THE MAPOGO LIONS
Notorious, infamous, legendary, brutal… these are all words commonly used to describe the Mapogo Lions of the Sabi Sands.
Their story is shocking and intriguing. It is a display of wildlife behaviour that is exceptional and baffling.
The Mapogo Lions were a coalition of six male lions who domineered the Sabi Sands area and displayed levels of brutality and violence never before seen amongst lions.
Their reign involved cannibalism and infanticide, and they are rumoured to have killed up to 100 lions.
Who were the infamous six?
The coalition was allegedly named after a South African security company known for using rather harsh methods for dealing with offenders (the company is no longer in existence).
Other interpretations of ‘mapogo’ include it to be the Zulu word for ‘rogue’ and the siSwati word for a group operating together for greater security.
All are fitting descriptions.
Born in 1998 and the oldest of the Mapogos, Makhulu was the only outsider to join the coalition. He was the largest of the six and thus his name – makhulu translates to ‘big’ or ‘impressive’ in Xhosa and Zulu.
2. Pretty Boy
Named so because he was extremely strategic and avoided fights so he had fewer scars than the other Mapogos.
3. Mr T (Satan)
Mr T had a unique mohawk mane resembling his namesake A-Team character’s hairstyle. Rather dramatically, he also received the nickname ‘satan’ after he killed his own brother’s cubs.
4. Skew Spine
Very literally named because of the distinctive scar on his spine and left hip.
5. Dreadlocks / Rasta
This Mapogo member had something caught in his mane which caused the fur to form a dreadlock of sorts.
6. Kinky Tail
Another literal name, he was identified by the kink in his tail.
Five Brothers and an Outsider
Makhulu was the only non-blood member of the Mapogo Lions. There is no definitive evidence of his background, but general consensus is that he came from the Sparta Pride, where he was an outcast.
In May / June 2000, the Sparta pride lost a sub-adult male of about 20 months of age. In July that same year, a male of the same age (who became known as Makhulu) joined the five brothers of the Mapogo.
Coming from the life of an outsider in the Sparta pride, he became one of the most valued hunters in the Mapogo coalition.
The five brothers were also from the Sparta pride but born later, the summer of 2001 / 2002.
It was in 2004 that the coalition moved west and began their bid for territory in the Sabi Sand area.
An Unusual Number
It is not common to have such large coalitions. However, for quite some time, the Kruger Park area, especially the Sabi Sands, has been known to produce mega prides. A possible reason for this is that the abundance of prey makes the area very productive for predators. This, in conjunction with other factors, have led the lions to operate in unusually small territories. It is possible that because territories are smaller, coalitions needed added power and security to ensure they do not lose their territory.
But it is important to note: a mega pride will have four or five dominant lions. So, the Mapogo coalition of six is still a rare occurrence!
The brothers were kicked out of the Sparta pride. Left to fend for themselves, they resorted to scavenging from lionesses’ hunts.
As they grew more proficient in hunting, they began to take down their own prey. They killed hippos, young rhino, giraffe and other prey, but their specialty was buffalo. In fact, predator expert, Dave Salmoni, attributes the Mapogos’ large size and power to their success with hunting buffalo.
The Mapogos entered the Northern Sabi Sands in 2006 to challenge the resident four-male coalition. They entered the enemy territory roaring loudly and marking the territory as their own. This was an unusual approach and one they later became famous for.
After killing one of the resident males, the remaining three fled their territory.
This began the Mapogos’ ‘reign of terror’. The Mapogos would challenge any dominant males within their range. Most males would instinctively run to avoid the domineering coalition. If they did not run, they were caught, killed, and often eaten by the Mapogos.
There are two parts to successfully holding a new territory. The first is the beating out of the dominant males. The second is to end the other pride’s lineage. This is done by killing cubs below a certain age (and lionesses if they defend their young too strongly).
By killing the young of the weaker male, his genetic heritage comes to an end and can be replaced by the new, superior male’s genes and offspring.
The other reason the cubs are killed is that when females no longer have suckling cubs, they go into oestrus. This means the new males can mate with them and begin breeding their own offspring.
The Mapogos are thought to have fathered cubs in the Sand River pride, Ottawa pride and the Tsalala pride. It is highly likely they fathered cubs in other prides as well.
Cannibalism and Infanticide
One of the biggest contributors to the Mapogos’ violent reputation is their cannibalistic tendencies.
Infanticide, the killing of young cubs, is quite common when new males take over a territory because, as mentioned, it puts an end to the weaker male’s lineage. It occurs throughout the animal kingdom, and has been observed among primates, dolphins and meerkats.
Cannibalism, however, is not common among lions. There are a number of recorded instances of the Mapogos brutally killing other lions and then eating them. This occurred with both adult lions and cubs.
As with all lion coalitions, they do not last forever. The Mapogos had the same fate. In 2010, the Majingilanes, a coalition of five males, entered the Mapogo’s territory to challenge them. Kinky Tail was killed. The Majingilanes would eventually take over the area.
Over the next three years, another two of the Mapogos disappeared without a trace.
In 2012, the strong Southern pride challenged the Mapogos, this time with the advantage. The Mapogos were forced to retreat. The Southern pride relocated the Mapogos, managing to split them. Mr T was pursued and killed.
Makhulu and Pretty Boy were the last two remaining Mapogos. They were last seen together entering the Kruger National Park and feeding on a buffalo in October 2012. Makhulu was seen one last time in 2013, alone in the Mala Mala.
The Mapogos had an enormous affect on the Sabi Sand eco-system because of their decimation of the lion population. These affects are still at play, lion numbers remain low, while wild dogs flourish in the Sabi area because of this. Londolozi reported 5 prides drastically affected by the Mapogo Lions:
- Castleton Pride: originally 22 down to 6.
- Tsalala Pride: originally 10 down to 5.
- Ximunvanyane Pride: originally 10 down to 0.
- Elephant Plains reported that almost 40% of the lion population had been killed by the Mapogo Coalition. This means they killed around 40 – 50 lions.
According to Willem Botha, who was the Assistant Warden and Head of Anti-Poaching in Sabi Sands during the time of the Mapogos’ reign, the Mapogos killed closer to 100 lions.
“From the time I first saw them until I left the Sabi Sands, the Mapogos killed between 90 and 110 other lions in the park. I also had to shoot approximately 15 lions that were so badly mauled by the Mapogos that their spines were severed and had to be put out of their misery.”