Summer 2023 | Herman Chong

Finding lions in a camel thorn tree

A 4-month old lion cub playing in a camel thorn tree

It was still dark at 5.30am when I made my way to the Motse to meet up with my guests, ready for a rousing morning of tracking the black-maned lions for which the Kalahari is famous. We had decided the day before that we would head out east to Lekgaba, the location where the lions had last been seen. As we crested the dune, the glow of the sunrise created a silhouette of mountains in the distance, a pleasing first light of day in the beautiful Kalahari, amplified even more by birds chirping and grasses waving in the wind.

Searching for Kalahari black-maned lions

Our tracker, Piet, noticed fresh lion tracks at the base of a mountain, heading north, indicating that the south pride lions might have been there. I stopped the vehicle for a moment, which allowed Piet to inform the guests about the tracks and some interesting facts about them. The excitement in the vehicle was almost tangible and soon we were off and followed them as they continued down the road and into a neighbouring block. We followed our usual tracking protocol of closing off blocks and with each area we covered, we knew we were getting closer and closer to the lions.


sand road through the grass looking towards the Korannaberg mountains


Tracking lions through dense vegetation

The tracks seemed to lead to Bruwer Pan. We hoped we would find some lions drinking from the pan, but it was not to be. Piet picked up on some tracks heading east and we did not hesitate to follow them into a block of thickets and shrubs. We were rewarded with the sight of three south pride lionesses resting in the shade after an unsuccessful night of hunting.

After a while, one female started moving away, and we followed her in the hope of seeing more lions. She moved west, all the way back to the pan and started making soft, gentle contact calls. Not long after, two four-month-old cubs came out to greet her in the fresh morning air. The youngsters followed their mother for a drink of water from the pan, playing around her.


Lioness and cubs drinking



Tswalu’s tree-climbing lions

The majestic lioness slowly made her way to a large camel thorn tree close to the pan, only about 15 metres from our vehicle. She jumped nimbly into the tree – not typical lion behaviour – followed, less gracefully, by her youngsters. It was evident that this was not the first time the lions had climbed the tree, as the trunk was scarred with deep scrapes and claw marks. The lioness positioned herself on a higher fork in the branches to survey her surroundings. Meanwhile, her cubs enjoyed the natural playground and attempted to climb higher in the tree. One of the cubs even took advantage of the other’s lack of climbing skills and prepared an ambush at the base of the tree.


Lion cubs at the base of a camelthorn tree


Thumping could be heard as the youngsters roughly tackled and frolicked at the base of the tree and in the clearing, before they decided to climb into another tree, right next to our vehicle! We were entertained by their playfulness amongst the Kalahari sunflowers. With their mother still in the tree, the cubs were clearly testing their boundaries.


lion cubs playing beneath a camelthorn tree


Even lion mothers have to be patient

One cub stayed beneath the tree, overshadowed by its mother, a powerful image of the majestic beast it would grow into, lifting its head and looking up at her. The second cub had other plans. He climbed the tree, slipping here and there, before nipping at his mother’s swishing tail. He bit her hind leg and was put swiftly in his place with a warning snarl, almost falling out of the tree. Both cubs waited for their mother at the base of the tree, ambushing her the moment she dropped down to the ground next to them.

She started to move away and was followed by the youngsters, who continued to tackle and jump on each other as they followed their mother. A very endearing sight that reminded us all of the patience and gentle love of a mother.


Lion cub playing with mothers tail

All images by Barry Peiser.