Passing of a stalwart – an ode to the Eyrefield lioness

The old Eyrefield lioness in better days

The old Eyrefield lioness in better days - Gary Hill

The 16th of April will be remembered as a sad day for the Eyrefield pride of lions. The day marks the passing of the oldest lioness of that pride. She died at 14 years and 6 months old.

When the lioness was first seen on the 27th of March after a period of absence, she had a noticeably large belly and it was predicted that she would give birth to a new litter of cubs. She was so large that we thought she might deliver in the days that followed.

Taken on the 30th of March 2013. Her abnormally large belly is very evident - Gary Hill

Taken on the 30th of March 2013. Her abnormally large belly is very evident - Gary Hill

Fast forward to the 12th of April. The lioness was still just as large. Her condition had severely deteriorated. Despite her huge belly, she was very thin and looked ill, with her spine clearly visible. It was at this point that we started to question what might be going on with her.

Perhaps she had contracted a disease of sorts. Her pregnancy may have exaggerated her condition, and this would explain why she became increasingly weak.

The next point to consider is that she may not have been pregnant at all. It is possible that she may have been suffering from an internal injury (or a system malfunction) which caused the swelling (perhaps hemorrhaging). Since her stomach was so large, it is not likely that she could have delayed giving birth for such a long period. This means that the assumption of having internal problems cannot be discarded. When her carcass was inspected, there was also no sign of any foetus.

Taken on the 12th of April. Her conditioned had worsened during the past weeks and her belly was larger than before - Gary Hill

Taken on the 12th of April. Her conditioned had worsened during the past weeks and her belly was larger than before - Gary Hill

On the 13th of April the Eyrefield pride brought down a large kudu bull near the Ngoboswan Donga. All four Manyelethi males were present, and light work was made of the carcass. The dark maned male and the male with the scarring on his nose were very severe on the old lioness, and she was on the receiving end of some fierce aggression from the two males. At one stage she lay motionless away from the feeding activity.

The following day the pride had not covered much distance. The old lioness was still with them, and despite a few cuts and gashes, she seemed to be moving fine. The lions crossed the Sand River westwards and spent the 15th resting on The Airstrip. This is when she became separated from the other lions. By this stage she was looking weaker than ever. Her breathing ever so shallow as she lay in the grass.

On the morning of the 16th we set out straight for where she had been left the night before. What we found was very disturbing. Judging by her condition and looking at the tracks left as clues in the sand, there was little doubt that she had had a dramatic encounter with hyenas and would have been overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Her weakened state would have attracted the hyenas as she was an easy target. Her left flank was almost entirely bare of skin. She must have died during the night.

Her legacy will live on through her current known offspring in the pride, which is the youngest adult lioness (the pale coloured lead lioness of the pride). Also in that litter were two other females and a male. Both females have since died. It is unknown if the male from that litter is surviving. He could be the young Eyrefield male who, along with the male from the Marthly pride (called ‘Cleo’ and ‘Solo’ by others), is making waves trying to accumulate territory in the southern sector of Sabi Sands. This is very plausible since the same young male is now 5 years and 8 months old, the same age as the lead pale lioness.

Despite numerous attempts at mating with the Manyelethi males, she failed to produce any cubs as a result.

There has been much discussion as to this lioness’s relationship to the Mlowathi male lions or any of their brothers that were dominant in the west. This is of course the notorious group of males otherwise known as the ‘Mapogo’.

Here is an extract of the pride’s status in January 2006:

EYREFIELD PRIDE AND EYREFIELD MALES (16)

5 ADULT FEMALES: (between 11 years & 8 months and 12 years & 2 months)

1 ADULT FEMALE: 7 YEARS 3 MONTH

1 ADULT MALE: 7 YEARS 3 MONTH

2 SUB-ADULT MALES: 4 YEARS 12 MONTHS

1 SUB ADULT MALE: 4 YEARS 10 MONTHS

1 ADULT FEMALE: 4 YEARS 10 MONTHS

4 SUB ADULTS (two males, two females): 4 YEARS 2 MONTHS

1 SUB-ADULT FEMALE: 2 YEARS 11 MONTHS
The adult female (highlighted in red) is the lioness in question. The ‘Mapogo’ were the six males of varying ages. She would have been too young to be a mother of any of the males. Hypothetically speaking, if she were the mother of the youngest litter of males, she would have been just over three years old at the time. It is therefore safe to say that she was not a mother of any of the ‘Mapogo’.

The adult male (highlighted in blue) was ironically the same age as the lioness that died yesterday. Ironic as he was not born to the Eyrefield pride, but was a foreign male that gained acceptance to the pride. We believe this male became known as ‘Makhulu’. He was the oldest member of the ‘Mapogo’.

This should be clear enough proof that the lioness was neither a sibling nor mother to any of the males.

She will be missed, and as Will Taylor (ex MalaMala ranger) so aptly put it, “Poor old girl. She saw some stuff in her life that’s for sure!”

Here are a series of images from Matt Meyer as he recalls sightings of this old lady over the past few years.

An image in 2008 after the pride had just killed a buffalo - Matt MeyerThe Eyrefield pride in early 2009 - Matt Meyer

Eyrefield lioness play fighting with one of the Rollercoaster males - Matt Meyer

Eyrefield lioness play fighting with one of the Rollercoaster males - Matt Meyer

The Eyrefield Lioness

The Eyrefield Lioness - Matt Meyer

A recent shot of the old lioness crossing the Sand River - Matt Meyer

At almost 14 and a half years this old girl has sadly moved on - Matt Meyer

At almost 14 and a half years this old girl has sadly moved on - Matt Meyer

A stalwart of MalaMala and the Eyrefield pride. RIP. Matt Meyer