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.