Band of Brothers: The Legend of the Mapogo Lions
In the 1996 film The Ghost and The Darkness , Val Kilmer plays the role of John Henry Patterson, in a film that focuses on the terrifying story of the Tsavo Man Eaters.
This was a pair of maneless male lions that became the fiercest man eaters the world has ever known. They preyed on the workers constructing a bridge over the River Tsavo, situated in Kenya, during 1898. The lions would wait for the cover of night, and attack the camp with uncanny stealth and brutality. The slaughter continued despite workers building thorn fences and fires around their campsite, and became so bad that hundreds of workers eventually fled the project, halting construction completely.
John Henry Patterson claimed that their were as many as 135 victims. In December of 1898, Patterson killed the first lion followed by the second 20 days later. 100 years after this however, a new Brotherhood was born, but this time there were six of them, and these were not man eaters, but lion eaters.
1. THE EARLY YEARS - A Brotherhood is born
In 2002, in the Sabi Sand game reserve in South Africa, the Sparta Pride was rearing ten cubs. Of these ten there were five males, who would later become known as the Mapogo's (pronounced MA-PAW-GAW), meaning 'Rogue' in Zulu. Each individual had not been named at this stage, but would later be called Pretty Boy (for his fabulously good looks), Rasta (part of his mane looked like dreadlocks), Scar (he was scarred across his back), Mr T (his mane grew in a Mohawk) and Kinky Tail (Kinky Tail had, well, a kinky tail).
The males grew up as lion cubs do, being adventurous and playful, always allowing curiosity to get the better of them, and creating early bonds with their siblings. In the case of the Mapogos, an especially strong bond formed between Mr T and Kinky Tail from a very young age. The pair also showed from early on that they were far bolder and daring than the other brothers were, showing leadership almost immediately.
When we refer to 'a pride of lions', this mainly means the group of females, who stay together in one area for almost all their lives. Daughters will be born into the pride and remain there with their mothers, until in turn they become mothers and a new generation of females holds the area. Males, in contrast, form coalitions, and once they reach maturity are chased by the dominant males of the pride, to start lives of their own and eventually take over their own pride.
Statistics show that only 1 in 8 males survive to maturity, and in the case of the Mapogos, they were fortunate enough to be born into one of the healthiest and functioning pride of lions in the history of Sabi Sand. The Sparta pride had been established for decades, with a large amount of females who were exceptionally good hunters, on some of the best hunting grounds in Africa. The Sparta pride controlled a massive area, and were led by a coalition of five males known as the West Street Males. These males were big and strong and controlled a few different prides, and had almost no outside competition or threat of takeover whatsoever.
The Sparta pride were highly successful hunters with incredible skill, able to successfully take down big prey on almost every occasion. This kept the pride constantly supplied and strong, with the Mapogo brothers learning their skills from the best. The video below shows the Sparta pride taking down a giraffe.
When the brothers were all aged between a year and two years old (please remember they were not all born at the same time and had different mothers), an older male of about 4 years entered the pride. It was expected that he would be killed or chased by the West Street Males, but to massive surprise and disbelief he was readily accepted by males and females alike. It is thought that he may have been a half-brother to the Mapogos, having been fathered by one of the West Street Males in a neighbouring pride. This lion was to become known as Makulu (meaning 'big' in Zulu), and was also to become the sixth Mapogo, as well as their initial leader.
Through their adolescence, the younger five Mapogo brothers grew stronger and became more daring, with Mr T and Kinky Tail's bond becoming even stronger. These two were inseparable, with Mr T being the clear leader of the pair. Kinky Tail always had Mr T's back, ready to back him up in any situation. Even as cubs they were noted as being special, with a 1 year old Mr T not holding back after the pride made a kill, getting into the middle of things as if he had brought the animal down himself.
Once they reached sexual maturity however they were banished from the pride by the West Street Males, to go out and start life on their own, with Makulu joining the other five.
