What’s the name of the game?

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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

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