The Passing of a Matriarch


By Andrew Field – Follow on Twitter
Flickr_Andrew_XIOur fleeting exchanges with nature allow us to reflect on how we handle the real world, but sometimes we are jolted into a sense of reality when nature turns on itself. A short while ago I was privileged to spend yet another period in Mana Pools and be with the wild. For a few years now, I have been an occasional observer of the most amazing union between the ‘grandmother’ lioness of Mana Pools and her issue, a healthy lioness we shall refer to as the ‘daughter’.

Incredibly, the older lioness has survived these last few years almost entirely due to the presence of her offspring despite the duo being ostracised by the main prides of the park. The old girl was toothless, incapable of hunting, and reliant on the younger animal. It is estimated the old girl is about 16 years of age. Each visit there is a mission to find this couple, a personal charge in a way, to be sure the old girl is all right.

Grandma Lioness_2013_06_02_9122_768x474px

Occasionally there are additions to this mini pride, in the form of cubs, usually two, and it is delightful to spend time with them, if one can. Last year there was a single surviving cub, named Bertie. Sadly, the record of survival for cubs is slim. While the dominant males from the main prides sire these cubs, they become easily victim to a nasty trait in paternal males and other predators in the park.

On my recent arrival at my normal ‘digs’ in the park, Goliath Safaris, I was told that the old girl had last been sighted a couple of days back, but that she had been deserted by the daughter. In all probability the grandmother would have succumbed by then. Saddened by this news, the days that followed were spent mostly on lion spoor, looking for a pride we know as the ‘Spice Girls’, or the males, ‘The Backstreet Boys’, ever hopeful we would stumble upon the tracks of the grandmother and daughter.

Our first encounter with the pride was a small hunting group, a skittish bunch of young males and a female, but they didn’t stick around to greet us. In fact we had little chance with a young bull elephant seemingly chasing them off his patch. A little later in the day, approaching noon, we received a report of a sighting of the old girl. Excited and eager, we trekked to the approximate location and set off looking for more spoor, but no sign was found. We had been given poor directions.

While travelling back to camp for our siesta, we were blessed with an accidental sighting of the old girl from the vehicle, quite near where we had seen that flighty pride on the hunt. We stopped and moved in on foot to observe her. The old girl had aged so much since last seeing her… she was definitely on her last legs, thin, bone structure protruding, exhausted; just wanting to lay peacefully and die. She offered us a permeating growl, akin to the purr of a Harley Davidson, but was really quite disinterested with the invasion of her space. No sign of the daughter or any cubs was apparent.

Astonishingly, there lay nearby the lioness a carcass of a dead honey badger, a ferocious little beast which would never have been easy prey and which, clearly, the old girl had neither hunted nor killed. Was this an opportunity discovery? Not likely, scavengers abound here. Then, how did the old girl manage to acquire this food? Did that jumpy hunting pride leave her with this food? We’ll never know, but I would like to think they did.

We sat a short distance from her, tolerating the occasional soft roar and growl… I know the others, like me, were silently bidding the old matriarch farewell; her survival was numbered in hours rather than days… a few tears were scuffed away. So strange how we build such compassion for these beasts, which would happily rip us apart in their prime, but we do. There is a telepathy of acknowledgement; almost a psychic inner feeling between man and beast. We slowly, yet sadly, withdrew… this was our last sighting of the grand old lady of Mana.

A few days later, we had stumbled across a large pack of wild dogs and spend time with them, photographing the pack and individuals… our sojourn was interrupted by a large lioness moving through the area, in the late afternoon, offering a deep penetrating calls which would be heard for miles, perhaps seeking other members of the pride.

The dogs moved defensively towards her in a large pack and we followed some distance behind. The solitary lioness broke into an opening and showed herself. It was the ‘daughter’ without doubt! We will never know if she was calling for her mother or perhaps already mourning her loss, but clearly she is alone now. There was no sign of Bertie. The dogs retreated as if offering respect.

There is no confirmation of the old girl’s passing, I pray it was peaceful. Hopefully the daughter will integrate back into the main-steam prides of Mana and continue her normal life, else her own survival will be brief. Her fascinating dedication to the upkeep of her mother, against many harsh odds, is a truly wonderful and exceptional demonstration of the human-like love and bonding that all we know so well.

Rest in Peace old lady of Mana.

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6 thoughts on “The Passing of a Matriarch

  1. Your wonderful stories, your incredibly sensitive insight and genuine love of Africa’s wildlife. I can almost smell the vlei, veldt…
    I am not ashamed to say that I was so touched that I was moved to tears, perhaps for those of us who miss Africa so much, yet love her still, your words reawaken that pathos and we empathize so much with the passing of The Old Lady of Mana.

  2. What is remarkable is that perhaps this old lady of the Mana Flood Plains had lived to the ripe old age of 16 years. So many of Africa’s lion populations are being decimated by Bovine Tuberculosis ( a disease that originated in domestic cattle not other wild life) or Feline HIV syndrome apart from wire snares and in some areas by poorly controlled unethical sport hunting that seriously disrupts the social structure of lion society causing serious knock-on fighting and high levels of cub mortality when pride dominant rather than “retired” males are shot !

  3. An amazing story Andrew. How little do we know about wild animals. Just returned from Kariba where I scatter the ashes of my husband, who passed away much to soon in Portugal. I am now at rest. An elephant came to the shoreline.

  4. Yes, the death of Old Girl is and end of a legacy. She and her daughter had become a real part of every trip I have done to Mana Pools over the last 15 years. What an incredible animal!! Steve Barrie Professional Guide ZW#475

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