This is the story of Bhubezi the Lion as told by Brent Stapelkamp.
The Ndebele people in Zimbabwe say that there are two kinds of lions. One, called Ilawo, is a young, nomadic lion that preys on livestock and conflicts with people. The other, called Bhubezi, is a large, older, heavily maned beast that doesn’t conflict with people at all. This very accurate cultural observation describes not two different types of lion, but two distinct periods in a male lion’s life. The hero of this narrative is a lion called Bhubezi and he certainly has been both of these lions in his lifetime
In the searing heat of October 2007, Bhubezi was one of two tiny, helpless male lion cubs born into a pride that was resident at Hwange Safari Lodge in the area just outside Hwange National Park. There were two lionesses and seven cubs in that pride, but the mother of each cub was never really known because one of the lionesses tragically died in a snare soon after the cubs were born. The remaining lioness, called Frisky, assumed responsibility for all seven babies. Lionesses in a pride often produce litters at similar times, and will happily co-suckle the cubs. Frisky did an amazing job as a mum, and only lost one of those cubs, seeing the rest to adulthood. She was observed hunting two buffalo at a time to satisfy their voracious appetites.
The cubs’ sire was thought to have been the only remaining male of a formidable coalition of four called the Dynamite Boys. Dynamite – as he became known – lost all his three brothers to snares. He was a massive lion that became famous in his own right because he eventually left Hwange and headed north to cross the foaming, white waters of the mighty Zambezi River and swim to Zambia. There he was caught preying on livestock and was thrown into jail!
So Bhubezi and his siblings had a good start to life with a dedicated provider (Frisky) in a wonderfully productive territory. Their uncle was a lion called Oliver, and he took over the area for a brief time when Dynamite went walkabouts. One night, residents at Hwange Saf Lodge were jolted awake by the sound of furiously fighting lions. Awed, the onlookers watched Oliver smash Bhubezi and his brother Bush straight through the Safari Lodge electric fence. This overt aggression resulted in Bush and Bhubezi spending more time away from the pride with walks that got longer and longer in their duration. Initially, the youngsters went north past Hwange town then they turned and headed south into the Tsholotsho communal lands where they survived by preying on cattle and donkeys. This is typical behaviour of dispersal males aged between two and four years old that aren’t big enough or streetwise enough to fight for a territory of their own in the protected area of the National Park.
Luckily the two survived this uncertain, nomadic period in their lives – most young lions don’t due to human-wildlife conflict – and once they passed a “critical mass” point they returned to the Park in 2011. There, at Makololo, they found Jericho alone – having lost his two brothers to trophy hunters – and they easily chased him away and dispossessed him of his pride. They were also Cecil’s neighbors for a while before realizing that he too was alone and so they usurped his pride and his territory around Linkwasha. Those two displacements were ultimately the catalyst for the now famous association between Cecil and Jericho.
Bush and Bhubezi had by this time developed into two mature, experienced male lions in their prime and they dominated the Wilderness concessions. At first they were extremely cautious and shy and would run from the game drive vehicles. But as their confidence grew they relaxed and people began to enjoy sightings of the magnificent pair and their large prides.
One evening a guide with a vehicle full of eager tourists sat watching as a herd of buffalo crossed the road at dusk. Suddenly, a frantic skirmish erupted, and amid chaos, noise and clouds of dust, the clear silhouette of Bush mounted on a buffalo’s back was caught in the vehicle’s headlights! Bhubezi killed for himself that night with a single swipe of his massive paw that spun his hapless victim a complete 360. It was dead as it hit the ground!
One fateful day in May 2015 Bush and Bhubezi were lured to a hunter’s bait just 700 meters from the park boundary and Bush was shot and killed. The world would wake up to another lion’s death a few weeks later but Bush’s hunt was “legal” so passed unnoticed. Unnoticed by the world but not by his pride, for now Bhubezi was alone and couldn’t hold the turf. Two young males – Xanda and his brother – came along and chased him off. He moved down to the area of Ngweshla rather fortuitously at about the time Cecil was killed, so he claimed that territory and spent months patrolling up and down from Linkwasha through Makololo, Ngweshla and the Somalisa Concession up to Kennedy 2. He was seen chasing and harassing Cecil’s pride, threatening the two male cubs, but those wily lionesses ducked and dived, and left one of their girls to fraternize with Bhubezi and distract him by mating with him while the other two made their escape with the cubs. Eventually, little by little Bhubezi came to accept Cecil’s pride as his own without harming the cubs or driving out the two young males. Cecil’s offspring, cubs no longer, have since developed into magnificent young lions in an awesome pride numbering ten, and have reclaimed their original territory at Ngweshla.
Bhubezi currently holds territory from Ngweshla to Kennedy 1 and is often seen with Cecil’s pride. Campers in the area frequently wake at dawn to the sound of his thundering, throaty roars echoing across the plains – that age old, haunting, thrilling sound of the wild!
Bhubezi – hunter, warrior, protector, cohort, father. He is king of his realm, and is a lion truly deserving of his name.