Before I arrived in the Sabi Sands in 2016 to start guiding at Mala Mala Private Game Reserve, I had heard stories of the two Matshipiri males being very nervous of vehicles and and even behaving aggressively at times. But through careful consideration and patience from the guides at Mala Mala, by the time I had come into the picture, they were completely relaxed around the vehicles. By then, the two Matshipiri males were top of the tops and had started to spend a lot of time with the emerging Kambula pride, the Eyrefield pride and the Marthly pride. In the North, they had competition from the Birmingham and Gowrie males and to the South East, the Mantimahle male lions were dominant. Two young Avoca male lions arrived on the scene but from the initial confrontations, the Matshipiri males seemed to come out dominant.
The lion in this picture "Fallen King" had a very sparse mane but on the chest it was jet black in colour . What he lacked in a full mane, he made up for with aggression and out of the two he was far more confrontational. On the day I took this photo, the two brothers were on a patrol along the Western bank of the Sand River, South of the camp at Mala Mala. It was a very misty morning. I had been alerted to the presence of the lions from the early morning. While my guests and I were having a morning cup of coffee, the lions had been roaring. Myself and another guide concluded that it sounded like it was coming from the airstrip, so we downed our coffees and headed off to find the two impressive cats. We got to the airstrip and saw the one male lying on the Southern end. The other male was still roaring but out of sight. We decided to try and find him, because if we did, we could have him roaring right next to the vehicle! As we turned on to the road and looked down towards the Sand River, we saw him come around the corner and walk directly towards us.
He was with one of lionesses from the Kambula pride, and we were pretty confident that they had been mating. This, in terms of a male lion's purpose, was the ultimate: him and his brother had managed to secure a territory and females to breed with. His life up until now had been very difficult, filled with many fights and trials that he and his brother had overcome and now maybe only a few years at the top, with a solid pride and time to breed.
But his rule was not meant to be for long, because not long after this image was taken, the two Matshipiri male lions went West with the Kambula lionesses and were found on game drive at a buffalo kill. All of us thought this was great and that soon they would return to the Sand River. But when they eventually did return, the dark maned male was lagging behind by a considerable distance. We drove closer to him to take a better look and found that he had broken his back leg. It is very possible that it may have happened during the take down of the buffalo. The fact that he had managed to walk at all was ridiculous; the carcass that they had been seen feeding on was about 6 km from where we sat with him now.
It was very tough to watch, but it was unfortunately an age old scene from nature and we were in the front row seat to see what would happen. Over the next few months, the injured male would trail days behind the pride, and sometimes would catch up to them in time to feed on a kill that they had made. Other than that, his condition started to deteriorate at a rapid rate. What was interesting to see was that his brother did not stay by his side as some might think he would, but instead he just stayed with the females as much as possible. This also meant that he would then have to go on long territorial patrols alone to try and keep the other coalitions at bay. As harsh as it may sound, that is what he had to do in order to protect his brother in the long run. If new males came into the area, they would both be killed. But before his leg healed, the dark maned Matshipiri male eventually died of starvation. The last few times we saw him it was very sad to see him in such a sorry state. I would often go and sit with him after I had taken my guests back to the lodge, as some small gesture to him. I am 100 % confident that he did no gain any benefit by me sitting there with him, but at least it made me feel a bit better.
The photograph of the Fallen King has always been powerful for me because I know the full background and the end to the story. It reminds me of how fragile this life is and also how harsh the life of a male lion can be. Through it all, the dark maned Matshipiri male just gritted his teeth and carried on until the very end. What an incredible animal, and I really enjoyed the time I did spend watching him and his brother. I will always remember....
.... The Fallen King
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