In December I had watched the pride at a dam one afternoon. There were 22 lions in total - 1 subadult male, 2 adult white lionesses, 5 adult tawny lionesses, 4 white cubs and 10 tawny cubs of which some were bigger than the others.
I watched spellbound as the cubs wrestled and played. Leaping in the air. Stalking and pouncing. It was an unforgettable sight.
Now, a few months later, on my way back to camp late one afternoon, I came across the pride again. They had killed a buffalo and were feeding. I counted 15. The two adult white lionesses were there as were the white cubs. I watched until it grew dark and then left.
I returned in the morning but the lions had gone; or so I thought. They had been replaced by 9 spotted hyenas who were busy chewing on what was left of the buffalo. Whooping, snarling and giggling they fought over the scraps.
After a while I left and close by saw 2 of the cubs lying out in the open. A tawny cub and a white one. Looking at them through my binoculars I could see something was wrong. The tawny cub looked distressed and I soon realised that neither of the cubs could walk. It looked as if they were paralysed. I sat and waited, expecting one of the hyenas to appear and kill and eat the cubs. Miraculously the hyenas never appeared.
Hours later I left but returned early in the afternoon. Both cubs were still there, no sign of the hyenas. I got out of my vehicle and went to look at the cubs, both were dead. I could find no signs that they had been bitten. As I walked back to the vehicle I came across another of the white cubs. It was still alive, barely so, and also incapable of moving. It just lay there panting and looking up at me. Every now and then it made a pitiful, trembling little snarl.
Sadly I left. Such a tragedy. What could have happened? Were the cubs bitten by a large mamba? Had they been squashed or swatted by rival males trying to take over the pride? Later someone from Chimanimani came and took the bodies away in order to perform an autopsy. The next day four more of the cubs were found dead on a neighbouring farm including the other two white cubs.
The post mortem revealed the cubs all had massive subcutaneous bleeding synonymous with being swatted or crushed by an adult.
By Willie Sonnenberg