“Hold on tight, elbows in,” instructed Solly, our guide, as he carefully navigated our four-wheel-drive across the narrow bridge. It’s 5.30am and the sun is just peeking out over the horizon as we head over the water and onto the island known as Duba Plains.
> Visit the Duba Plains image gallery
Duba, as it’s called by the locals, is one of the most remote camps in the Okavango Delta’s northern panhandle. A small, intimate camp with only six Meru-style tents nestled under a shady grove of ebony, fig and mangosteen trees, Duba is also one of the first areas to receive the annual floodwaters which come down from the Angolan highlands around May/June of each year.
It is in this 30 000 hectare wilderness that renowned filmmakers, Beverley and Derek Joubert, first captured their unique and truly riveting story about a pride of lions and herd of buffalo living together on an isolated Delta island. And it’s this story that has finally lured me to Duba to see for myself its legendary lions.
Sunrise, a new day filled with the aromatic smell of wild sage typical of Botswana. My energy levels kick up a gear as we arrive on the island, my eyes scanning the area for any signs of black or bronze.
On the short drive out, I learn that Duba is home to two prides of lion. The Tsaro Pride (with nine adult females and cubs) who operate on the main island where most of the game drives take place, and the Skimmer Pride of 10, whose territory is over on the adjacent Paradise Island.
The Tsaro females are further split into two groups – six females with a scattering of eight cubs and then Silver Eye with two females and five cubs between them. Each pride sticks to their own territory, occasionally overlapping when waiting for the buffalo to circle back into their hunting domain.
I’ve been told that finding the lions is the easy part. So long as they’re hungry, they will hunt, and it’s buffalo that’s mostly on the menu.
By mid-day, temperatures have soared to a sweltering 43 degrees. Casually lying astride an anthill while carefully surveying the scene is a lioness. “Shouldn’t she be fast asleep?” I quip. “In theory she should be,” replies Solly, “but here the lions are different. They hunt by day and have adapted their technique to hunting through the water.”
I notice immediately their size and chiseled physique. They are definitely the biggest, strongest and most beautiful lionesses I have ever seen. With well-developed shoulders, thick necks and expansive chests, they are athletes supreme. Propelled by their thick sprinter’s thighs and lithe lower legs, they are able to move through the water with the ease of an Olympic swimmer. These are the legendary “Swamp Cats” of Duba Plains.
While the stage is set for a perfect enactment, and my heart is set on witnessing the excitement of ‘the hunt’, it’s only after I observe a sad incident of a cub being killed, that my attention changes focus. From across the water I notice, close to the water’s edge, a tiny lion cub. I grab my binoculars; “It’s not moving much,” I remark. “Odd that it’s all by itself and out in the open!’
We skirt round the water’s edge, cautiously approaching so as not to scare it. The cub, its head hung low, has a distant look on its face… then, a short distance away, we find its mother. It’s the 6th female who we’ve not seen yet, and who’s been absent from the pride.
Watching her cub, her face is glum. She calls, but it does not hear her or seem to react. Maybe it’s sick? Perhaps injured? We pull closer, my binoculars pinned. My worst premonition comes true, for under its belly is a huge, gaping hole. It’s been attacked, but by who?
The story dates back to 2005. While filming the incredible “Relentless Enemies”, the Jouberts first witnessed strange Silver Eye behaviour. To their horror, they watched a female leaving a hunt and killing the cubs of another pride female. Over the years, the trend of cub killing has continued unabated and today, some six years on, it is estimated by the guides that over 80 cubs have been killed in this manner.
There has been much debate as to the reasons why the females are killing their offspring. Some say it’s a natural reaction to the confines of living on such a small island, whilst others say it could be a way of naturally controlling the lion numbers. Regardless, the cub killing trend is a worrying aspect when considering the survival of the Swamp Cats and their hunting technique.
As the Tsaro females age, the lionesses become less agile. As practiced over generations, it’s imperative that females teach their offspring the technique of hunting and how water is a vital part of the hunt if their legend is to continue.
Today, the number of free roaming lions left in Africa is in dire decline. Lion numbers have dropped dramatically owing to habitat loss and human infringement on traditional ranges. It is estimated that the total number of lions left in Africa could be as low as 15 000. Twenty years ago it was 250 000.
Listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red Data list, imminent extinction is not on the cards for Africa’s lions, but populations need to be safe-guarded if they are to remain buoyant in the wild.
For more incredible images of Duba Plains, visit our gallery of Lisa's pics...
Duba Plains concession has recently become part of the Great Plains Conservation stable, started by a group of dedicated conservationists who are instrumental in seeking to protect Africa’s biodiversity and great wilderness areas. To find out more about visiting Duba Plains in 2011, visit www.xasafaris.com.