Ten Young Lions: 24 Extraordinary Hours at Qorokwe



Dr Christiaan Winterbach


4 June: It is first light; it is cold and we are approaching Sunset Pan at Qorokwe. Something is moving in the grass. It is a lion. Make that ten lions. It is the first time that we have seen this group of young lions since February. It is a very unusual group of lions. They all are between two and three years old. There are no adult lions with them.

We move with them as the sun starts rising. They still have blood and muck on them from their last kill. They are very playful and blow little white patches of steam into the crisp winter air. At a small pan they drink water and warm up in the early sun. They make a half-hearted attempt to chase some warthogs before settling down for the day.

We return in the afternoon, hoping to stay with them and see a hunt. A bit after 5 pm the lions wake up, play and groom a bit, before setting off in the direction of a big pan.

One lion spots a lone buffalo bull and goes into hunting mode. We find a point on the opposite side overlooking the pan and out of the way.

The buffalo is about 200 metres away in scrub mopane. The lions move in formation towards the buffalo. The buffalo gets wind of the lions and takes off with ten lions chasing and trying to jump on the buffalo’s back. After a left turn the buffalo runs around the pan in the direction of our vehicle. One young male catches up and manages to make the leap onto its back. Our shutters are working overtime.

With a rodeo jump the buffalo sends the lion crashing. It looks like they are going to pass in front of us along the edge of the pan. A sharp turn and the buffalo is almost running in a line to pass behind us. Another lion is on its back, and is filling my frame at an alarming rate. With only a lion head in the shot, I lower the camera.

Twenty metres further on the lions surround the buffalo. None of the lions manages to remain on the buffalo. The buffalo chases the lions in all directions and makes a break. He stops about ten metres in front of our position. The lions are too quick for him to get.

The lions regroup, but the buffalo is now taking the initiative. He pursues the lions and chases them around. The young lions are learning valuable lessons, and one day they will make their first buffalo kill, but not today.

After all this, the young lions do not even manage to break the skin of the buffalo – there is not a drop of blood visible on him. He is bruised, but not as much as the pride’s ‘egos’. When we leave, they are still playing ‘chess’ with the buffalo, but soon decide to leave them alone.

The next morning, we find them about two kilometres away on the remains of a big kudu bull. They are about to receive another lesson in lion life. They have drifted to the edge of their natal pride territory. One of the neighbouring pride males picks up on their activity. He bursts onto the scene and ten young lions scatter for their lives. About 500 metres away the big male corners one of the young ones in an open area. We witness a proper display of dominant and submissive behaviour. The rest scatter in all directions. After the big male moves off, the young ones start to find each other. They have survived two big lessons in 24 hours.

11 June: Alarm calls of the wattled cranes in front of my room pique my attention. Turns out that our ten lions have come to visit us this morning. All ten are together. Three lechwes are nervously looking at the lions. One lioness makes an attempt to approach them, but they make an early escape. Slowly they make their way and take position next to Tent 9. They have a beautiful view of the main area at Qorokwe, and a buffalo bull grazing there. Eventually they sneak up on it. They charge and the buffalo bursts through some thick palm bushes, leaving the lions behind.

These lions will keep trying and one day they will succeed. For the rest of the day the lions enjoy the hospitality of Qorokwe, relaxing in the shade.

Written by Dr Christiaan Winterbach

Dr Christiaan Winterbach is an ecologist assisting with environmental monitoring at Qorokwe. He has more than 20 years’ experience in Botswana, specialising in carnivore surveys. He is quick to seize any opportunity to photograph lions.

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