeble naked monkey.

Throughout Africa stories are told of man eating lions, and even today confrontations with such lions exist. Old, sick, and injured lions are more prone to this behavior, tooth decay being noted as a primary motivator; however some lion populations have realized what easy prey we are. Human Populations of south Tanzania as well as refugees making the journey from Mozambique to South Africa via the Kruger are often mauled and killed by lions. Villages in Tanzania are raided by lions that will drag villages from their refuge in the dark of the night. The most famous man eaters are probably the Tsavo lions; 28 officially recorded railway workers building the Kenya-Uganda Railway were taken by lions over nine months during the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya in 1898. The movie “Ghosts in the darkness” will haunt many a 90’s child.

He trudged on, arriving at a thicket, with trepidation he moved in slightly. By now he had walked quite a distance and had been heading in the direction of the roars. Despite the danger of being caught by the younger ruler he had pushed on, and never once deviated from his course. We pulled up on the side of the thicket, with the lion now stealthily moving towards us. The lion panted, his trek of several kilometers had taken its toll. In the middle of the thicket was a tree, taller than the entangled bush below. The lion fixed his gaze in the tree. On his left a pilot fish had arrived, the jackal was smaller in stature, but a giant in vitality as he raced around the king.

In the tree the decomposing remains of an impala ram were lodged in a nook in the trunk, presumably by a leopard. The impala was nothing more than a set of horns attached to aged skin and bones. The lion lifted his heavy head and yanked the carcass out of the tree. Flies filled the air, the lion held his head high and shook the impala… Its innards fell to the ground. With not much to his reward the lion inspected the foliage filled bag. Once a King, he was now rummaging through the trash of a leopard, a leopard who lives in the darkness and hoists its kill in trees to avoid the might of a lion.

He lifted the carcass, gave us a final glance, and dragged it off into the thicket…

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