While in recent years lion numbers have plummeted throughout Africa, the lion populations in South Africa’s Greater Kruger have done relatively well. The sizable open system available to them has created the perfect backdrop to allow for their fortunes and catastrophes to play out mostly undisturbed by anthropogenic influence. Lion coalitions and prides have come and gone, and some have achieved celebrity status.
Throughout the years, these lion coalitions and prides have been named by the assorted guides, trackers and researchers that have spent time with them. Most of these names are in some way a reference to the area associated with the pride or the territorial region of the males, but some extend to slightly more imaginative references. Given the tendency of humans to name things this is hardly surprising, but less expected was how social media has created fans across the globe who follow, research and adore certain lion coalitions and prides, most often from afar.
Here are just a handful of examples of these lion celebrities – some living, some legend and some teetering on the edge of survival.
Mapogo Male Lions
No article on famous lions would be complete without mentioning one of the most famous lion coalitions of all time (certainly in South Africa). Born to the Sparta/Eyrefield pride of the Sabi Sands around 2001/2, the Mapogo male lions, six individuals in total, have become something of a legend to the point of inspiring their own movie – Brothers in Blood. Named after a security company known for using somewhat brutal methods, the Mapogo boys: Makhulu, Rasta, Pretty Boy, Kinky Tail and Satan/Mr T, began their reign of terror in 2006 as they set out to claim domination over a massive portion of land on the western edges of the Greater Kruger.
Like all legends, the lines between fact and fiction have blurred over time. Tales of their brutality have been exaggerated by many, but they were known to have killed at least 40 (if not more) other lions, including females and cubs.
Their fortunes changed in 2010 when the first of the coalition was killed and, though they stayed dominant, their territory diminished until the oldest remaining members of the coalition were inevitably pushed out by younger, stronger lions in 2012. The last remaining individual was seen in 2013.
The Southern Matimba Male Lions
Initially a coalition of six male lions, the Matimba males ruled over the Manyeleti Game Reserve and surrounding areas in 2010 before splitting into two groups after the death of the oldest coalition member. The Southern Matimba coalition consisted of two individuals named Hairy-Belly and Ginger that initially established themselves in the southern portion of the Sabi Sands.
Quite apart from their extraordinary good looks, these two consummate survivors were exceptionally good at knowing when to fight and when to back down. As they aged, and whenever they found themselves outmatched, they shifted territories and set up in a different section of the Sabi Sands, somehow always managing to find themselves an area with limited competition. Ginger died in 2019 after contracting a severe mange infestation, but Hairy Belly continues to patrol his territory and mate, despite his advanced age.
The Ximhungwe Pride
The story of the Ximhungwe pride is a perfect example of how the fate of a lion pride can be inexorably linked to the changes in male lion dynamics. Initially the Castleton pride, their numbers boomed in 2006, and the pride numbered over 20 at one stage. The arrival of the Mapogos spelt disaster for this once massive pride – their numbers were decimated, and a combination of disease, bad luck and bad timing meant that the pride never managed to recover.
In 2015, the last adult lioness was killed in a clash with a rival lion pride, leaving behind young lions barely old enough to survive on their own. Two of these young lionesses survived by remaining as secretive as possible for years before finally managing to establish themselves in Manyeleti where they remain around Dixie Dam, far from their natal home range.
The Styx Pride
Named after the Styx River of ancient Egyptian mythology due to their efficiency in dispatching prey to the afterlife, the Styx Pride have been consummate survivors despite facing considerable challenges. Chronic mange infestation has claimed the lives of many of their cubs and worsens every dry season. With the death of their oldest and most experienced pride member in 2019, and with new males posing a threat to their cubs, the pride became nomadic before finally seeming to settle (for now) around the Sand River towards the western edge of the Sabi Sands.
The Birmingham Pride
The Birmingham Pride currently roams the Ngala Private Game Reserve and Timbavati regions under the watchful eye of the Ross Male. This impressive and successful pride of 14 currently has two of the three wild white (leucistic) lions in the world – a young male of 18 months and a little female not quite a year old. Their arrival caused a buzz of excitement but, like all wild lion cubs, their survival depends upon the care and skill of the pride, the continued dominance of the Ross male and no small amount of luck.
Leucistic coloration is a rare recessive trait and not a separate species or sub-species. With only one exception, the Timbavati region is the home of the white lion gene pool, and it seems to flow strongly through the Birmingham Pride female line.
The Orpen Males
Junior and his coalition mate are perfect examples of how male lions are not necessarily particularly fussy when it comes to choosing coalition mates. More often than not, lion coalitions are formed when young male lions from the same pride – siblings and cousins – move away from their natal prides together. But this is not always possible. In Junior’s case, he was the only young male within his natal pride, when the Birmingham Males moved into the area and eventually forced him out.
During his nomadic wanderings, he encountered another young male, and the two found solace and support in each other. They are now the dominant males of a prime section of territory in Manyeleti Private Game Reserve and the Kruger National Park.
This is just a snapshot of some of the intricacies of lion coalitions and prides in the Greater Kruger. Unbeknownst to them, these lions have their own social media pages – with each individual’s photographs, movements and lineages documented with care and precision. This comprehensive, if somewhat piecemeal, record of their lives may not be good research material, but it certainly is a massive repository of information about the meta-dynamics of lions within the Greater Kruger.
