Warwick Hendry – an avid writer, photographer, guide and wildlife enthusiast is based at Tuskers Bush Camp and Xobega Island Camp in Botswana. His most recent sighting? The rare and rather noteworthy sighting of 3 male swamp lions that lie deep within the Okavango Delta. These lions have adapted physically and mentally to their surrounds.
During a recent trip to Xobega Island in the Okavango Delta, a group of visitors and I were afforded the incredible privilege of getting up close and personal with a group of three young swamp lions.
These extraordinary cats, found across the Okavango Delta, are frequently heard through the night as they proclaim their sovereignty to the stars. Seeing them is a different story, though, especially from a boat.
Our morning cruise through the meandering waterways around Xobega Lediba (Xobega Lagoon) was packed with all the usual delights the Delta has to offer – light and sound and colour, feathers and fronds and fast-flowing water.
Felines were the furthest thing from anybody’s mind – cats don’t like water do they? Well, it turns out some do.
As we rounded a bend lined with water-berry trees to the left and a thick reed bed to right right, our eagle-eyed guide spotted something sprawled in the sun on an open patch of grass. Slamming the boat into reverse, he fought the current to position us for a better look.
Our curiosity quickly turned from surprise to incredulity as we saw, spread out before us, three young male swamp lions, with the mud on their feet and the water still dripping from their coats to prove it.
They seemed not the slightest bit concerned with our presence as we bobbed in the current a few meters off their beach, snapping photos and trying to contain our excitement. They’d fix us with a lazy half-lidded stare every so often, but we clearly weren’t going to disturb their relaxed morning drying off in the sun.
The lions of the Okavango Delta are different from their land-bound brethren in several interesting ways. They tend to be broader in the shoulder – possibly, like human swimmers, because of the fact that these muscles are worked while they swim. Certainly the three young boys we saw seemed to demonstrate this physiological trait – all three were physically very impressive.
There have also been suggestions that they have begun to develop more substantial webbing between their toes, which would make sense evolutionarily given the advantage this would mean while swimming. They’ve even been known to prey upon crocodiles!
This would seem to suggest that there may be genetic differences emerging between the lions of the swamps and those of the surrounding areas, which is in itself interesting given the fact that there is no hard boundary between these populations.
Science aside, though, this was an absolutely incredible encounter with three young male swamp lions in their prime. Another exceptional sighting in the world’s only inland delta, that vast lush wilderness surrounded by desert.
This truly is a very special place – you’re just never certain what’s waiting for you around the next bend in the river.