As lion populations plummet across Africa, Sue Watt meets a lioness (Lady Liuwa) who acquired celebrity status through her story of survival in Zambia’s Liuwa Plains National Park.
I never tire of seeing lions no matter how many times I travel to Africa. The outrage over Cecil’s cruel death in Zimbabwe has brought their plight for survival into sharp focus. In 1975, around a quarter of a million lions used to prowl Africa’s wild lands. Today, that number has plummeted to around 25,000. Reasons for these terrible statistics include human encroachment and loss of habitat, human wildlife conflict, ancient cultural traditions and of course, trophy hunting. But there’s one very special lion who has survived against all the odds: her name is Lady. And her home is Zambia’s vast, very beautiful but rarely visited Liuwa Plains National Park.
Lady Liuwa, the last lioness
For nine years, Lady was incredibly the only lion in the whole of this 3660 square kilometre park. She became famous in 2010 when National Geographic made a documentary about her, called Lady Liuwa: The Last Lioness, revealing her lonely life. I was lucky enough to meet her recently, as she lay in the shade chilling in the afternoon heat. Now aged 13, she looked tired but gracious, a leonine equivalent to an aging Hollywood superstar.
The conservation organization African Parks, that has been managing Liuwa Plains since 2004, was determined that Lady would not live out her later years alone. They set about finding her a family. They reintroduced two males and two females into the park in 2009 and 2011 respectively. Sadly, two were killed on separate occasions while wandering into Angola. But Lady Liuwa took the remaining female, called Sepo, under her wing, helping her to hunt and thrive. In December 2013, the surviving lion, Nakawa, became father to three cubs with Sepo. And today Lady heads her pride of five, teaching them all she knows. A huge blow to the park, Nakawa died in September of last year; the presumption is that the cause of death was poison.
When we saw the pride in May, the cubs looked strong and healthy. The male was bold and feisty, his mane easily visible. His sisters were quieter and curious. All the while, keeping a close eye on us in our Land Cruiser before they went off to hunt as mum and “grandma” Lady followed behind.
Liuwa – remote, raw and fascinating
There’s no shortage of food in Liuwa. It’s home to Africa’s second largest but least known wildebeest migration. Around 45,000 wildebeest follow a cyclical route across the Park, driven by seasonal floods. Since African Parks took over the management of the park, their population has increased threefold. The 700 hyena that live in Liuwa deserve respect too – usually associated with being scavengers. Here, they’re frighteningly efficient predators at the top of the food chain. And the bird life is stunning, including thousands of migrating crowned cranes and flamingos.
All this makes Liuwa a fascinating destination. With just one lodge, Matamanene and five small community campsites, you feel like you have the whole park to yourself. It’s remote and raw, but full of life – and Lady and her family are deservedly the star attractions.