Desert Lions Turf War written by Armand Grobler and Rhulani Safaris in the southern Kalahari Desert of Botswana.

Tuesday 23 January started off like any other day out here in the Kalahari Desert, with an early morning fresh brewed coffee before setting out on a game drive. Typical blistering temperatures and dense cloud cover meant that the atmosphere felt somewhat like an oven and it was impossible to escape the tension building around me. Little did I know there was another storm brewing in the distance, one that would change this typical day into one of intense savagery.

On the south western side of Botswana where the Kalahari borders South Africa, there has been an impending danger lurking in the shadows, a toxic mixture of youth, power and violence. Three young male lions coming from the South African side have started venturing slowly into the Kij Kij region, where the territory has been majorly vacant due to the absence of the territorial pride males. It was reported that one male had been injured badly and up until the incident hadn’t been seen for several days, while the other male ventured further south, deeper into South Africa following two females away from the core territory.

Another coalition of 4 younger males were also seen moving down from the north (Melkvlei) on collision course with the larger 3 males and a local female known as ‘Super Mum,’ who currently has 3 cubs aged a little over 12 months. This female has defied all odds and kept those young cubs safe from impending danger, despite being harassed by the other pride females, forcing her to occupy to the outskirts of their territory near Kij Kij.

The impending collision was anticipated, and after a few days of running around chasing each other, the day of war dawned.

As the three sub-adult males were walking north from Rooiputs toward Kij Kij, they soon spotted the female with her three young cubs drinking at a local water hole on the Botswana border. They approached with stealth, as a malicious focus filled their eyes, urged on by a surge of uncontrollable power, their target still unaware of the approaching danger.

When she saw them it was too late, all three males charged straight at her and the cubs, attacking her with vicious intent, biting at her backside and clawing at her face. Growls of pain and fury echoed across the Kalahari sands in a titanic battle of dominance and survival. I saw only a glimpse of a male going for a young cub, however as they ran across the dunes I lost all visual of them. I double backed around and to my surprise found 4 younger male lions frightened beyond belief at the scene unfolding before them, taking flight in a northernly direction. They must have been drinking water from the same dam as the female with the 3 cubs, being completely unaware of each other.

I returned to the struggling female, as she put up a brave fight against the males. All 3 of her cubs and a large male were missing however she confronted two of the other males, using her body as a distraction – taking the beating upon herself to save her cubs. Her bravery is commendable and when she saw the third male appear and charge down toward her, she decided to lure them away, fleeing in a north easternly direction across the dunes of Botswana and away from the cubs. Almost instantly the sub adult males started roaring, their thunderous roars filling the vast Kalahari skies in a dramatic display of raw, uncontrollable power.

I could follow no further however approximately 20 minutes later the female appeared, calling softly but desperately for her cubs. Minutes passed with no sign of them until suddenly two young cubs appeared victoriously from across the dunes, running on the ginger feet of fear to the safety of mother’s call. One female was evidently injured with blood running down her back, however her wounds seemed superficial and will likely recover. The second cub looked untouched, however the major concern was over the missing third cub, lost to the dunes.

Hours passed as the mother and her 2 cubs laid under the cover of a camelthorn tree, eagerly waiting for the appearance of their young and sibling. Only time will tell if the youngster has survived the onslaught and if he has in what condition will he be? Will the female confront her volatile family to escape the danger prowling from the norther or will she withstand the ongoing war with the new residence – a force to be reckoned with.

Two days after the attack, the same 3 male lions attacked a female cheetah and her 3 cubs, almost catching a youngster left stranded in confusion. Over the past several days I have also witnessed on 5 occassions one of the male lions going out of his way – sometimes as far as 50+ meters – to turn a tortoise onto its back, leaving it there to bake in the Kalahari sun. Park Rangers have reportedly been assisting the tortoises, however still frequently I find one struggling on its back, surrounded eerily by the tracks of a male lion.

The information and names written in the above story was gathered from several individuals who frequent the park on an annual basis. As my understanding of pride dynamics is limited, I rely heavily on the input of others who follow the activity of the big cats. I would like to thank everyone who helped me understand the scene unfolding, giving me critical information that helped me read the sighting and position the vehicle accordingly. Without your help the images and story wouldn’t be possible.

An update on the missing cub: it is now several days after the attack, and he still hasn’t been found. Although it is too early to determine if the cub was killed, the chance of survival decreases every day that passes. The 3 sub-adult male lions still inhabit the Kij Kij water hole and continue to harass any rivals wanting to quench their thirst.

(UPDATE 29 January: This morning, after 6 days the missing cub was finally seen with his mother and siblings! The young male has no clear injuries, and the female who sustained injuries from the initial attack has also completely recovered. All three cubs were seen playing on the Botswana border close to Rooiputs Lodge while the adult female dozed. A true testament to a mothers love as she protected her cubs with her life.)

Thank you for reading and please get in touch if you have any other information.

Yours Sincerely,

Armand Grobler