Grownup lions don’t run for fun
And six gorgeous lionesses were galloping across the lion-coloured sand in the far side of the Luangwa River.
I watched. So did a young male lion on a sandbank nearby. Both of us enthralled.
Poor fella. He had picked up some kind of wound or infection: the life of a nomad male is hard, and of course, he had no pride of lions to kill for him. He was visibly recovering – much better than he was a couple of days back – but was still ribby and out of condition. He needed a good meal. He needed to be looked after.
The six distant lionesses formed a rosette: all you could of them, a quarter-mile off, was their bums. Each tail made a perfect italic swash above the level of the bank. Easy to work out what was going on: one of them has just knocked down an antelope and the rest were joyously eating it.
The joy of being a social animal.
But the lone male was not invited. Even though he really, really wanted to join in. He stood there watching a parade of all his heart’s desires: a decent snack, six lovely lionesses (at least!) and all the lovely loving social life a chap could use.
He stood staring, every muscle tense. But he didn’t walk towards them. Something very powerful inhibited him. Perhaps he knew he would get a rough reception. Perhaps he knew he lacked the strength to fight for a pride of his own. Perhaps he had learned all this from hard experience.
For a male lion the nomadic life begins when he kicked out of the pride, normally for showing sexual interest in the females. After that he’s on his own: or maybe he’s lucky and leaves with a brother or two. This
one had a brother: but the brother had absented himself, presumably to kill for himself while the other was poorly.
And as I watched a strange thing happened. The lion decided it was time to withdraw – but couldn’t make himself do it. He retreated a dozen paces – then stopped and stared again, stared with desperate longing. Moved on: and stopped yet again. Watching. Fascinated. And then again. He did this for maybe half a dozen times, until he was at the main stream of the river.
Do you remember the scene in Love Actually, when Andrew Lincoln, in the agonies of unrequited love for Keira Knightley, walks away from her, makes a series of attempts to walk back, but each time changes his mind yet again – until eventually he pulls himself together.
And with the same epic decisiveness the lion turned his back on that vision of love and peace and plenty and walked into the river. And swam. Swam with immense confidence, as if swimming was nothing out of the ordinary for a lion, and yet it was something I’d never seen a lion do in all my years of watching them.
· I was co-leading the Sacred Combe Safari with Chris Breen from www.wildlifeworldwide.com