The true story of a lion pride’s struggle to regain freedom after they were stolen from the wild illegally.
The lioness lowers her body into a stalking position. She picked up her prey’s scent on the slight wind that has been blowing since the sun came up about 20 minutes ago. A short distance away she can clearly hear snorts and clashing of horns; the impala rut has begun and the rams are challenging each other in order to claim their prize – the sleek ewes, tanned in a golden brown. The snorting and clashing of horns is steadily getting closer.
The impala ewes and young lambs have moved away long ago, the testosterone filled rams are none of their concern at this stage. Let them sort out each other; the winner will arrive sooner or later to claim his prize – the herd. Behind the lioness four small bodies are moving closer to their mother and she cautions them to be very quiet. It is essential that her young learn how to approach their prey and make a successful kill. Her sleek body rises up to make sure that the other lioness has followed her lead. With four cubs to support she is thankful to have the support of the second lioness. The cubs are only reaching the age now that she can teach them the age old techniques taught to her by her own mother; techniques that could mean the difference between life or death for her kind.
Suddenly there is a movement up ahead and the lioness crouches down. The older impala ram snorts again and challenges his rival. The challenge is taken up immediately and the younger ram rushes in with all his strength! Their heads meet with a loud crash and the two sets of horns are used to spar off each other as the minutes count down. Both are oblivious to the danger, the sleek brown body lies hidden in the grass; the cubs are silent and hidden beneath a small shrub. Instinctively the lioness knows that her ally has also gone down, she can feel her close by. The light wind is perfect for the kill and blows towards the small group of lion filling their nostrils with the thrill of a successful kill. Dust is flying off the hooves of the two rams doing battle and when she launches her sleek body towards them, it takes them several seconds to recognize the approaching danger. Both rams unlock their horns and take flight, the younger one making a graceful leap to avoid the approaching lioness.
Suddenly she grinds to a halt while the impala rams flee out of sight. In front of her is a diamond mesh fence. The disappointment of one of Africa’s greatest creatures is tangible and she expresses her frustration with a low, deep moan as she turns back to meet up with her excited cubs. They approach hastily and rub up against their mother, excited at all the action! However they soon sense her despair and when their mother walks off irritated and frustrated the young cubs turn and run towards the other lioness sitting down beside the fence. They rub up against her looking for reassurance that all is okay, but she too turns away to walk off back into the camp that has kept their family from their rightful place in the wild for many months now. She understands and too longs for the days when she and the other female hunted together and brought down successfully their kills to feed their cubs.
The grasses moving in the wind is the only thing that will satisfy the need in their predators’ souls – “teach your young and teach them well so that they may survive”! The gentle wind on whose breath they can smell the excitement of the kill is calling them more urgently every day. The full African moon holds the promise of mankind’s kindness that will ensure the young cubs their birth right; freedom regained! Mankind stole their lives, but man can also do what is right and return the pride to the wild, humans hold the power.
Queen and a younger female were stolen from the wild in a private game reserve adjoining the Kruger National Park three years ago along with the two prides males. The pride had just left their home in the world famous Kruger National Park when boundary fences were removed and had settled in a new territory. They splintered off from another pride in the Letaba-region of the Kruger Park. Sadly they could not know that bad men had put out the zebra carcass especially for them that particular night. Being the oldest pride member Queen was hesitant to approach the meat on offer and while the other pride members settled in to feast, she slowly circled the area, but the hunger of her young cubs made it impossible for her to ignore them. They were ravenous and the easy kill could not be wasted. Soon the entire pride settled. The first dart to hit its target lodged itself into the large adult pride male; he jumped up with a short growl, but soon settled in again to feed. The next dart swiftly found the its target, the only other male in the pride. After this, two adult females were targeted and this time Queen also felt a sharp sting in her rump. A sudden tiredness hit her and as she laid down her majestic head to take a quick rest, she had her cubs in view feeding frantically off the carcass.
