As a wildlife photographer based in one of our planet’s wildest places, there is no greater privilege than to observe the lives of the animals that inhabit this land around us, and to be able to document and tell their stories as they unfold.
In early 2022, as we prepared to open Ishara, a magnificent pride of lions established their dominance in the territory surrounding our camp. Each night, their roars echoed along the Talek River proclaiming their strength and confidence. This was the Fig Tree pride, led by two dominant males, Olope and Olbarikoi. Olope, with a jet-black mane and piercing eyes exuded elegance, while Olbarikoi, his brother, sported a thick ginger mane and a fierce gaze. Together with four formidable lionesses, they formed a skilled hunting team, regularly taking down large prey such as buffalo and eland.
In March of last year, the pride welcomed a new generation of cubs into the world, and we were thrilled to witness their warm embraces and constant displays of affection. Their love for one another was immense, and the lionesses diligently shared the responsibility of caring for these boisterous cubs. We would sit and watch them for hours as they curiously explored their surroundings, being obedient and subdued when left alone while their mothers were away hunting, and playful when they returned. It was truly beautiful to witness the Fig Tree family growing.
One night, Olope ventured beyond the pride’s usual territory, perhaps allured by a female from another pride. He pushed past enemy lines in his quest and encountered two gatekeepers, Olobor and Oloshipa (known as the Black Rock Boys). A brutal fight ensued and they punished him for his tenacity. Olope fought to the death and never returned. The following day, we could hear the harrowing roars of his brother calling for Olope throughout the day—an unusual occurrence for a lion. There was no response, marking a vital turning point for the pride. Olbarikoi now assumed the role of a solo pride male, bearing this tremendous responsibility on his shoulders.
While we all believed it was the end for this magnificent pride, Olbarikoi defied the odds and kept intruders at bay, leading them to safer territories whenever he sensed danger. The Black Rock Boys regularly encroached upon Fig Tree territory, well aware of the pride’s vulnerability. They searched week after week, but Olbarikoi and the lionesses seemed to possess a sixth sense, consistently moving the cubs to safer territories at just the right moments. This continued for months. As the cubs grew and became more mobile, they covered greater distances, sometimes disappearing completely for days at a time.
After seven months on the run, local guides made a grim discovery one morning: Olbarikoi lay dead along the banks of the Talek River. Suspicions pointed to the Black Rock Boys as the assassins, seeming to have finally timed their assault. This marked another pivotal moment for the Fig Tree pride and their offspring, as the loss of their pride male significantly diminished their chances of survival. Their fate now rested on the lionesses’ strategic prowess and some good fortune.
In the wild, the obstacle becomes the way. Challenges cannot be evaded; adaptations must be made and the spirit of survival must persevere. The lionesses did not shy away from this challenge, embracing the roles of both providers and protectors. They formed an impenetrable defense and fiercely secured their territory. They refused to back down, on some occasions even fighting off the Black Rock Boys to save their cubs. As time passed and more males began to come into the area, the lionesses moved their cubs to the fringes of the reserve before eventually migrating to a neighbouring conservancy. The updates we received were infrequent, leaving us uncertain about the state of the pride. Eventually, the updates ceased as no one had sighted the pride for months.
We were distraught, fearing that one of our favourite prides had vanished. Eventually, we accepted that this was the way of the wild. Many months later, one of our guides, Solomon, heralded the news that he had spotted the pride back in their usual territory; the same group of fierce lionesses, now with mature cubs—a testament to their strength and determination. Since then, they have remained, reaping the benefits of the migration to provide vital nourishment for their subadults, and even hunting zebras at our waterhole and frequently visiting camp once more.
We are optimistic that the Fig Tree pride can look to a promising future having overcome significant challenges along their journey. Their course, however, is never assured, as lion pride dynamics are in a constant state of flux. Only time will tell how the Fig Tree pride’s story turns out.
Photo credits: Eric Averdung