We first suspected that our resident lion pride’s next generation of cubs would be on the way about six months ago, when one of the adult lionesses was seen mating on numerous occasions. Her male cub was coming into his independence and she, having gone back into estrous, began nudging him out of the pride. Female lions will eventually kick male lions out of the pride to eliminate the possibility of inbreeding and unwanted confrontations with the pride’s dominant males.
After some time, we noticed that the lioness was getting heavier and heavier. She was clearly pregnant. When a female lion is ready to give birth, she will move away from the pride and find a den where she can do so in private, for the protection of the babies. Baby lions are very vulnerable to other predators, like leopards and hyenas. We suspect that she gave birth about two to three months ago, keeping her cubs well hidden in the meantime.
My first encounter with the new lion cubs and their mother was during a morning game drive. It was overcast, fairly cool, and we had only seen a few species thus far. Our team of trackers, who go out every morning, primarily in search of our cats, radioed to say that two male lions had been seen in a location close to ours. We headed straight there. When we arrived, the lions had gotten up and started walking. I was worried we would lose them fairly quickly as they were headed towards a road with thick bush on both sides.
We followed, and within minutes I saw something in the distance that made me stop the vehicle immediately. In the road, walking towards us was a female lion and, just behind her, three tiny cubs following! This was the first sighting of these cubs we had been anticipating. The males saw them as well, and stopped in their tracks as she approached. I turned to my guests telling them to be ready with their cameras – lions greeting each other is always amazing to witness; these powerhouses can be so affectionate and social with each other.
This time however, instead of a greeting, one of the males was given a sharp warning from the lioness to stay well clear. These two males are the dominant males of her pride. One of them is almost certainly the father of the cubs, but she won’t take any chances, even with members of her own pride. A mother’s instinct to protect her cubs is very strong. The male lions promptly moved away, not wanting to risk another confrontation with a feisty mother.
We watched as mom returned to the youngsters, and encouraged them to follow her across the road. I stopped the vehicle about 200m away, wanting to give them plenty of room for their first experience with a vehicle. Amazingly, the mother brought the cubs all the way up within 30m of us! They were incredibly relaxed. We were able to follow them for some time, before mom went for a drink and they disappeared into the bush again.
Words by: Adam Hilliar and Charlotte Arthun
Photos by: Adam Hilliar