Animals communicate in a variety of ways but the most obvious of these, to humans at least, is their body language. Anyone can learn to read the body language of animals to differing degrees – we spend our lives figuring out the complexities of human communication and animals are far less equivocal than human beings. With their complex social structure and high intelligence, not to mention their potential danger to humans, elephants are an excellent place to start. A little practice and some observational skills are all that’s needed to understand the basics. In turn, this understanding can add immeasurably to the enjoyment of an elephant sighting or ensure comfort for elephants and those viewing them.
Where to start
Are you looking at a breeding herd or a male or a group of males? This is important because different things can motivate bulls and cows. The older females of a breeding herd are the ones that will dictate what the herd does and how they respond to something, and their sole objective is to ensure the safety of their herd. The younger elephants can be playful, insecure or looking to establish their boundaries, so their signals are often misleading, meaning that it’s always a good idea to gauge the mood of the larger females first. The intentions of males can be harder to read or understand. The younger males that have left the security of their herds at puberty are often quite nervous, and this either translates into either moving away or attempting to intimidate a potential threat. Older males are the undisputed kings of all that they survey and should be treated as such – don’t block their routes or antagonise them, and most will behave like perfect gentlemen.
Believe it or not, the tail is the real key to reading elephant body language. Elephants are intelligent and often display what’s known as displacement behaviour – they sometimes pretend to feed, for example, while they figure out their next move in an uncomfortable situation. Their tail, however, gives them away. The tail of a relaxed elephant swings from side to side; the tail of an alert or uncomfortable elephant is held still, pointing downwards; and the tail of an upset, frightened or angry elephant is held out stiffly at right angles from the body.
An elephant that is flapping its ears isn’t angry, it’s hot and trying to cool down. They use wind cooling over the surface of their ears to lower the temperature of the blood and ultimately, their core body temperature. If an elephant is unsettled by something, they will raise their heads and spread their ears in an attempt to show off how large they are (this is mostly unnecessary, as anyone who has been close to an elephant will tell you). A headshake often accompanies this.
This is often something that older cows do close to vehicles and is their way of telling you not to try anything silly. You, in turn, can communicate your good intentions by staying still and quiet. If this movement from a female is accompanied by a few short running steps in your direction, it’s time for you to move off if you can – again calmly and as slowly as possible.
This complicated body part so unique to elephants often displays the nuances of elephant body language. An elephant uses its trunk for everything from eating and drinking to smelling and touching so it is continuously moving and interpreting its meaning can be quite complicated. A good general approach is that if the movement is focused – feeding, for example, then the elephant is relaxed. If the elephant is standing still with the trunk raised and curled with the tip pointing in a specific direction, the elephant has picked up on a particular scent and is working out what it is and what direction it is coming from. If the elephant is standing still with the trunk down and the tip twisting from side to side, this can mean that something has caught the elephant’s attention and it is deciding what to do next. A twisting trunk can be a sign of anxiety.
Bull elephants, particularly those in musth (see below), sometimes drape their trunks over their tusks. This is almost always an attempt at intimidation and should be interpreted as such – those new to elephant behaviour should take this as a sign to move out of the male’s way.
Feet and general body language
Elephants use their feet constantly to dig up roots or kick up dirt or dust, so an elephant kicking the ground repeatedly is no cause for concern. Elephants are constantly moving so any stillness (unless they are resting with sleeping youngsters) is a sign that something is amiss or that they are listening intently – either to other elephants or something else. Rocking from side to side can also be a sign of indecision or anxiety.
Musth bulls are deserving of their own section based on the fact that they can be more unpredictable and occasionally more aggressive while in this state. All mature bulls experience musth cycles where their testosterone levels skyrocket to around 60 times the normal levels. They secrete liquid from their temporal glands (see below) and that, combined with a constant urine drip that coats their legs, gives them a distinctive musky odour. Musth bulls hold their heads high with the ears above the level of the shoulders and walk with a self-assured swagger.
Elephants have glands between their eyes and ears (the temporal region) that secrete an oily substance containing hormones and other substances. Often these secretions go into overdrive when the elephant is nervous, stressed or excited, although interpreting the reasons behind this can often be quite tricky.
Final word and disclaimer
Elephants are complex creatures, and it is impossible to apply any rules with absolute certainty. Discretion is always the better part of valour where elephants are concerned, and they should never be taken for granted – if you are uncomfortable with a situation, move away slowly and calmly. This guide is intended to assist beginners in reading an elephant, rather than encourage a sense of overconfidence. All wild animals should be treated with respect and elephants are no exception.
The 3rd March is World Wildlife Day – an opportunity to celebrate the many beautiful and varied forms of wild fauna and flora across Africa and throughout the rest of the world.
World Wildlife Day was proclaimed by the United Nations on the 20th December 2013. It falls on the 3rd of March, the same day where back in 1973, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was founded. World Wildlife Day is a day to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants and the multitude of benefits that their conservation provides to people.
To celebrate this day, Southern Camp Ranger Mike Brown shared a few of his personal wildlife photographs taken on Kapama Private Game Reserve in 2019.
Comment on your favorite photo!
Photos by Southern Camp Ranger – Mike Brown