I have been reminiscing a lot lately about being on a safari, the excitement of what could be around the next corner but mostly about lions, and more specifically the Birmingham Male. If you have been on a safari with me you might have heard about these lions. So for this week’s blog I thought I would tell you a short story about how I got to know these lions and how they are still part of my life today. These lions have become synonymous of the Sabi Sand game reserve, with photos and stories often being shared on social media by lodges that surround that area, but today I would like to take you back to when they were first seen.
The Birmingham Pride stopping for an afternoon drink
When I started my career as a safari guide I was lucky enough to work at Ngala Private Game Reserve. This untamed piece of wilderness shares a huge boundary with the Kruger National Park so when you are driving around the property, you really have the sense that you could see anything, at anytime and it rarely disappointed. On one particular morning that is exactly what happened. I was working with a great tracker by the name of Jimmy, we were driving a typically quiet part of the reserve when suddenly his hand flicked off the hood of the vehicle.
Photos From Ngala & my friend Jimmy
At this stage of my life I had been a guide for just 10 months, but I will never forget this day as it was the first (of many) that I was blown away by the skills a tracker. Jimmy bent down to inspect the tracks. On the road there were tracks of a male and female lion, he looked at me with excitement in his eyes and said “Species (what he used to call me) these tracks are fresh, we will find these lions on the road.” I turned away half rolling my eyes and thinking there is just no way that he knows that! Fast forward to 3 minutes later, we rounded a corner that opened into a small clearing and there they were, 2 magnificent lions striding down the road and a huge slice of humble pie for a young Fin. We had not been there 2 minutes when the lioness began to contact call and from the edge of the clearing ran 12 tiny lion cubs. Before that we did see that pride of lions often on Ngala and we definitely did not know that they had cubs. Within these 12 cubs, were the Birmingham males.
When the whole Birmingham pride was together they were 29 strong, what a sight it was seeing all of them striding towards your safari vehicle. Just take a quick moment to try and imagine that. Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of all 29 of them together but I did manage to capture a few of them drinking together (the first photo in the blog). Big prides, often called super prides, although for us are amazing to see, for the females it becomes a lot of work to try and keep these lions alive. It is no secret that mortality rate of lion cubs is between 50 – 80% and with such a large pride you can just imagine that the chances of these cubs of survival to maturity is close to the 80% mark. Just think about that, you are born into a world in which you have only a 1 in 5 chance of survival. There was always huge competition at meal time, even to the point where young lions would sleep in the position they were feeding just so that they didn’t lose out.
A map of where the Birmimgham males were born and where they established their territory
Once male lions get to a certain age, their father will push them out of the pride they were born into and they become nomadic lions. Wonder the plains, avoiding other bigger, stronger males and feeding by any means necessary. Eventually when they become strong enough males will begin challenging for territories and most importantly females. The Birmingham males, when young, were a coalition of 5 which most certainly added to the success of these males. This story is something I look back on with fondness, I was lucky enough to be there when they were cubs, where I watched them grow and then I had the privilege to observe them as dominate males many years later. Not many are afforded that privilege. Below are some of my favorite images that myself and Thais took of these majestic animals.
Lastly I thought I would add a video of my absolute favorite part of being on a safari, probably the thing I miss the most. I think it is because you are able to feel the raw power of these animals, as they roar so loudly a couple meters from the vehicle that the whole car shakes. Turn your volume up and enjoy …..
What has happened to them now? I wonder the same thing! I feel like I have been out of the ‘game’ for a bit to long to find out what has happened to all the animals I used to see on a regular basis. A part of me is happy with not knowing as usually things don’t end that well for male lions, I like to remember them how I told the story today, and how lucky I was to capture so many of these images that I can look back on with fondness.