2. A COALTION IS FORMED - The new kids on the block
Once the Mapogo brothers were on their own, their chances of survival dropped dramatically. These are the most dangerous times for any male lion, having nothing but each other. The Mapogos knew their chances of survival were best if they stuck together. Although they had seen on many occasions the expertise of their mothers and fathers in hunting, it was a different story when they had to do it all on their own. They had practiced their skills on animals like honey badgers (very very bad tempered and aggressive creatures it must be said) and guinea fowl, but something like an African buffalo is a whole different story. Even for a whole pride of lions, one of these buffalo is no simple task. As the video below shows, a miscalculated attack on a herd of buffalo can end badly:
Initially the Mapogos struggled, often scavenging on carcasses left by other lions, even reverting to taking on females they came across, only to narrowly escape the wrath of dominant males from various prides. However, over the following months, the Mapogos learnt much, growing stronger and more accurate in their attacks, eventually succeeding regularly in taking down prey of their own. During this time they had taken down several buffalo, a hippo and like their fathers before them, a giraffe. It was also now that it became clear that Mr T and Kinky Tail were the most aggressive of the six, always being in the middle of every attack and taking prey head on while the others would circle and flank to control the attack. Mr T was the meanest of them all, showing extreme aggression when feeding, not letting anything get in his way, even taking on his brothers if need be. Him and Kinky Tail were to take lion behaviour to the next level.
The Mapogos favorite prey became buffalo, something that contributed greatly to their eventual success, as each of them were huge and powerfully built, with killing skills fine tuned to take anything down. The six Mapogos were now ready to claim a territory of their own. For most game rangers and field guides, the idea of six males sticking together was unheard of. Even the West Side Males who numbered 5 were an incredibly rare occurrence. These six lions were about to embark on a reign of terror, the likes of which had never been seen before.
3. TAKEOVER - The bloodbath begins
In 2006, the Mapogo lions moved into the Northern Territory of Sabi Sand, with Makulu as their leader. This area was controlled by four dominant males. The Mapogos knew that if they were to claim a territory of their own, they had to take it by force. Normally when lions move into a new area, they are quiet and hold back to assess the situation. Not these guys. They moved in, marking territory immediately, roaring loudly and making their presence known. They immediately challenged the dominant males of the area, killing the first with ease as the remaining three fled for their lives. From this first takeover, they established a foothold and knew that none would be able to stop them. Over the next year they killed any dominant male that crossed their path, taking down any coalition they came across. Most lions fled immediately after simply seeing how outnumbered they were, and those unfortunate enough not to get away were swiftly executed.
The Mapogos showed their most brutal side yet again when they came across a pride called to Othawa pride, which consisted of three females and eleven cubs. The Mapogos had been closing in on them for a while, and eventually the confrontation began. Females know that new males will be a huge threat to their cubs, and defend them as much as they can. However against six fully grown, exceptionally powerful males these three females had no chance. They tried in vain to hold the Mapogos off, but were too weak and surrendered their defenses. The Mapogos found and killed every single cub. Male lions have no reason to play step father to another males cubs, instead siring a new generation of their own. Soon after females lose their cubs they go back into heat, allowing the Mapogos to mate with them and fully secure the territory with their own bloodline. Over the coming months the Mapogo brothers found and killed every single cub in Sabi, but the extra chilling factor was that they ate the cubs too. Mr T and Kinky Tail again showed excessive aggression when doing this, ripping cubs apart and making absolutely sure none were left alive.
Now that the Mapogos were coming into their prime, competition to mate was intense. Even when a female came into heat and was ready to mate, if she could not make up her mind as to which brother to mate with, they would turn on her and rip her apart. This was another display of the bond they shared, and the unprecendeted levels of aggression. Mr T was seen on one occasion suffocating a female after he mated with her, holding on for about 15 minutes until she was dead, then proceeded to eat her. Behaviour like this had never been documented before. Over the next year the Mapogos took over pride after pride killing any lion that posed a threat to them. Rangers from the park reported that lion numbers had visabally dropped, estimating that the Mapogos had killed over 100 other lions that year. It was to be a complete shift in the very eco system of Sabi Sand.