When the lions woke up, their freedom was a thing of the past. Queen desperately tried to regain her full senses and her immediate concern was for her cubs. They were nowhere to be seen. A fence surrounded her and the other lioness. In another cage, next to them were the two pride males; strange collars were fitted around their necks. Despite the pride members settling down to a certain degree over the next couple of days, Queen remained nervous and aggressive. She wanted to return to known territory to find her sub-adult cubs, they needed her and all her instincts was to find the place where they had been left behind.
Within a week some men arrived in a vehicle to feed the lions. The pride was starving and they all started eating immediately and laid down after goring themselves. The men returned early the next morning and the enclosure in which the males were held was opened and the people drove away. Queen looked on in disbelief! The two males had ventured outside and were walking off! She started pacing and frantically ran up and down the fence, they could not leave without her and the other female, how is this possible? “Wait for us; please wait for us”. She leaped forward to try and get through the fence, but fell back when she encountered the electrical strain on the diamond mesh fence. As the two males disappeared Queen sat down in desperation and moaned in a low soft voice.
As she turned around to comfort the younger female a loud shot rang out just outside their sight and immediately after six more shots. Queen and the other lioness jumped back in terror. What was that? They laid down trembling. Soon a vehicle started up and Queen looked on both terrified and curiously as the vehicle emerged from the bush on the side of the clearing where the enclosures had been constructed. Suddenly the wind direction changed and she could clearly smell the males. Where they hiding in the thickets close by? Her hopes soared; they did not desert their pride and will be back as soon as the humans have left!
The vehicle stopped and some people jumped off the back. One walked up to the gate of the enclosure from where the males had left 30 minutes ago, and shut it. Queen could now also smell blood, it had a strange smell, it was mixed with the scent of the pride males and urine, but there was another distinct smell…fear! The lioness was now totally confused. The people turned in their direction and both Queen and the other lioness moved to the back of the enclosure. Some words were exchanged and after about five minutes the people returned to their vehicle and drove off. Queen ran forward, through the dust behind the vehicle she could see a large hairy head on the back of the vehicle, but she was not sure. It looked very familiar and for a moment she thought that the pride males were crouching down on the back of the vehicle? Surely this could not be? She must be wrong!
The blood smell remained, as did the scent of the pride males. As she turned, she saw it. The two strange collars that were fitted to the majestic necks of the pride males hung on a pole just beside the other enclosure. Where were the males???? Queen started calling, first softly and them more and more loudly until her roars reverberated through the bush, the other female soon joined and despite the two females calls that carried on for a long while, the bush remained quiet!
Within days Queen hit an all time low, she was desperately depressed. The males had deserted them and her cubs were lost, she could do nothing to find them. The other young lioness seemed less troubled; inside her she had already felt the first stirrings of the new life inside her sired by the younger of the pride males.
The two lionesses spent almost five weeks in the enclosure before they were darted and the two collars that had been fitted to the pride males so that they could be found by the hunters and shot without any problems, were fitted to the necks of the lionesses. Shortly afterwards they were released and ran off into the bush. Within days they had made their first successful kill. Queen remained uneasy, but at least she was back in the wild again. The younger female immediately took her lead and they started exploring their new territory. No other lions were in the area as far as Queen could establish.
When the time came for the young lioness to give birth, Queen guided her to a secluded spot where she stood guard as four beautiful little cubs were born – two males and two females. For a couple of days Queen remained with the mother, but had to eventually leave to find food. She was uneasy. For the last couple of days now, the people in their vehicle returned daily and Queen wanted to move the new born cubs, but it was not her decision, their mother had to do so. The only way Queen could assist the mother was to remain in the area and make her kills as close to the den as possible to ensure that enough food was available to feed both her, the new mother and cubs that needed all the sustenance they could get from a constant supply of milk.
