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Cecil and Xanda’s Prides – Intimate Encounters With The World’s Most Famous Lions

One of Xanda’s females (the one with the zany eye) on a buffalo kill in Hwange.

HWANGE NATIONAL PARK, ZIMBABWE

Just last month I was visiting Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe with my parents.  We were staying at The Hide, which was perhaps one of the most incredible lodges we have ever had the pleasure of visiting.  We were there to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents and our stay in Hwange topped off a large road trip in Namibia and a visit to Victoria Falls.

A member of Xanda’s pride under a tree in the spectacular Mbiza grasslands of Hwange.

XANDA’S PRIDE

On our first morning safari from The Hide, we were driven out to an incredible stretch of grasslands called Mbiza.  Imagine, if you will, a vast expanse of Awni grass dotted with charismatic Ilala Palms and stands of teak and this is what unfolded before our eyes as the sun rose that day.  We were heading out there because we heard that a local Lion pride was on a buffalo kill so, not wanting to miss a spectacle, we made a beeline for them.  On our arrival we met another solo safari vehicle who had arrived also to see what was happening. 

The eye of a Lion.

Since we love lions (my father particularly has a soft spot for them), we decided to stay on long after the other vehicle had left and simply watch the dynamics of this pride with its kill.  It was a good decision.  Over the space of nearly four hours we experienced a breathtaking series of events that allowed us a truly intimate glimpse of what happens at a kill like this.  We watched several lion cubs playing with each other; mothers establishing their dominance over the younger lions at the carcass and we had lion cubs come and rest in the shade of our truck (which made us feel we could literally reach out and touch them – of course we didn’t!). 

Two of Xanda’s cubs playing in the grass.

As news of the kill spread through the nature around us, we watched curious Black-backed Jackals gently approach the scene from down wind and then came the vultures. 

Smelling the buffalo carcass from downwind, a Black-backed Jackal edges his way towards Xanda’s pride, hoping for left overs.

For the first time ever I saw a Black-backed Jackal try to catch a swooping Hooded Vulture from its ambush point deep in the grasses.  Sadly I wasn’t fast enough to get a shot of that but we all laughed when we saw lion cubs getting quite worried that the vultures might steal their food so they too tried to catch these massive birds in flight. 

A White-backed Vulture flies in to the scene.

A Tawny Eagle soars overhead looking upwards to check for vultures in the skies nearby.

Two of Xanda’s cubs chasing vultures. Although this isn’t such a great photo, it was hilarious to watch!

Finding it difficult to tear ourselves away, we decided to distance ourselves a few hundred metres so we could have a coffee.  We moved to the other side of a small reservoir which was kept filled by a whistling, grinding windmill that we could hear while we watched. 

One of Xanda’s females “Stumpy”.

Sitting there we spotted three African Buffalo ambling down to the reservoir to drink.  None of us thought the lion pride would be interested in these buffalo.  After all, they had spent the morning feasting on a buffalo already.  Suddenly, the resting lions sprung into action from their shady spot and hid behind a termite mound to watch the buffalos drinking!  It was like you could almost see them strategising how they might separate a solo buffalo out from the other two to hunt it.  A group of three buffalos is a dangerous thing for lions.  We later learned that the pride leader, a male named Xander, had been at the existing buffalo kill the day before and while he was eating another buffalo suddenly rammed him off the carcass and tossed him into the air.  We never witnessed that but the owners of The Hide were keen to find out if we’d seen him the next day as they were fearing the worst.  Was he fatally injured?  Dead? 

One of Xanda’s cubs enjoying breakfast.

It turned out his pride only mock hunted one of the buffalos while we sat watching them from a few hundred metres away. 

“Which one should we go for?”. Xanda’s pride contemplates another buffalo kill from behind a termite mound.

Stalking African Buffalos.

When a lion stalks its prey, it is surprising how camouflaged they are!

We never relocated Xanda but over the course of that morning we felt we’d become more intimately acquainted with his pride.  All of us were worried about him.  The loss of a male pride leader disrupts the entire pride dynamic and since we saw two females looking after an active group of seven cubs, we hoped that all of the cubs wouldn’t lose their father. 

