“Legend” – A person whose fame or notoriety makes him a source of exaggerated or romanticised tales or exploits.
‘Legend’ is a word that is thrown around all too often in this day and age, but the term surmises the reign of the Mapogo lions in the Sabi Sands (Greater Kruger)to perfection. For the last six years or so, this notorious band of brothers has ruled the area with an iron paw. They are true warriors and have proved themselves time after time on the field of battle. During their prime, 6 of these magnificent specimens patrolled their territory, dispatching all competitors and striking fear into the hearts of all that found themselves in their way.
Legend has it that the Mapogo has been responsible for killing more than 40 males, females and cubs as they stamped their authority on their domain. Whole prides have been wiped out in their relentless march for dominance and challengers have been eaten in an act of defiance: a fate almost unheard of in the species of Panthera leo. The former warden of the Sabi Sands has been cited saying that he believes them accountable for over 100 lion fatalities although the true number will probably never be known. Never before has the lion population known such a force and it is stories like this that have elevated their exploits to legendary status.
These brothers may have a fearsome reputation, but in the world of the lion, they should be seen as the epitomes of what a successful coalition should be. They have been labelled as sadistic and remorseless to mention only a few adjectives assigned to them, but their exploits have ensured safe breeding grounds and stability in an area of unusually high competition. Their success has changed the dynamic of the lion population in this area forever, and it is no surprise to me that litters are becoming more and more skewed in favour of male offspring. This is an inevitable outcome as nature attempts to balance the scales and provide a more level playing field.
In recent years, new and equally formidable coalitions have been responsible for whittling down the Mapogo’s numbers as territorial lines were drawn in the sand and crossed, and repeated battles were waged. The Majingilanes in the north and the Southern Pride males in the south have both had their say in the shaping of the new regime, and now all that remains of the mighty Mapogo are two ageing specimens known as Makhulu and Pretty Boy.
Since being overthrown by the Southern Pride males, the last of these legends have been sighted regularly on Sabi Sabi as they search for new territory or maybe just sanctuary as they live out the remainder of their days. At 14 and 11 years of age, they have surpassed the life expectancy of most male lions and carry the scars of years of conflict on the front line.
During my six years of working the bush I have been privileged to view and come into close contact with many different lions from different areas of South Africa and Tanzania, but I can honestly say that I have never witnessed such magnificent specimens as these two remaining legends. Perhaps it is the stigma attached to them that accentuates their aura, but they are the most intimidating lions that I have laid eyes upon. It is not merely their freakish size and musculature that raises the adrenaline levels and starts the heart pounding, but the look contained deep within their eyes.
Peering into those yellow abysses, one can truly feel the history and experience of many a hard-fought battle in which the deciding factor was not just power, but a will to survive. Their eyes bore through you like no other lions I have even seen, and I refuse to believe anyone who claims to not feel a slight pang of uncertainty when they stare back at you. The uneasiness of their presence is something that I have never felt before when watching the Kruger males. For fear of downplaying the current kings of Sabi Sabi, the last of the Mapogo make them look like kittens.
It is hard not to paint the Mapogos as terrifying, evil beasts due to the wrath they have rained down on the area but I hope that they are remembered as great rulers and protectors. They have raised the bar as to the expectations of male coalitions in so far as protecting territory and ensuring their genetic success. They should be seen as role models, not killers.
In conclusion then, legendary status is hard to achieve but ask anyone who has worked in the Sabi Sands for the last seven years, and they will tell you tales of the Mapogo. Sadistic tyrants or protective fathers? Both could be claimed true, but the fact is that their arrival heralded a new age of the lion population in the Sabi Sands. Love them or hate them, their exploits will never be forgotten. These tales will no doubt be embellished and exaggerated, but this is how great icons are born. Over time, these stories will become myths and myths will become legends: a fitting legacy for the most famous lions of the modern era.