Despite Queen’s uneasiness that did not subside since the day the males deserted them, life seemed pretty okay. The cubs grew rapidly and soon their eyes opened. The blue haziness disappeared within days and the cuddly balls of fur started to be responsible for many hours of entertainment. The two lionesses thoroughly enjoyed them and there were days that even Queen, enjoyed being stalked and bitten. It was especially the one little male cub, which she enjoyed most. He seemed curios and inquisitive and soon overpowered the other small cubs in their manners of play. He was the little “Prince” of the pride and Queen grew to love him as her own!
The bright African moon shone above as tragedy struck. While the lions were moving on a game path towards the northern side of their new territory one of the lion cubs suddenly growled and started struggling desperately. Queen rushed back, she was in attack mode and would defend the cub with her life. She could not sense any danger and desperately ran up to the cub’s mother; maybe she knew where the danger was? As the mother crouched over the distressed cub and started licking it, it settled down. It was the smallest of the cubs and a little female. Queen walked in closer and saw the steel wire wrapped tightly around the little one’s paws. Her yellow eyes narrowed, she had seen something similar to this a long time ago on another animal in the Kruger Park. She found a large kudu bull close to a waterhole. He was walking very oddly and when she rushed in for the kill, he hardly tried to avoid her. As she lay down licking the blood from his neck after he had died, she could smell the putrid stench coming off his badly swollen back leg where the steel wire had cut down to the bone. Queen knew that this wire presented a danger to the cub, but she did not exactly know how.
By early morning the cub was still trapped in the snare, struggling every now and then to free itself without any success. The pride would not leave without her and settled down as the African sun increased in intensity. They were all lying down close to the cub and every now and then her mother would get up to comfort her young. Suddenly Queen heard the familiar noise of the humans approaching in a vehicle. She hated them by now; their scent both scared and repulsed her. She rallied up the pride and they moved off into the cover of the thickets. The people could not miss the young cub struggling desperately to free herself so that she could follow the pride. She growled and meowed at the same time while the wire cut deeper into her foot. The pain was unbearable. Queen lay down quietly, she was ready to attack and defend the cub with her life. Her tail flicked from side to side and her ears were pulled flat on her head. The younger female ran past her and took her remaining cubs further way to safety, but Queen stood her ground. She was not going to leave the cub behind. Suddenly the ground in front of her exploded with a loud bang; gravel shot up in her face as the bullet hit the ground just a half-meter in front of her. This was too much, even for Queen, she turned around and ran for her life.
An hour later as all went quiet, Queen and the pride returned. The cub was gone, the faint scent of her little body remained and for the rest of the day the pride searched to find her, but she too was now gone. Queen made the connection eventually, when man and his loud noise arrived, some of her pride members would disappear! The pride continued the search for the next two days, but despite going through the motions, Queen knew that they would never see her again, but how wrong could she be?
Live almost returned to normal and both Queen and the cubs’ mother continued to look after the cubs and support them. Almost five months later as they were coming down a steep embankment, Queen froze; she once again picked up the disgusting scent of humans. In the dry riverbed below she saw the tracks of the vehicles and just on the other side of the riverbed there was a wire enclosure. Inside a young lion was pacing up and down, it was a sub-adult and it seemed remotely familiar, but the scent of people immediately irritated Queen. The young lion growled as she saw the approaching pride, the other sub-adult cubs ran forward to investigate, but Queen called them back with an angry growl. She moved in closer and the cubs’ mother followed. This was a stranger in their territory! As Queen approached, her anger rose, this young lion had showed no respect, neither did it act in any manner that is expected from a young lion. Queen was fed up, the people had taken her away from her own cubs, the pride males had deserted the pride, the young cub disappeared when the people arrived and now this arrogant and disrespectful intruder has dared to venture into her life. She attacked with out hesitation and the months of heartache, stress and unhappiness found their target. Through the flimsy fence Queen sunk her teeth into the young lions paw and cleanly bit through two toes. She did not realize that her sharp teeth had cut through the scar tissue left by a poacher’s snare; she did not recognize the young cub that disappeared months ago. As blood flowed into Queen’s mouth, she lost interest; this was merely a young lion and she had no urge to kill it, but it had to leave. Queen was happy that the young intruder got the message and led her pride up the embankment and away from the caged animal. When they returned later that afternoon, both the lion and cage had gone. Some blood was still lying on the sand and the people’s tracks were all over the place. Queen was content that the intruder had gone.
