EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 34
By this time Batian had, miraculously, fully recovered from his near fatal injuries. Six weeks had passed since the terrible fight and he had begun to spend more and more time away from the vicinity of the camp. He also began to scent mark again and soon started calling his territorial song. In just a month and a half, he had recovered physically and mentally from being broken, torn, and close to dying. He was strong again in mind and body. The transformation in Batian was extraordinary and inspiring. He had overcome trauma of the very worst kind and in terms of mental recovery was exceeding my expectations by advertising with scent and mighty calls that he was the king of the Tawana and Pitsani valleys. He had shown such enormous courage, courage which in the years to come I would call ‘Batian’s courage’, and it was from this that I drew strength when facing my own challenges and adversities.
Batian disappeared for days at a time and I was often perplexed as to where he might be. I scoured the ground for his tracks in his normal haunts, but found only those of Rafiki and Furaha. I wondered if he was in the north, in the Tuli Safari Area, with the small lioness with whom he had sired cubs. Whenever Rafiki or Furaha visited the camp I scanned the bush while greeting them, half expecting to see Batian. Then, usually late at night or in the mornings, he would appear, happy and looking fit.
On one of these visits, as he rubbed his great body against me, I noticed scratches on his face. This indicated that he had been mating. (Lionesses often swat males on the face as a part of post-coital behaviour.) Furaha was at the camp at the same time, and her keen sniffing of Batian also indicated that he had been in the company of a lioness.
Batian was gone again the following day. I then received a report from a field guide friend, Tom, that he had seen a tailless lion deep in Darky’s territory in the Lower Majale. Could Batian, just three years old, be challenging old Darky for his lionesses and territory? Initially I thought this was unlikely. Darky was a living legend and had ruled over the Lower Majale for more than ten years. Surely Batian, just six weeks after his ordeal, would not have the courage, audacity almost, to venture into the Lower Majale and challenge the old Lion King? The reality was that this was exactly what was happening. I had underestimated Batian.
Although I was both astounded and proud, I was afraid for Batian. Moving south into the Lower Majale territory would bring him close to the dry Limpopo River on the other side of which were the South African game farms and trophy hunters. When I heard that he was in the south, I began searching for him and eventually found him less than a kilometre from the Limpopo River. It was strange seeing him outside his territory. He was nervous and watchful, but as always, very affectionate towards me. I was relieved to find him and I think he found it strange too, to see me beyond our territory.
After spending time with him, I walked back to my vehicle in the late afternoon and drove north for two kilometres. I began calling him from a hill. I wanted him to return north, back to our territory. With the attraction of lionesses in the Lower Majale, a part of me felt that he would not respond to my calls. But once again, I was to underestimate him. I drove on to other hills in the north, calling again, ‘Come on, Batian, come on, look.’
As the sun moved towards the horizon, I continued heading north, stopping at intervals, to climb hills and to call his name. Very early the following morning, Batian appeared at camp. He had walked back to camp following the route I had driven, and called from, for a distance, as the crows flies (less than the distance I had driven), of some fifteen kilometres. The bond between us had persuaded him return to Tawana. I was astonished but relieved that he was once again back in the relatively safe surrounds of the Tawana valley. But this situation would not last long. The following evening he headed south again.
Two days later in the afternoon, on our return from a short trip to South Africa, Julie and I found his tracks on a cut-line road in the southern portion of the reserve. Once again I called him from the hills.
At about nine o’clock that evening, Batian arrived at the camp, tired and thirsty.
This was the last time we would be together.
By morning Batian was gone again. Two days later my former tracker, Dan Sasebola, reported to me that Batian had been seen in the company of a Lower Majale lioness. Dan also had some ominous news. The previous week he had come across a place where two lions had fought, and the battleground was strewn with black mane hair. Darky had not been seen since that time. Given that the Lower Majale area was utilised extensively for game drives, with Darky being seen almost daily, we had to assume that the old male was no more. Incredibly, it seemed that Batian had fought the old pride male and had ousted him.
Darky was never seen again, marking the end of a long leonine era in the Tuli bushlands.
When I heard this, my emotions were conflicting – to the extent that for years, when recounting the events of this period and being in denial, I would state that Darky had simply disappeared. With Darky apparently now dead, I felt great sorrow. The old male was my lion father who had taught me so much about his kind and with whom for over three years, I had shared a deep bond. That bond broke down in 1988 when, as I was about to leave the Tuli, he had repeatedly charged at me and, it seemed, was ousting me.
Now, three years later, my lion son had ousted Darky.
Looking at the events pragmatically, however, Batian’s toppling of Darky was, firstly, the ultimate accolade to the success of his rehabilitation and, secondly, represented the much needed injection of new blood into the Lower Majale pride. As a result of Darky’s long tenure as pride male, which was in part a by-product of the lack of adult male lions in the region – the result of illegal hunting and poaching – the Lower Majale pride, and the Tuli lion population in general, was inbred, with Darky having mated with his own daughters. Normally the tenure for pride males is about three years, before they are ousted by other males, a natural cycle which prevents inbreeding. Darky had been the pride male of the Lower Majale for over ten years.
Late in July 1991, a sub-group of the Lower Majale pride was lured into South Africa. The trophy hunters achieved this by playing feeding sounds through powerful speakers, and by dragging baits. I heard that one lioness had been shot, and another run over by a vehicle. I urgently contacted the conservation authorities in South Africa, requesting permission for the remaining lions to be darted and brought back to the bushlands. I learnt that the lions were on a game farm ten kilometres south of the Limpopo River. I phoned the manager of the farm, and asked him to give me time to organise the relocation. He agreed.
That evening, using the carcass of a donkey as bait, and playing lion-luring sounds, the farm manager, the farm owner, a professional hunter and his American client, waited in a hide for the arrival of a lion.
And there they shot Batian.
While I was frantically trying to organise the relocation of the lions, I received a report that a lion had been shot.
I was told on the phone, ‘The lion had no tail.’
That day, my heart broke.