Now that the Mapogos had conquered the entire park, there were none that could challenge them. The biggest threat to the coalition now came from within.
4. A REIGN TO THE END - Fight to the death
By 2008, the Mapogos controlled an area so large that it was previously divided into five separate territories. This was approximately 70,000 hactares. It was again the first time anybody had ever heard of a coalition controlling an area of this magnitude. The shear distance they had travelled from their birth place was staggering. They were in control of more than eight prides. They were truly Kings Of The Jungle. However, for Mr T and Kinky Tail, this was not enough. With Makulu always being the boss of the Mapogos, Mr T and Kinky Tail felt it was time they were in charge of their own prides. After a huge fight between Mr T and Makulu, with Makulu coming out on top, Mr T and Kinky Tail separated from the other four. Not only had a coalition of six males been a first for many, but a coalition splitting in two to defend separate areas was unheard of.
For the next two years, the Two and the Four defended areas adjacent to each other. Makulu was quite comfortable running his territory and had little threat posed to him, whereas Mr T and Kinky Tail were constantly facing nomadic males coming in from The Kruger National Park, to the east of Sabi Sand. The only way these nomads could get to Makulu and co was through Mr T and Kinky Tail. However the pair fought off all that came there way and held their ground. But then a new threat arrived, in the form of a five-lion coalition, known as the Majingilanes(MA-JIN-GI-LAN-IS).
Having never lost a fight before, Mr T and Kinky Tail were confident they could take this new threat on. Indeed, they were able to isolate one of the Majingilanes and take him down, showing their infamous savagery in the process. While Mr T was attacking the head of the Majingilane, Kinky Tail was climbing into the groin, tearing apart the soft under belly. All the while Kinky Tail was roaring, whilst ripping pieces of his enemy off. This was yet another first ever sighting of such brutality in lions. After they had killed the Majingilane, the pair headed off to recover, having been injured as well in the fight. It was then that the remaining four Majingilane cornered Kinky Tail, tearing him limb from limb. Kinky Tail being Kinky Tail fought with all his might, but this was one fight he could not win. By the next morning, vultures, jackals and hyenas had carried off the remains of Kinky Tail, this once unstoppable pinnacle of nature. Below is a video of the fall of Kinky Tail (graphic content!):
Mr T, now without his lifelong companion, knew that he could not hold the territory on his own. He ventured back west, over a period of about two years, to rejoin Makulu and his remaining brothers. Many expected Mr T to be seen as a threat now because they all had families and cubs of their own. However he was readily accepted back, with no hostility whatsoever. But this was Mr T. Within days of his return, he did what came naturally and moved to take over the pride. He massacred all of the cubs, seeking each one out and killing and eating them. His brothers did nothing to stop the slaughter. It was clear that there was suddenly a new king in the West. However the Majingilanes continued to move in on them, and one day Rasta and Pretty Boy disappeared, assumed to have been killed the by the Majingilanes. The once mighty coalition of the six Mapogos was now down to three, Mr T, Makulu and Scar, and most of their territory had been lost, with any cubs almost certainly killed in the process.
In March 2012, a new coalition of five lions moved into the Mapogo territory. This was to be the end of their six year long reign of Sabi Sand. Mr T was now 10, Scar 12 and Makulu 14. With a young and strong lions approaching their prime coming in, the remaining Mapogos had no chance. Mr T went down as Mr T would have, fiercely fighting off four of these newcomers for hours, before finally succumbing to his injuries. Makulu and Scar had no choice but to flee Sabi Sand, to live out their remaining days in exile. The video below shows the last battle of Mr T (graphic content!):
This incredible story of 6 brothers had seen its final chapter. They were the absolute prime examples of what lions must be, taking their quest for dominance to an unprecendented level.
This blog was based on the documentary Brothers in Blood: Lions of The Sabi Sand.