Time passed quickly and the young cubs soon grew into adulthood. Queen and their mother taught them to hunt well and peace, so it seemed, returned to the Pride lands.
It was mid June and the pride had set off early to a nearby waterhole. Queen’s Prince was leading the pride, to his right his brother walked through the tall yellow grass that blended in perfectly with the male’s mane. Prince has remained Queen’s favourite and a close bond has developed between the older female and the young male. She had allowed him to mate with her a couple of times and he has taken over the responsibilities as the new pride male. The mother of the cubs looked on with pride as her offspring had grown into adulthood.
Suddenly Prince stopped dead in his tracks, the wind direction had shifted and he picked up the smell of blood and the stomach contents of a dead animal. Slowly he moved forward, his great paws did not make a sound as they firmed their grip on the sandy soil. Queen was right beside him, she again felt the uncomfortable sensation of danger that has remained a constant companion since she arrived at this place. In a clearing in front of them, lay a blue wildebeest. It stomach content was displayed outside the body as it had slid out when a knife cut open the stomach. Blood seeped out of the bullet wound on the shoulder. Queen shivered, she did not like this at all. Prince moved forward and grab the bait and lifted it with a huge thrust of its magnificent head. However as he spun around to carry off his quarry, the bait was jerked out of his grip as the chain holding it to the tree tightened. The wildebeest carcass dropped to the ground and all Princes’ efforts to get it loose from the tree failed. He growled in frustration, but as his brother ran in to settle down and start feeding he aggressively slapped a huge paw down on the ribcage of the other male lion. Soon all was forgotten and as the two males settled down to eat. The three lionesses moved in to hopefully get their share as well. None of the lions noticed the white tablets with which the carcass had been spiked. Soon the powerful tranquilizers would start taking effect.
From the underground hide constructed to bow hunt antelope that came to quench their thirst, the first dart hit its target. The young lioness did not even feel the sharp tip of the immobilizing dart. She was feeling pretty relaxed and even sleepy. Around her all the other lions were feeling pretty much the same, the tranquilizer tablets has worked perfectly and the rest of the darts were fired to hit their targets without any problems. Soon the entire pride was fast asleep.
When Queen woke up, Prince was standing beside her and moaning softly. His brother was still sleeping, but the rest of the pride was already pacing up and down the fences of the enclosure’s which Queen know so well. For months she has avoided this place of terror, but know it all returned to her in an instant. She felt panic rise from her gut and press into her throat; she could actually taste her own fear.
The only member of the pride that was not held in the same enclosure with them was the cubs’ mother. She ran up and down the fence of the other enclosure desperately trying to find a way to join them. Queen looked at her through the fence and called softly. She could not console the other lioness. The large collar was still around her companion’s neck and was hanging at an awkward angle; Queen suddenly realized that her own collar had been removed!
Two days later the people arrived again. Queen watched in dread as the adjoining enclosure’s gate was opened. As the vehicle left, her companion ran out immediately and disappeared into the thickets. About a half and hour later Queen heard her soft moans coming closer and minutes later she joined them on the outside of the fence. While the cubs’ mother rubbed up against the fence overjoyed to be back with her pride, Queen and the others kept back. All of them knew how the electric strains could hurt. As darkness set in all the lions reluctantly settled down for the night. Queen, Prince and the others lay down on the inside of the fence and the cubs’ mother on the outside.
