Lions are likely the most earthbound of the big cats. Leopards dart around in the treetops and tigers readily jump into streams to stave off the midday heat, but lions, for the most part, prefer to keep their paws on solid ground. These bulky cats only really take to the water when crossing rivers or – as a recent sighting from Londolozi Private Game Reserve confirms – when the reward for a wet mane is a sizeable meal.

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Lions don't often take to the water, but when the reward is a kudu carcass, these cats will get their fur wet. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi

Eager to show his guests some of Londolozi's impressive cats, field guide James Souchon set out on an afternoon game drive late last year in search of a coalition of lions dubbed "the Birmingham males". He tracked down two of the maned cats resting near a waterhole alongside a duo of lionesses from another pride. "The setting was incredible; it was a very hot day, but as the late afternoon sun shone on the sleeping lions a slight breeze picked up, making it just the right temperature to be comfortable," Souchon wrote over on the Londolozi blog.

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The two males slowly starting to wake up. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi
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One of the Birmingham males passes close to a game-drive vehicle. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi
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One of the Birmingham males on route to the waterhole. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi
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One of the Ntsevu lionesses walks towards the waterhole. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi

In typical feline fashion, the lions dozed, so Souchon and his guests chatted to pass the time. "We were lost in conversation, not paying much attention to the sleeping lions when tracker Rich Mthabine suddenly drew our attention to a remarkable scene happening at the water's edge."

A kudu bull had burst from the bushes with a young hyena in hot pursuit. The antelope charged as far as the water's edge, where – unable to go any further – it turned to face the bold hyena. "It was a very ambitious hunting attempt on the hyena's part as it was much smaller than the antelope," Souchon explains. Undeterred by its size disadvantage, the hyena persisted, snapping at the kudu's legs.

The commotion roused the lions from their sleep and they began to stalk closer, sensing an easy meal. A male and one of the lionesses were the first to leap into the action. "They shot through the thicket, taking the hyena and kudu completely by surprise. The hyena made a lucky escape as the lions' target was the kudu, and we watched in complete astonishment as both lions chased this huge bull right into the middle of the waterhole."

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A Birmingham male wakes up after hearing the commotion. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi
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The lionesses's interest is piqued by the nearby commotion. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi

The most astonishing part was yet to come, however. With sights firmly set on the struggling antelope, the lions leapt into the murky water. One of the Birmingham males made quick work of dispatching the buck before his brother waded out to secure his share of the spoils. Curiously, the lions attempted to feed on the kill while still submerged in shoulder-high water – a feat that proved difficult. It's unclear if the males were trying to keep the carcass away from the lionesses waiting at the water's edge. Or perhaps the effort of lugging a 200-kilogram kill through muddy water required more energy than the lions had left after the chase.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, the lions – now with blackened, mud-covered muzzles – stood guard over their submerged prize. "At one point they both got completely spooked and went charging out of the water," writes Souchon. "But after a while they returned and successfully managed to drag the carcass out to where the lionesses were waiting."

After a brief scuffle over feeding rights, the males tucked into the meal, overpowering the smaller females who were forced to wait their turn.

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The lions spent a few hours attempting to feed by submerging their heads under the water to get at the carcass. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi
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The lions kept looking in the direction of the water’s edge where the two lionesses were waiting for their share of the carcass. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi
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The lions eventually managed to drag the carcass out of the water and onto dry land. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi
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One male waits nervously at the water’s edge after being spooked while at the carcass and rushing out of the water. Image: James Souchon/Londolozi