What’s the name of the game?
the named big cats of Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, including Malaika.
Kaingo is the dream of Derek Shenton, a third-generation naturalist and son of a former senior ranger in Luangwa who built the camp in 1992. At its heart stands the massive trunk of a fallen leadwood that Shenton reckons was 1,000 years old. “We used a chunk of it to make our bar and the wood was so tough it took us three days to cut through it.”
While the camp was under construction, Shenton became aware of the regular presence of a beautiful female leopard he called Goldie, who shared his life for the next 10 years and is why the camp is called Kaingo – the word for leopard in the local Nyanja language.
Patrick, who has worked at Kaingo ever since it opened, knows all the individuals who roam around his particular corner of leopard heaven. Luambe, Golden Balls, Grumpy, Tyson… one by one he reels off their names. “Tyson is my favourite,” he says. “Such a lovely guy, so big, so handsome; that’s why I like him.” Then there are the females: Mama Kaingo, Shy Girl, Chiphadzuwa – Malaika’s grown-up cub – and, of course, Malaika herself, who is six years old and is Goldie’s daughter.
With more than eight leopards to every 38 sq miles (100 sq km), they even outnumber the lions – but it is the latter that hold centre stage in this, one of their last true strongholds. According to the Zambian Carnivore Programme, more than 500 lions roam the valley, split into 18 different prides and 14 coalitions of footloose males.
Luangwa’s most famous lion is Ginger, so-called because of his unusual strawberry blond mane, orange tail tuft and pink toe pads, the result of a condition known as erythrism. He and Garlic, his brother, have become top tourist attractions, but conservationists fear they may suffer the same fate as the late-lamented Cecil after Zambia lifted its hunting ban in 2015. So long as they stay in the park they are safe, but if they stray into the adjacent game management areas they could easily find themselves in the hunters’ crosshairs.
That was the fate that overtook Tangu, one of the two dominant males of the Hollywood pride, whose territory stretched around Kaingo. When he was shot last year his twin brother could no longer protect the pride and they were driven out of their hunting grounds by three powerful newcomers. The Kaingo guides called them the Numbu Boys, but their scrawny manes and thuggish appearance soon earned them another name: the Punks. These were the villains who played such a prominent part in Lion Country and were soon ensconced with a pride of their own in the Hollywood’s old domain.
In the hushed stillness just before dawn, a lion had begun to roar – a visceral, primeval sound that echoed among the trees and across the plains towards the distant hills that lay along the outermost edges of the valley. Now, having gulped down a mug of campfire coffee, I set out to find him. With Patrick at the wheel of his open Land Cruiser we headed north to where the Punks had last been seen. Cape turtle doves cooed from the overhead branches, while impala browsed in the early morning light as if embalmed in amber.
Luangwa is largely a woodland park of giant trees whose gnarled trunks, rubbed smooth by generations of elephants, were standing here long before Livingstone crossed the valley in 1866. But in a little while we left the oxbow lagoons and their ebony groves and drove out on to an open plain of shrivelled grass and scattered thornbush.
By mid-morning the valley was a furnace. A dazzle of zebras, stripes flickering in the heat haze, plodded in line along the horizon as vultures sailed overhead on an endless hunt for carrion. Lulled by the doves’ hypnotic calls, I could feel myself submitting to the heat, falling into a trance-like state of delicious serenity from which I was only awakened by the sudden presence of three shaggy heads under a shady acacia.
There was no mistaking the Punks. Surrounded by a dozen lionesses and
Carmine bee-eaters are summer visitors to the Luangwa