Photographer Malcolm Bowling catches a battle between prides in this epic sequence, which was taken during his time as a game ranger at Sabi Sands in the greater Kruger area. He shares about the experience – and how sometimes, capturing the best photos just comes down to luck and good timing.

“This sequence of photographs was taken when I worked as a game ranger at Sabi Sands in the greater Kruger area. Shot at Kirkman’s Camp, it captures the whole approach, attack and reprieve.

“This bush era was an incredible time of my life – unadulterated soul food. The balance of nature’s brutality versus its glory reinforces our tiny part in the real life cycle. I came out replenished with thousands of extraordinary sightings and photographs.

“On the day of this sighting, I was driving a guest (an incredible photographer, whose sole aim was to win the annual Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition). We came across this scene and he was able to get a couple of shots off but his card jammed up, as the buffering was too slow.

Pride divides

“The male lion in the photographs is one of two brothers, this one being the more dominant. Their territory stretched across our boundaries into the Kruger and onto other private land to the west of us. There were basically two prides of lions (constituted of females and young) that considered our traversing area part of their territory.

“We often had other prides and males coming in from the north or across from the Kruger (sometimes lions that we had never seen before and that were actually nervous of our vehicles), since lion territories often overlap. Because of this, we never knew what to expect on our game drives.

“This male and the other were the fathers, sons and brothers of a much larger pride of 13 individuals. Dominant in the area, they had also sired some of the young. Male lions tend to roam – establishing territory by roaring, scent-marking, mating with females in oestrus, and dominating kills made by the females. Their main aim, however, is to procreate. So, they defend their territory and protect pride members when other males or prides threaten their own.

“Pressure from a pride of five females (two older females and three younger – some of which are shown in the photographs) caused this pride to move further west. They’d moved as a safety precaution for their young cubs.

“For a while we had not seen one of the lionesses, a daughter of a large female, but we knew that she had given birth in a den site in some very thick reeds on an island in the Sand River. This female would leave the cubs hidden for a night or so, while she ventured out to locate the pride, in the hope of getting food (since the strength of numbers makes hunting easier). It was on one of these excursions that the following event took place.

“There had been some roaring back and forth between this female, the rest of her pride and the male. We had located the lions through their calling, wanting to see the female and ever hopeful of seeing the cubs.

“Alone, she was moving quickly towards the rest of the pride. We followed her to see the meeting. There is a huge bond between pride members – one that’s re-affirmed on reuniting each time. It involves smelling, rubbing noses, body contact, and grooming one another. On this occasion, we first witnessed this behaviour with the re-uniting of the females.

The battle begins

“As the reunions occurred, the male stayed a little way off, lying down in the grass. The females continued what they were doing: lying down, stretching, licking – doing what lions do – when the new arrival suddenly sat up, looked intently at the male and started her approach. Another female got up and joined her. There is communication that happens between them that we have no idea about. This is where the beginning of the sequence starts.

“I had positioned the vehicle with the best possible view for the meeting and the interaction between the male and females, but with little idea it was going to be as grand as it was.

“As I started shooting multiple images, the episode unfolded extremely fast in front of us. I knew there was going to be some kind of interaction but I had no idea it would be so dramatic.

“There has been some speculation on my part as to why the male lion did not fight back more aggressively. The male was more than likely the sire to the female’s cubs and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The lioness was just irritated with him being there and it was a chain reaction regarding the other female attacking.

“I’m guessing if the matter had been more serious with possibility of injury, the male would have acted more aggressively. But he was probably there for one of two reasons: food or mating.

KrugerLions3-Malcolm Bowling-Jul2014.

KrugerLions4-Malcolm Bowling-Jul2014.

KrugerLions5-Malcolm Bowling-Jul2014.

“I was completely stunned: it was one of those moments a photographer longs for. Nobody can predict how events are going to unfold, or to what degree, and then something like this happens in an incredible way!

“As a photographer, there is a degree of excitement and nervousness about whether or not you’ve captured the scene. Events in nature happen incredibly fast, and I was fortunate to catch the moment.”

Photographer biography

Malcolm Bowling works as a painter, printmaker and photographer with a passion for South Africa’s wildlife. After travels in the United Kingdom and Southeast Asia, he began work as a game ranger at Kirkman’s Kamp in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve on the western boundary of the Kruger National Park (where he captured the stunning sequence above).

Malcolm left the bush to settle in Hermanus: lions, elephants, leopards, riverine forests and scrub land have been replaced by whales, dolphins, seals, fynbos, sugarbirds and other beautiful creatures found in this area. He is presently setting up a studio on Sir Robert Stanford Wine Estate to continue his fine art.