Male Lion Coalitions in the Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park

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When visiting the Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park for a safari, travelers get up-close with a number of animals, including lions (Panthera Leo) who elicit a different response in everybody. If you have been lucky to see a male lion or better yet one of the male lion coalitions in this region, you will never forget the size, grace and beauty, combined with the supreme confidence and air of supremacy they demand.One thing that we all feel when we see lions is their physical strength, family unity and the power of their roar - heard up to eight kilometers away. The pride bonds that are seen can be compared to our own experiences, and the love and devotion of pride females to each other and their cubs can be understood by all the mothers that walk the earth.

How do Male Lion Coalitions Form?

Male lion drinking from a waterhole
Male lions have a prominent mane that grows with age and several battle scars in their fights for territory.

The male lion is a dominant force in the wild and is constantly challenged by others who seek their territory. Male coalitions are a means of gaining territory and female lions who rear their young and do most of the hunting for the pride. The more lions, the stronger they become as a pride. Lions within a pride are affectionate and it is not uncommon to even see brothers head rubbing and licking one another.

The size of a coalition varies from two males to seven males and is generally made up of brothers and cousins. The bond begins when they are cubs and they remain together as one united force. A coalition of male lions in their prime can be crucial in establishing and maintaining a large territory. The male lions will roar and use scent markings to establish their territory. Big coalition groups tend to have better feeding opportunities, with more paws to assist in the hunt.Male lions grow a huge mane of fur around their necks - hair as long as 23 centimeters. These manes cover most of their head, neck, shoulders and chest. It was always thought that the manes protected male lions from injury during fights but it is now thought that it is an indication of a males well-being and virility. It now believed that males with darker manes show higher levels of testosterone, show great strength, and live longer.

Lion Behavior

A lion showing dominance by growling and showing teeth
Lions will display their dominance by growling and showing their canines as a warning.

My experience or initial initiation into lion pride behavior was the same as we all have. A group of lionesses and cubs, accompanied by a majestic male, ultimately form the lion pride that we all think we know. But what we don’t understand is the role that male lions play in the pride makeup. It is not as simple as we all think as we have to look at it from both the female and male points of views.

Generally, the lionesses that form the core of the pride are very separate from the males. They are made up of sisters, aunts, mothers and daughters, and essentially make up what we know as a lion pride. They will generally stick together for life unless circumstances such as drought, competition or pride dynamics force them to leave. They will fight for territories with other female core prides, and secure an area of acceptable size to command.Male lion coalitions are necessary as a means of securing territories and taking over as many female prides as possible.

Male Lion Coalitions in the Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands

Four male lions share an alliance.
Four male lions form a coalition which bonds them for life as they battle for territory.

Now imagine male lion coalitions of up to six lions securing territories, and commanding them with mob justice and savage intensity. This is what is happening in the greater Kruger National Park (KNP), specifically in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve.Here, there are not one, but several male lion coalitions that are waging war in a territorial battle. There are the notorious  Tsalala, Birmingham, Avoca, Mapogo, Majingalane’s and the Matimba male lion coalitions.

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Tsalala Male Lion Coalition

The Tsalala Males are a group of relatively young lions (approximately six years old), who come from the central Sabi Sand, and have been around the Lion Sands region for a few years now. While they have numbers on their side, they are still inexperienced. It could be another few years before they are in their prime and ready to take over this territory.

Tsalala males drinking from a waterhole
The young Tsalala males drinking from a waterhole as they patrol their territory.

The three males are often seen on Mala Mala with their tailless aunt who leads the young lionesses of the pride, including their sister, but they are not yet strong enough for a face off with the Birmingham males.

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Birmingham Male Lion Coalition

This pride of five brothers that were pushed out by their father to avoid competition, continue to extend their territory and have been seen in the South Western parts of the reserve and in the western corner. They are often seen in Buffelshoek, Chitwa Chitwa, Djuma, Nkorho, Cheetah Plains, Arathusa, and the very northern area of Mala Mala.

A birmingham male lion resting in the thicket

A incredible sighting of one of the Birmingham male lions captured by James Tyrrell.

Avoca Male Lion Coalition

The Avoca male lions began consistently turning up at Lion Sands Game Reserve in the Sabi Sands. They have made it known they are also interested in dominating this area, and have been seen patrolling and scent marking, and heard vocalizing. They are slightly older than the Tsalalas (over five years old) and also appear big for their age – with the confidence to go along with it! Perhaps that will be enough for them to fend off the competition.

Two young male lion brothers looking confident and strong
This team of young brothers are maturing with their beautiful manes starting to make an appearance.

The young Avoca males were once a coalition of five young brothers but the two older males left their three younger brothers behind with the pride. The two older brothers are in the southern Sabi Sands and the three younger brothers are in Djuma/Buffelshoek region.The two older brothers was born in early 2013 and the three younger males were born a few months later.  All five males were fathered by the old Avoca male lion coalition and come from the Avoca pride in the Timbavati.

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Mapogo Male Lion Coalition

The Mapogo coalition (six male lions) is the oldest and current established coalition. I was personally lucky enough to spend three years with these magnificent beasts, and I will never forget the first day I saw all six of them strolling into the reserve where I worked. They walked in as adrenaline filled, testosterone-fueled beasts with the confidence of old soldiers. They annihilated the old dominant males and proceeded to take over all of the prides in the Northern and Western Sabi Sands. They killed many cubs, protective lionesses and other male lions that stood in their way.

group of three male lions marking their territory
Coalitions are normally made up of brothers, half-brothers, or cousins who hunt and fight off threats together.

A group of male lions walk through the bush as a means of marking their territory and searching for food.Six years later, they have sired many cubs, have been the most accomplished big game hunters I have heard of and have become legends. Now, battle-scarred and weary, but soldiering on, their reign is now being challenged by the Majingalane coalition. They have been whittled down to three members, as two members were killed by the Majingalanes, and the cause of the thirds death is unknown.

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Majinglane Male Lion Coalition

These four males were regarded as one of Southern Africa’s truly iconic coalitions, known for their strength and killings of hyenas. The coalition showed signs of ageing in early 2014 and in 2018 they were finally gone, with the Birmingham males claiming most of their territory.

Male lion coalitions patrol and mark their territory
A coalition of four male lions walking down the road patrolling and hunting in their territory.

Let’s Discover the Kruger

The Matimba Male Lion Coalition

The Matimba coalition of six males that are from the Kruger National Park and have always been seen bordering on the territories of the Majinglanes and the Mapogos. They had not made any moves to secure these territories before the Majinglanes had gone.

One of the male lion coalitions resting in the heat of the day.
Lions are known to hunt at night and rest during the heat of the day as a way of conserving their energy.

In 2017, the two huge Matimba male lions packed up and left, making way for the Birmingham males who were making their presence known. But now it seems, history has repeated itself, and the Matimba males have once gain moved into a territory recently vacated by the Majinglane - the western Sabi Sands. The Matimba males need to sire cubs in the western sector in order to secure the future of their bloodline.

Let’s Journey through the Kruger

All that we know is that these coalitions have given us amazing viewing and some phenomenal insights into lion behavior. With the global populations of lions dropping to only 20 000, interactions like these might not be witnessed by our children and grandchildren. It is so important to understand these interactions and to visit these reserves, which keeps their populations safe and stable.

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