In Search of the Last Lioness

It was a cry of such loneliness and despair that everyone who heard it that night felt they had to act – and fast. The lioness named Lady Liuwa was so lonely that she had come to the camp in the Liuwa National Park in Zambia, looking for company. Guide Andre van Vuuren tells the story.

The extraordinary story of how Lady Liuwa, the last lioness, turned to humans for companionship and how they, in turn, fought to find her a family has become one of the most moving of wildlife stories.

As the Zambian Wildlife Authority rangers did not have vehicles in which to patrol the park, the resident pride of lions were the biggest threat to poachers. A guide once told us how an entire pride had been slaughtered by poachers. One young female, Lady, was not with the pride at that time, and somehow managed to survive. She was the last lion left in the park.

On safari in Liuwa, we often encountered Lady. She would almost always walk up to the vehicle, drop down onto her back and roll over, purring deeply. This was a wild animal, greeting us with an unheralded display of friendship. Despite memories of the poachers who had killed her pride, she was still willing to trust human beings, and to accept us.

In 2007, Craig Reid, the newly appointed project coordinator for Liuwa National Park, decided that Lady needed companions of her own kind.

Relocating lions is a complicated matter. The stress and dangers of tranquilising and transporting these large animals pose a significant threat to the lions’ health.

Unfortunately, the first attempt to bring a single male lion from nearby Kafue National Park to Liuwa Plains resulted in tragedy, with the male dying. But undeterred, the team continued their quest. They located two young male brothers without a pride and in May, 2009, they were successfully relocated from Kafue to Liuwa.

In October, 2011, two young lionesses were captured in Kafue and also brought in. Lady was no longer alone.

Finding Lady Liuwa… again

It was November, 2013, and time for the annual Leisure Wheels 4×4 Safaris tour to Liuwa Plains in western Zambia. I decided to invite Eben Delport of Uri Adventures to go on patrol with me and the rest of the group.

My first taste of this alluring landscape had been in November, 2001, when Dirk Visagie and I put together a small group of adventurers to explore the wild and unknown Liuwa Plains area in far western Zambia.

There were no proper roads and it took us four days to drive from Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip to Kalabo, where we picked up Zambia Wildlife Authority ranger David Mubiana.

Poaching was still a huge problem in Liuwa and tourists were not allowed to travel in the park without an armed escort. There were no campsites and one could camp wild anywhere in one of the tree islands in the Matamanene area.

This time, we met up with Eben and his wife, Marita, in Katima Mulilo. After stocking up with provisions and fuel, we headed for the Wenela border post in Zambia.

Those of you who have been to Zambia will know about the effort required to get through a border post with regard to customs, immigration, carbon tax, temporary import permits and a council levy… each at a different counter, container or dilapidated old caravan. But we were pleasantly surprised. There is a brand new border post building at Wenela. It is air-conditioned, everything is under one roof, and the procedure was plain sailing.

The two nights at Kabula Lodge, our first stop-over, were as usual a memorable experience. There are lovely chalets and it is still one of the best campsites in Africa. We had a day of leisure and everybody jumped at the opportunity to go tiger fish on the Zambezi. Melanie Jacobs walked away with the trophy for the biggest fish. Sorry to the manne from Kokstad… maybe next time!

Then it was time to move on. Previously it took three hours to cover the 70km from Kabula to Sioma. Now, thanks to the new, Chinese-built tar road, it was less than an hour’s drive.

We stopped at the elephant corridor north of Kalabolelwa to take some pictures of the new signs. This was an old migration route for the elephants from Botswana, Caprivi and Angola into Zambia. When the war broke out in Angola and landmines were planted all along the Kwando River, the elephants stopped using the route.

We first saw elephants again on Kabula Island in July, 2005. Sightings are now plentiful and there is a definite corridor where the elephants cross the Zambezi.

At Sioma we stopped at the new information centre for park visitors, managed by the Ngonye Falls Community Partnership. It is always interesting to note how quickly development follows the establishment of decent infrastructure.

We crossed the Zambezi in a small rowing boat and took a scenic walk to the main falls. These are formed by the same geological process as the Victoria Falls, with cracks in the basalt riverbed being eroded away to form the drop.

The horseshoe-shaped Ngonye Falls are impressive because of the sheer volume of water that cascades over the staggered, 20m drop. An interesting aspect is that the river flows underneath the rock on either side of the falls. It is quite remarkable to stand on the rocks, feeling and hearing the underground flow of the water.

The height of the falls ranges between only 10m and 25m, but the width is impressive.

We then drove further north on the western bank via Nangwezi to Kalangola. The Kalangola ferry is still in operation but a new bridge is being constructed at Maziba Bay that will link Sesheke with Mongo, capital of Barotseland.

From Kalangola we drove straight into the bush on a lovely sand track through the most beautiful teak and rosewood forests. At 17h00 the convoy stopped for a night’s wild camping.

Next morning we took the road along the fringes of the Barotse flood plains, travelling through numerous villages. There seemed to be hundreds of children and thousands of mango trees. The flamboyant trees coloured the area in beautiful shades of red, and memories of the Barotse people will stay with everybody.

We reached Kalabu at midday and after doing the paper work at the office of African Parks, we crossed the Luanginga River by hand-driven pontoon. This is a typical “old Africa” experience and always a “Kodak moment”.

From here it was time to enter Liuwa Plains National Park. In the old days, there was a formal boom to indicate the entrance of the park, but today the only notification you get is the green coloured area on your GPS.

The group of 19 camped at Katonyana for the first two nights. The campsites are shaded and situated in the Miombo Woodland tree islands. There are two flush toilets and two cold water showers per campsite and the camp is serviced by two attendants.

Next morning we went on a game drive to the north. We soon came across large herds of wildebeest that had moved to the plains to have their young. We spent the whole morning driving around the herds and taking photographs of the thousands of wildebeest and their beautiful new-born calves.

Not too far from there I came upon a lioness under a palm tree. I was a bit disappointed that it was not Lady Liuwa, but nevertheless called the other vehicles over the radio and gave them the co-ordinates of the sighting.

When the first vehicle arrived they went to the other side of the palm tree and saw a second lion behind the tree. I followed them, and next moment the lioness looked straight into my binoculars. It was the very familiar face of Lady Liuwa, with the black beauty spot on the left side of her nose!

This was undoubtedly the highlight of the 2013 Liuwa Plains patrol! Lady was with a younger lioness that even charged into the wildebeest herd to show off.

It was very good to see Lady with the younger lioness and to find her some distance away from Matamanene Camp, where she had lived close to human beings in the years when she was “the last lioness”.

The whole group was in high spirits and after a thunderstorm typical of these plains, we had a memorable evening around the campfire.

Eben was at his best, and entertained the group with mouth-watering German hors de oeuvre sausages and interesting stories about Namibia.

The next morning we moved camp to Kwale Camp in the south for our final night in Liuwa.

As all good things come to an end, we had to leave for Kalabo where Eben and Marita broke away from the convoy to visit their daughter in Lusaka. The rest of us continued via Senanga, Kabula and Nata back to SA.