Whether it's predatory pursuits, or epic territorial clashes or multi-carnivore carcass gatherings, seasoned rangers at South Africa's Londolozi Game Reserve have notched up wildlife sightings most of us could only dream of. Yet ask many of them about that once-in-a-lifetime experience in the African bush, and the story that emerges is often a much more low-key affair – like watching this mother lioness ferrying her newborn cubs across a river to a new denning site. 

The mama lion in the footage, part of a newly minted breakaway pride in the reserve, was showing telltale signs of recent birth – suckle marks and swollen mammary glands – when ranger Grant Rodewijk spotted her on a riverbank during a game drive with guests.

"We were all on the edge of our seats, thinking that we could be the first people at Londolozi to potentially view [her] cubs," he writes in a blog post about the experience.

The hunch proved correct: the group was perfectly positioned to watch as the big cat gently grabbed first one, then another cub by the scruff of the neck to carry them safely across the water. 

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Cub #2 gets its turn across the river. Image: Grant Rodewijk/Londolozi Game Reserve

Rodewijk's excitement at the sighting is understandable: lionesses go out of their way to keep their newborns out of sight, so these brief glimpses were a truly rare treat.  

The last few months of pregnancy are a secretive affair for expectant mothers: they'll usually leave the pride to give birth in a sheltered, hidden spot, where the new arrivals are spirited away for the first four to six weeks of life. "Typically lionesses will move off on their own, give birth and only re-introduce their youngsters [to the rest of the pride] when their eyes open and they are more capable of fending for themselves," explains Londolozi ranger Amy Attenborough.

Whether it's threats from roving hyenas, leopards or even their own kind (in the form of murderous adult males), young lions are extremely vulnerable, so their mother remains in the den site with them for those formative weeks, leaving only occasionally to hunt.  

Rodewijk and his guests had stumbled on one of the rare instances when the babies are exposed: as lionesses are sometimes known to do, this particular mother was in the process of a relocation mission, moving her offspring from one den site to another. 

The right-place-right-time nature of the incredible sighting is something Rodewijk is keenly aware of: "Sadly, I know it will most likely be a long, long time before I am lucky enough to see something like this again, if ever…"