The sun has just risen on the horizon. Queen sat besides the fence and looked at her companion lying down on the fringe of the thickets. She called softly and the other lioness got up to move closer. The rest of the pride were lying down and Prince’s brother moved forward to greet his mother, but stopped short as he could hear a vehicle approaching. The cubs’ mother turned away and disappeared into the bush. For many hours the lions waited for her return in vain. The hours turned into weeks, but she still did not return. Most of the pride had, so it seemed accepted their fate once again, but Queen could not. She had lost her appetite and simply was not interested in the food that was brought to them once a week. Both Prince and his brother had lost weight and the glossy shine of their coats was gradually disappearing. An eerie silence surrounded the enclosures and the lions kept their normal territorial roaring down to a low questioning moan. For many weeks sadness prevailed and Queen could see that Prince too was giving up hope. Earlier that day a noisy helicopter flew overhead and circled once or twice. The young female ran scared, but the others simply ignored the irritating machine overhead. They could not go anywhere anyhow!
Suddenly Queen stood up, vehicles were coming, but there were more than one and this time there was a great urgency. She could hear people talking and shouting and within seconds four vehicles drove into the clearing. All the lions cowered in the corner of the enclosure. They were petrified. Lots of people were moving around and some vehicles were being reversed closer to the enclosures. Queen saw the large man moving towards her with his rifle openly and she charged forward with a deafening roar and growl. Prince was right there besides her standing his ground alongside her while the rest of the pride tried to find a way to escape. From the corner of her eye she saw the bright pink of the dart’s shaft as it hit Prince in the shoulder and a second later another dart hit her on the neck. She spun around and tried to bite out the dart, but could not reach it. Seconds later she felt the familiar tiredness take charge of her muscles. Prince was still fighting fiercely as her back legs buckled and she fell down in a cloud of dust kicked up by the panicked paws of four trapped lions fighting for their lives.
She was so tired and her entire body was aching. Queen was not that young anymore and the growing life inside her had taken its fair share of her physical strength. Prince stood above her and it was his licking that woke her up. Close by was his brother and sister. Queen raised her head. There were no fences to be seen. Was this all a bad dream? In her amber eyes passed a memory of a time long past. She struggled to feet and drowsily took in the scene. What did she remember, was it the smell of the flowering common gardenia that she could now smell clearly? Memories of her young life along the banks of the great Letaba River flooded her brain! Here too the common gardenia trees use to flower in abundance!
Her joy was short lived as she realized that the other lions had only walked for a short distance when they sat down next to yet another fence. When would her nightmare end? Inside her, four small cubs moved, Queen lay down and a dark shadow moved over her amber eyes again.
Since this time Queen, Prince and the rest of the pride have lived in peace in a large holding camp in the SanWild Sanctuary. The court case in which their trappers were prosecuted has been finalized and after many months of battling the conservation and police authorities, the SanWild Wildlife Trust have secured ownership of the very special pride of lions. Another lion had also entered Queen’s life; a tame male called Donga.
Soon after her cubs were born, Prince and his brother managed to bite a hole in the fence separating their pride from Donga and have chosen to join this male. The three large males have formed a coalition and they seem pretty happy. Prince still does visit on the fence, but the bond between them is not so strong anymore. Four healthy cubs having taken over the place of their father in an ageing lionesses heart and she has been grateful for the help of the daughter of her life long companion that disappeared on that terrible day when she was let out of the enclosure. Queen recognizes the same gentle and kind nature in the young lioness that she valued in her mother when she had helped raised Queen’s cubs when they still had their freedom.
For many months now the pride enjoyed a certain quality of life; they were no longer harassed by people and received regular meals. Queen knew that their situation had changed for the better and she no longer had a terrible fear of people, but she did not particularly like them either. Her wild soul remained and now with four new young lives developing around her, she wants to lead them away to a place where they could experience the joys that can only come with freedom.
How can anyone not understand the calling in this ageing lioness’s soul and how can one stand unmoved by the sad turn of events in her life.