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Mombo’s Maned Lionesses

During the late 1990s through until 2002, a rather peculiar lioness and her pride used the immediate vicinity of Mombo camp in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. ‘Martina’, as she was named, was a huge muscular lioness with a mane resembling that of a four year old male lion.

Sighting: Mombo’s Maned Lionesses

Location: Mombo, Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango

Date: 24 June 2008

Observer: Tony Reumerman

{img_alt} The remainder of the pride consisted of another (maneless) lioness and her two cubs. Martina herself was never seen to conceive and give birth to cubs even though she was observed mating on one occasion.

This pride never managed to successfully settle down in the area. This was most likely due to the high density of lions and the intense competition amongst male lions for territorial control. As an apparent young male with a pride, Martina was regularly harassed and hounded by marauding male lion coalitions and eventually left the area, the pride moving to the south and west never to be seen again.

So what caused this genetic abnormality?

Over the years of her presence around Mombo many a debate about her genetic makeup was held at the dinner table and fireside. Was this an expression of gene carried on the x chromosome? Was this merely a freak mutation, never to be seen again? Was this a result of genetic mutation due to intense in-breeding? Was this a recessive gene able to be transferred to offspring?

Whatever the reason, her genetics doomed Martina to reproductive failure and caused her pride to be forced out of the area. By the same token however she was a superb hunter and was not harassed by spotted hyenas as a result of their ‘perception’ that she was an adult male lion.

The mystery was never solved and the story of Martina became history.

A few years later, during the winter of 2005, Alex Mazunga, one of the Mombo guides located a new, previously unknown pride on the western edge of Mombo Island. He notified me on radio and as they had just pulled down a buffalo I was rather excited and responded. On arrival I noticed that they were extremely nervous and definitely unknown to myself and the Mombo guides. We gave them the rather prosaic name of ‘The Western Pride’.

Months passed by and the pride slowly settled down, conducting their hunting and mating activities without being bothered by us. There was absolutely nothing peculiar about the pride and they become regular stars on the Mombo game drives, producing offspring in the summer of 2005/06 and settling down in the immediate vicinity of the camp, focusing on killing buffalo in and around the channel. They have occupied this niche since then, avoiding the territorial conflicts of the larger Moporota and Mathata Prides that have continued over much of 2007/08.

During April of this year Brandon Kemp and I were out on a safari and located the pride snoozing very close to the camp. As per usual I was snapping away. The pride were casually interacting as they were awakening. Something was wrong. Before I could put my finger on it, Brandon said ‘Hey, did you see that?”

I was stunned! The young ‘male’ lion that had just walked past the land rover sported no obvious male genitalia! ‘It’ settled down next to another lioness facing us. We quickly hauled out the binoculars and noticed that this cat had a small face like a lioness, an apparent large body and a well developed mane of a two to three year old male lion. Wow! How could this have been overlooked in a regularly seen pride for so long? And even more so what was this all about? Just as we were absorbing all of this, we noticed that the other two lionesses had small manes!

The discovery was overwhelming: The potential questions and answers, even more so. Are these lionesses related to Martina, or rather just products of the same circumstances that bred her?

It is impossible at this stage to answer these questions, but we look forward to many more sightings and fireside debates in the years to come.

Mombo Camp offers luxury and privacy in the heart of the Okavango Delta.