Botswana – Lions of the Kalahari

The best day of my recent trip to the Kalahari Desert in Botswana was definitely the last. After spending the previous five days having game drives in two areas of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, we had yet to see one key species: lions.

We had been told what to do if the lions came through the camp while we were there and had heard a story of a previous trip when a large pride had walked straight through one evening during dinner. We had even seen their footprints on the sandy tracks. However, we hadn’t actually seen any. That changed in the early morning of the last full day in the reserve. 

As we headed out of the camp at around 6:30am, just as the sun was rising, casting an orange glow across the savannah lands, we turned right onto the main track and headed west. We immediately saw a black-backed jackal wandering through the long grass but in the distance was something else, something bigger; Lion! Shaka (our guide) announced and the excitement burst through the safari truck. Not just one but two; a male and a female. As we approached, a third appeared and as we got to them, we spotted two more; five in total.

We had heard the previous day that a mating pair had been seen by others travelling in the area but had yet to come across them. We were soon given confirmation that this was the same pair with a robust mating completed with a snarling, bad-tempered finish. As the pair sloped off to the rest behind a bush, we had clearer views of two sub-adults wandering towards us and then resting in the long grass just a few metres from the truck. One was a young male, just starting to show the first signs of a mane, perhaps one day to be as magnificent and black as adult male’s; I silently named the youngster ‘bum fluff’, for it was a pretty poor effort of a mane to be honest.

I certainly wouldn’t have called him his new name to his face! At one stage he was lying just a handful of metres away from our open-sided truck when he fixed me with a piercing stare and made a sudden move towards us. My heart leaped into my mouth, momentarily; I think a quiet ‘woooaaah!!!’ might have escaped my mouth, but he rested back again and a little wave of relief washed over me. 

The adult pair mated a couple more times and then wandered off to a nearby area of small trees and scrub, eventually followed by the other three. We had spent a good long while with them during the morning, taking photos but also just trying to quietly observe them and their behaviour.  We left them in peace and headed off for another area for the mid-morning coffee break.

Shaka told us that the pride was larger than just simply those we had seen and that there were actually two adult males, with the second probably off patrolling the pride’s territorial boundaries. He too will have had the distinctive black mane of the Kalahari lions. He also would have been larger than average; with the Kalahari being a semi-desert and food harder to come by, the rule of the survival of the fittest is even truer there. Less food means more competition and weaker animals, with weaker genes, are even more likely to fail, meaning that fewer but stronger and bigger lions remain.

After our usual siesta during the heat of the heat of the day, we headed out for the last game drive of the trip. As we returned to the spot where we left the lions in the morning, one stood up as if to show us where they were. We headed over and found all five there, lazing around in the long grass under the shade of a tree. We watched and photographed them for a while; the youngsters grooming each other while the adults dozed – all was peace and contentment.

Then the adults got up and decided it was time to mate again and the peace was broken. When calm was restored, one by one they wandered out from the shelter of the tree and into the open grassland. The two adults stayed close together but the other three spaced themselves out. A gemsbok and springbok nonchalantly strolled across the savannah in the general direction of the pride and we wondered just how close they were going to get before noticing the five large mouths in front of them. When they did spot the lions, they didn’t run off, they just altered course slightly. I’m not sure I would have been so calm, but then again, they probably are better at judging the safe distance to be from a lion.

We left the five of them lying in the long grass as the sun was setting. They were starting to show signs of interest in the prey around them, particularly a herd of springbok some distance away. Some males were chasing each other around and pronking (that’s bouncing around like idiots – demonstrating their strength). They were far too far away for the lions to launch an attack but it just seemed that they liked looking at their food – just like I enjoy looking at a big table full of cheese, even when I’m not hungry.

We had been getting concerned that we weren’t going to see lions but a day full of them blew those concerns away. For me, it felt like a final reward for the previous days of searching and was one of the major highlights of the trip…and I didn’t get as good and prolonged views of lions in the Okavango.

The black-maned lions of the Kalahari were worth the wait!