Early one morning last August, Serengeti Lion Project researchers found Hildur, a Herculean male with a blond mane, limping around near a grassy ditch. He was sticking close to one of the pride’s four females, whose newborn cubs were hidden in a nearby stand of reeds. He was roaring softly, possibly in an effort to contact his darker-maned co-leader. But C-Boy, the researchers saw, had been cornered on the crest of a nearby hill by a fearsome trio of snarling males whom Packer and colleagues call The Killers.
The whole scene looked like a “takeover,” a brief, devastating clash in which a coalition of males tries to seize control of a pride. Resident males may be mortally wounded in the fighting. If the invaders are victorious, they kill all the young cubs to bring the pride’s females into heat again. Females sometimes die fighting to defend their cubs.
The researchers suspected that The Killers, who normally live near a river 12 miles away, had already dispatched two females from a different pride—thus The Killers earned their names.
C-Boy, surrounded, gave a strangled growl. The Killers fell on him, first two, then all three, slashing and biting as he swerved, their blows falling on his vulnerable hindquarters. The violence lasted less than a minute, but C-Boy’s flanks looked as if they’d been flayed with whips. Apparently satisfied their opponent was crippled, The Killers turned and trotted off toward the marsh, almost in lock step, as Hildur’s female companion crept toward a stand of reeds.
None of the Jua Kali lions had been spotted since the fight, but we kept riding out to their territory to look for them. We didn’t know if C-Boy had survived or if the cubs had made it. Finally, one afternoon we found JKM, the mother of the Jua Kali litter, lolling atop a termite mound as large and intricate as a pipe organ.
“Hey there, sweetness,” Packer said to her as we pulled up. “Where are your cubs?”
JKM had her eye on a kongoni antelope a few miles away; unfortunately, it was watching her, too. She was also scanning the sky for vultures, perhaps in the hopes of scavenging a hyena kill. She stood up and ambled off into the hip-high grass. We could see dark circles around her nipples: she was still lactating. Against the odds, her cubs seemed to have survived.
Perhaps the apparent good fortune of the Jua Kali cubs was linked to another recent sighting, Packer speculated: a female from another nearby group, the Mukoma Hill pride, had been seen moving her own tiny bobble-headed cubs. The cubs were panting and mewling pitifully, clearly in distress; normally cubs stay in their den during the heat of the day. The Killers might have forsaken the Jua Kali females to take over the Mukoma Hill pride, which inhabits richer territory near river confluences to the north. The woodlands there, said Packer, were controlled by a series of “dinky little pairs of males”: elderly Fellow and Jell-O; Porkie and Pie; and Wallace, the Mukoma Hill leader, whose partner, William, had recently died.
Packer recalled a similar pattern of invasion in the early 1980s by the Seven Samurai, a coalition of males, several with spectacular black manes, who had once brought down two adult, 1,000-pound Cape buffaloes and a calf in a single day. After storming the north they’d sired hundreds of cubs and ruled the savanna for a dozen years.