When we read books about lions, books that have taken months and years to compile using research painstakingly collected over decades, information that is gathered, collated and updated, it is common to read about the life cycle of a lion, their gestation period and other interesting facts about their social structure and daily lives.
When we read these about lions, we are told that on average they will give birth to approximately 2-4 litters throughout their life and seldom more than that. A healthy lioness in her prime will usually have up to 4 cubs in a litter, whilst older lionesses generally have less. Most lion prides often consist of more than one lioness, who are generally related to one another in some way.
It is also well documented that mature enough lionesses in a pride will synchronise their oestrus cycles and therefore birthing periods in order to have cubs simultaneously. In so doing, the rate of survival per litter drastically increases. Interestingly, females in the pride will readily treat all similar-aged cubs as their own. They will even nurse cubs that don't belong to them, just as they would their own.
What you don’t often read about is stories like the one described below.
This story took place a few years ago in the southern parts of the Kalahari desert, on the well renowned Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. This is one of the largest, exclusive wilderness areas in South Africa and is home to resident populations of lions, along with other large and small predators, unique wildlife and diverse birdlife. If you have ever envisioned seeing an elusive pangolin or spending time on foot with a family of meerkats, then Tswalu is the place to visit.
In 2016, one of the resident prides went through some dramatic changes in the overall pride dynamic. Until this point, the pride consisted of 3 adult lioness and their sub-adult cubs. The sub-adults were now o er 2 years of age and were naturally ready to disperse from their natal pride. One of the 3 older lionesses had aged dramatically and made a decision to leave the pride, she vanished into the mountains and wasn't seen again. The remaining 2 lionesses, now roughly 8-10 years old, had mated with resident males and had fallen pregnant with brand new litters. Within the next 3 months, there would be new cubs on the reserve.
Fast forward a few months to September 2016, and the pride now consisted of the 2 remaining adult lioness, who were now new mothers, and their new cubs. Between them, they had given birth to 7 cubs, 4 cubs to one lioness and 3 cubs to the other. The lionesses gave birth within days of each other, the perfect synchronisation of their litters. This would bode well for their survival.
It was a remarkable time on the reserve and I was fortunate enough to be there to witness the tiny cubs in their secluded den, nursing from their mothers. However, we would have to wait patiently for a few weeks before the cubs were old enough to move with the pride daily.
A few months went by and I continued to travel around Africa with guests, hosting various safaris, it would be 4 months before I returned to Tswalu and one of the first things I wanted to do was reconnect with the pride. The cubs would now be almost 7 or 8 months old and naturally, they would be moving with the pride, causing mischief as any normal lion litter would.
But things weren’t as I had expected them to be. Since my last visit, this pride had gone through a traumatic time and one of the adult lionesses had tragically passed away a few weeks prior to my return. The cause of her death was unknown and undoubtedly came as a great loss to the pride and more importantly to the small cubs she left behind.
At the time of her death, her cubs were still young and were certainly unable to fend for themselves. This meant that the last remaining lioness had an important and difficult task. She would need to take on the role of a surrogate mother to the orphaned cubs, in addition to looking after her own litter. She now had seven hungry mouths to feed, without the assistance of other pride members, in this vast, unforgiving wilderness.
Having been away from Tswalu for these few months, I had no idea how this extraordinary lioness and her “double litter” were doing. So when I returned to Tswalu on my next safari, I really wanted to see this unique situation unfolding, I wanted my guests to know how remarkable this scenario was and so we spent many hours searching for the pride. We searched in the mountains and hills and eventually, we managed to find them. The scene that unfolded in front of us that morning is one that I will never forget.
We left camp early that morning before dawn had broken. It was dark and cold but we knew we needed to travel a long way to get to the area where we had seen the last signs of the pride from the evening before. When we arrived at the location of the last tracks, the darkness had broken and the sun was edging over the horizon, we would need to move quickly now. This particular pride enjoyed moving in the early mornings, but as the temperatures rose, they would find a comfortable place to settle for the rest of the day.
Within a few minutes, we were on to fresh tracks, tracks from where the lions had walked that morning and so we followed diligently. It was clear by the sheer volume of tracks that these were tracks of the pride we were after. We tracked them on and off the road, toward a well-known water hole and our suspicions were correct. Surrounding the waterhole were the lions! I had a point of counting the cubs and my tally revealed what I had been hoping for all along, one adult lioness and all 7 cubs! They had all made it this far, much to my delight.
The pride had a quick drink and began to move along the road. The best thing to do in this situation would be to try and stay ahead of them as they approached us along the road. (I had to test my driving skills here and reversed for the next few kilometres as the sighting unfolded).
For over an hour, they continued to walk toward us, like an army of lions. The cubs jumping, playing, stalking and chasing, their mother, focussed on the task at hand.
For the lioness, there was little time to play. When moving with these cubs, she needed to be vigilant and alert to any danger that may surprise them. She did not have comfort knowing that other pride members could step in to help take off some of the load. She was alone, raising 7 hungry cubs. Some would say she was a super mom!
This was the first time I had experienced something so unique and to look back at these images and video footage brings so much joy to me.
Life in the wild is nothing if not unpredictable, one can never say for certain what will happen tomorrow. The mother of seven would have faced many challenges along her journey and her cubs would also be exposed to many hardships. I truly hope that the resolve, strength and effort this lioness showed is rewarded with all 7 surviving to adulthood and them passing their genes on to the next generation.
Go and watch this story unfold in the below video:
Until our next Escape.