The Fate of the Mythic Kalahari Lions
Our first encounter with the mythic Kalahari lion was very special for us. We had spent already a few days trying to find the biggest African cat, first outside the Makgadikgadi National Park and afterwards at Nxai Pan National Park. Roberto, our Italian friend we met on the road and who proclaimed to be an expert in Botswana, told us that the best place to find lions at that time of year was the Mabuasehube Game Reserve, part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which lies between the borders of South Africa and Botswana.
We had already searched for one day in Mabuasehube. We had seen many tracks on the roads, lion paws printed on the pink Kalahari sand. But every time, the tracks ended up getting lost in the bush. When we finally met them, we found that it was worth the wait.
At that moment we had already seen many lions in Kenya, in de Luangwa Valley in Zambia, and in South Africa. Nevertheless, we had never found the lions ourselves. In Kenya you typically see a conglomeration of many cars gathering far away. Sometimes there are more than twenty autos. At that moment you know that there are big cats there, probably lions. Other times, your guide, communicating through a radio with many other guides in the area, hears a code word for lions and the location. He drives frantically to the place were the lions are, wait for its turn amongst the many cars to get into a fine viewing position and, after some minutes, it’s time to allow another car to also get a view of the felines and you go. In Zambia and South Africa we did explore the national parks without help from a guide, but it was rather the people we encountered on the roads or at the camping sites the ones who told us where we could find the lions. In the Kalahari desert in Botswana we encountered more big cats than people and most of the times we found the lions ourselves. That already makes a sighting special.
First, we encountered a coalition of young males. They were approximately three years old and were looking for their females (which we met two days after, when they visited our camp at night while we were drinking a beer). It was evident from the first moment we saw those three males that these lions were different than all the other lions we had seen. We knew already that these kind of lions had the unique characteristic of having a black mane. Although we knew about their manes and their age had not yet painted their manes completely black, seeing them from close, was pretty impressing: they looked imposing. Another characteristic that makes them look imposing is their size, Even though these three lions weren’t full grown adults, it was pretty clear to us that these were the biggest lions we had ever encountered.
(A good example of the Kalahari lion is Cecil, the lion who became world famous after he was murdered some years ago by a dentist from the USA.)
The experiences I had with the Kalahari lions, sometimes too close for my own safety, changed my perspective about them. Up until then, my favorite animal was the spotted hyena, but the Kalahari lions made me get in contact with my primitive brain. Their hunting growl at night, being outside in their territory, seeing a lion walking gently towards me, it killed my ego and made me understand my place in the series of small relationships that keeps the balance, the biggest show on earth, life. I started then to investigate about the lions and I discovered through other people why the Kalahari lions are so special for us humans.
Located in the south of the continent, the Kalahari desert is the second largest in Africa. The animals that inhabit this place have had to adapt their conduct in order to survive droughts that could sometimes last a couple of years. That is why no lion in the world is so resilient as the Kalahari lion: these felines can last more than two years without drinking a single drop of water. For these kings of the desert, the blood and humidity of the flesh from their prey is enough to keep them hydrated.
Lions are territorial creatures. Generally, there is one alpha male or a coalition of brothers who dominate a pride in nature. Every lioness would mate with that lion or that coalition and thus every litter has the same bloodline. That situation last for about five to seven years. Through all that time the work of the alpha male or the coalition is to keep the pride safe from other lions or predators. The time comes when the alpha or the coalition gets old and weaker and they cannot impede that another younger lion or coalition wins over the pride. They lose a fight and either die or get expelled from the pride. The new alpha male or the new coalition kill the last king’s cubs and begin to produce their own bloodline. How terrible this can seem for you and me, this is the way new genes get in the gene pool. These is the way the endogamic percentage stays low. When that percentage grows too much, that is when there’s too much endogamy in a pride, genetic problems begin to rise in the form of sicknesses that have terrible consequences not just for a pride, but for the entire conservancy of the African lion.
Human activity has dramatically reduced the lion’s natural habitat. You encounter wild life live in natural reserves, but they are surrounded by crops and cattle, which prevents animals to freely migrate. When there’s no migration of lions there are fewer new lions injecting new genes in the gene pools of the different prides. This is has been a very serious problem throughout the African continent. Nevertheless, the Kalahari lions haven’t suffered the growth in the endogamic percentage of their populations, at least not in such a dramatic way as the lion populations elsewhere.
Lions from different regions have different cultures. Kalahari lions had to learn to behave in a way that lions in less arid places don’t. During dry season lion prides disperse. Females from one pride form temporal relations with both females and males from other prides. Many times they mate with members of other prides and have their cubs. This strategy has allowed the Kalahari lion to survive the hardest droughts and has also kept a low endogamic percentage in their populations, compared with lion populations elsewhere.
Specially in South Africa, there is a big problem with the endogamic percentage amongst the lion populations. Many South African lions have serious genetical problems due to incest. That is why breeding has become such an important practice in the fight to conserve lions in South Africa. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Kalahari lions that, given their low endogamic percentage, are being kidnapped in order to be used for breeding purposes.
The most profitable way to conserve wild life in South Africa is trophy hunting, where the cost for killing a lion starts from around 7000 dollars and can go up to 40,000. The price depends on the type of lion and the location. If you check the webpages where they offer this ‘service’, you can see many lions with black manes. This are some of the most expensive lions. It is evident that these lions come from a bloodline of the mythic Kalahari lions.
The lions that are being killed in South Africa are not wild lions. The majority of these lions where bred in captivity and thus, they didn’t learn from their pride all the conducts of a wild lion. These are lions that are habituated to human contact. A lot of the times they are used as youngsters in private parks to get photographed with tourists, or to be walked on a leash by clients, for 170 dollars. When these lions become mature their dominance instinct awakes, which makes them dangerous and, so, they’re sold to hunting ranches. Imagine the surprise of a lion that was fed by humans and that has had positive interactions with humans, at the moment it gets shot for the first time.
It is pretty clear for me that killing a lion is not something to be proud of. Most lions would allow you to walk straight to them, stop at a couple of meters, aim your rifle to their head and shoot. Most lions wouldn’t even blink.
This is what the Kalahari lions face. Their natural habitat is being reduced, asphyxiating their populations and their prey’s populations. Alas, one of the few possibilities lions have to survive is to be bred by a perverse industry, an industry that doesn’t allow them to be wild and that assign them value just as trophies in the rooms of US dentists.
Fuck Hemingway! Hunting a lion is by no means a prowess but an act of cowardice.