 

One of Xanda’s smaller cubs.

After taking a break for lunch back at the lodge, we met for our afternoon safari.  “Where would you like to go?” we were asked.  “Can we go back to Xanda’s pride on the kill?”.  The sun had gone behind clouds by the time we arrived back at the buffalo carcass.  The second visit allowed us to study this pride a little more closely.

And I looked into the eyes of a Lion.

The two main females of Xanda’s pride were a motley pair.  One of them is affectionately called “Stumpy” because the last part of her tail is missing.  The other sported a wicked glint in her eye, the result of a fight or failed hunt perhaps.  Regardless, they both seem to be great mothers of those cubs, that looked like they varied in age. 

Xanda’s zany eyed female.

One of Xanda’s cubs smells its mother.

“Yes! That’s MY mummy!”

Spending time with Xanda’s pride over a whole day left us with memories of a lifetime.  We hoped that we could go back to them the following day but then we also felt we should let them have a break from safari vehicles watching for a while so we went off to explore other areas of the park near the lodge.

The beautiful grasslands of Mbiza, where we spent most of our time with Xanda’s pride.

CECIL’S PRIDE

“Inger!  Are you awake?  There are lions at our waterhole!”  announced lodge manager Leanne at the door of my room after dinner.  I woke and looked out from my bed.  Several pale figures were running next to the waterhole in the darkness.  Suddently an unsuspecting elephant came to try and drink but the lions rounded it up and out of fear it trumpeted loudly, stomped its feet and then ran off. 

Stumpy heads towards us in the early morning sun.

The next morning we learned that the pride we had watched from our beds was the pride of famous lion Cecil.  Early morning safari drivers had found them on a Wildebeest kill so Ian and Leanne asked if we would like to visit them on our drive out of the park.  “Of course!” we replied.  After his tragic death at the hands of a trophy hunter in 2015, visiting the pride of one of Hwange’s most loved lions was almost like visiting royalty.  We found them in the grasslands.  They had dragged their Wildebeest kill into a place where we couldn’t see it very clearly.  Sadly we were on our way out of the park.  It was our last day in Zimbabwe so we had the long drive back to Victoria Falls ahead of us and we didn’t have time to linger. 

Two Lionesses surviving famous Lion, Cecil.

THE TRAGIC STORY OF CECIL AND XANDA

In 2015, Cecil, one of Hwange’s male lion pride leaders was killed by a trophy hunter.  His death caused a justifiable, global outrage and shone a highlight on trophy hunting in Africa.  While several members of Cecil’s pride formed the group we saw on our last morning in Hwange, the death of a dominant male lion completely disrupts pride structures.  Younger cubs could, without the protection of a father, be killed by other males so the females are forced into estrus. 

A new male in Cecil’s pride.

Xanda is the son of Cecil.  It is with a heavy heart that I write this.  Although the news was only made public yesterday (20 July), Xanda lost his life to a trophy hunter also on 7 July, just over two weeks after we enjoyed an entire day with his pride.

Cecil’s pride.

His death was apparently done at the hands of a legitimate hunting tourism operator, it occurred close to where his father died in the same way, and although Xanda also was a collared male research animal, he was over six years old and outside the park boundaries. This means that his death is legal under the law of Zimbabwe.   

Cecil’s pride.

Scientists working with these lions argue that the funds used in trophy hunts like this support their conservation work.  I do wonder if those funds couldn’t come from higher fees charged by lodges to guests who are NOT hunting?  If I knew that a part of my costs of staying at a lodge in Zimbabwe would help prides like Xanda’s and Cecil’s survive into the future, I would pay the fee without hesitation. 

Surely there is a better way than allowing trophy hunting of lions to continue?

Cecil’s pride.

2 thoughts on “Cecil and Xanda’s Prides – Intimate Encounters With The World’s Most Famous Lions

  1. Aditi says:

    Please do something towards stopping this cruel game…

    • inger says:

      Hi Aditi, I wish I could. Sadly a lot of these situations are out of my hands. All I can do is help to raise awareness for this terrible industry.

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