Lament for a Fallen King

Language bearers, Photographers, Diary makers,
You with your memory are dead, frozen,
Lost in a present that never stops passing.
Here lives the incantation of matter,
A language forever.

Like a flame burning away the darkness,
Life is flesh on bone convulsing above the ground.

-E. Elias Merhige

Selati Male No. 2 (aka HANK!)

Selati Male No. 2 (aka HANK!)

His was officially called Selati Male No. 2, but to me his name will always be Hank. Sometimes written in uppercase, often with an exclamation point. HANK! It was a nom de plume I gave him after Kim and I visited Sabi Sands in 2011 and first laid eyes on No. 2 and his three Selati Coalition brethren (similarly named Selati Males No. 1, 3, and 4).

Born around the beginning of 2008 to different litters in the Southern Pride, the Selatis (sometimes also referred to as the Southern Coalition) were originally five strong when they came of age. All muscle and ambition, in April 2011 they were given both the figurative and literal slap on the nose by the mighty Mapogo Coalition. The Mapogos controlled a vast swath of land in Sabi Sands and were to be feared with good reason. It is estimated that they were single-handedly responsible for killing over sixty lions during their reign, and they certainly weren’t going to let some young turks bully them off their patch. After a scuffle that would see the Mapogo’s Pretty Boy injured, the Selatis were eventually sent roaring off into the night with the Mapogos claiming victory.

In March 2012 Hank and company would redress their grievances with the Mapogos in a battle that would see the latter’s infamous Mr. T. fatally struck down. But by then the Selatis would number only four. In the intervening months between their two battles with the Mapogos the youngest of the five Selatis was hunted down and mercilessly killed in one of the coalition’s first encounters with the equally fierce Majingilanes.

A quick glimpse left and right, tails straightening, the Southern [Selati] Pride knew they were in trouble and spun around to sprint west back down the road. The Majingilane Coalition began their chase in hot pursuit, roaring incessantly at full pace. Each of the lions disappeared as they broke through the bush in full flight whilst we desperately tried to keep up.

Suddenly we heard the unmistakable bellows of a fight, in the bush to our west. We ventured in and found what we had feared: the three Majingilane males sat panting next to the badly wounded Southern young male. The unnatural angle of his hips was a sure sign that his back had been broken. His head was up, and he was breathing hard through an open mouth. There was a deep puncture wound on his shoulder. Every time a Majingilane moved, he mustered a low growl. The three attackers were quiet but attentive to the night sounds; it seemed as though they were waiting for the rest of the Southern Pride to come to their fallen comrade. They never did.

Hank (HANK!) doing what he did best: mugging for the camera.

Hank (HANK!) doing what he did best: mugging for the camera.

The clashes with the Mapogos and Majingilanes were sharp, deep reminders for the Selati Coalition that it’s a long way to the top, and that there will always be others waiting to knock you off your perch or otherwise keep you from usurping theirs. Time stops for no one, not even the king of beasts; best not find yourself lost in the present.

In the months following their triumph over the Mapogos, Hank and his three surviving brothers-in-arms held out and held their own, carving out sizeable territory and siring numerous and ridiculously cute cubs along the way with both the Ximhungwe and Othawa prides. Many believe, and rightly so, that they are contenders to the throne for some of Sabi Sands’ most prized territory, and that when the final showdown does come between them and the Majingilanes it will be, simply put, epic — as one would only expect when the armies of kings collide.

Why Hank, then? What made him so special? Over the two days Kim and I spent watching the Selati Coalition he always seemed to be mugging for the camera. Whether it was holding his head high and wearing a devilish grin while his mane blew back in the wind, or with his tongue lollygagging out the side of his mouth as if he were pulling faces for you, or staring at us with a “Hey babe, come here often?” look that would make even Don Draper jealous, every single time I focused my camera in on the coalition Hank was there filling the frame and oozing charisma. Which was why “Selati No. 2” seemed so unbecoming for someone with so much moxie. He deserved something better, he deserved something more fitting, he deserved… HANK!

All of which has made the news so much harder to take with recent reports out of Sabi Sands mentioning only three Selati males whenever the coalition was spotted. The fourth – No. 2 – was being seen less-and-less by his brothers’ side; and on the occasions when Hank was spotted, either with the coalition or on his own, he was almost always reported to be weak, frail, and struggling. He was first witnessed noticeably injured last December and the conclusion, though unverified, was that he had received internal injuries – possibly broken ribs in a dust-up with buffalo – that kept digging at his insides. Not enough to bring him to a full stop, but still enough to slowly wear him down over the weeks and months that followed. A king hobbled by a thorn no shepherd could remove.

Finally, on October 15th Inyati Game Lodge confirmed the news we’d all been waiting for but were dreading to hear: Selati No. 2 had fallen – a king was dead.

Travel well, Hank. (HANK!)

Travel well, Hank. (HANK!)

In Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, the Squire Jons remarks, “Love is perfect in its imperfection.” The same can be said of nature. Immensely beautiful while at times utterly cruel and unforgiving, its only constant is that it is forever becoming. It’s also why I’ve been hesitant to pen this eulogy until Hank’s passing was irrefutably confirmed; hoping beyond reason that maybe he was still out there, somewhere, making his way back home to his brothers, waiting to flash that hopelessly endearing smile of his and ask, “Did you miss me?”

Yes Hank, we did. We still do. Travel well.

  • craig

    I would like to extend a huge THANK YOU to Syl Yemen and all the others who help run or otherwise participate in the varied online groups having to do with the lions and other wildlife of Sabi Sands.

    Without her and the rest helping color in the history of the Selatis (and others), our appreciation of Hank and all the other flora and fauna that call Sabi Sands home would’ve begun and ended with the few days we spent there and the photographs and memories we came home with.

    If there is any good to be found in this sad tale, it’s being introduced to Syl and the amazing body of living history she helps curate, without which these lions wouldn’t have the roar they do.

    Thank you, Syl! ROAR!

  • Anat

    Thank you Craig for this amazing piece .

  • I enjoyed reading this piece, although it is very sad. I too visited Sabi Sands in 2011 and had the privilege of seeing lions.I Will never forget it.

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