Still a little wary from the previous week’s vet work, the week starting 16th June was characterised by the lions mainly moving into the thick vegetation to hide at the first hint of our vehicle approaching. On the 18th June however we found them on the outskirts of the northern treeline, in the Bwizu area of the site. Any lions out in the open swiftly moved deeper into the treeline as we approached – but through the branches after some time we could pick out that for the first time in quite a time all 13 members of the pride were together.
The pride remained together and remained in the same area up to the 20th when we discovered them once more hiding out in the treeline, but braved the occasional wander about out in the open to scare off any vultures away from the scraps of their latest meal. Despite barely being able to see them the 20th marked a very happy occasion indeed; the RS cubs’ first birthday. Well approximately. It was certainly a year to the day since Rusha left the pride to den with her trio, although we can’t be 100% certain exactly when she took receipt of her precious delivery.
Dambwa's first family: Rusha with RS2, RS3 and RS1 behind
On the 21st June we had high hopes of some activity with the winter winds bringing an especially frigid feel to the morning. However the pride had moved out of the treeline approximately 150m and into the thickets of Bwizu around waterpan 2. Zulu and Temi both came out at different points in the morning to chase the gathering vultures from the scraps they had been guarding for the last few days. Zulu had a bit of a roar, but other than that it was another sedate morning.
Over the last few weeks of June the pride has undergone a bit of social shift. To get the full extent of the situation we have to look as far back as this time last year as Rusha’s cubs were being introduced to the pride. The introduction of the pride’s first litter was something that Temi wasn’t especially keen on. Whilst she’s never been observed showing aggression towards any of the cubs, she clearly wasn’t keen on their presence and began spending protracted periods away from the pride. A lioness equally capable of group and solo hunting, she’d go off by herself for increasingly longer periods of time. By November of last year the situation was starting to right itself and she began making more and more appearances with the pride again; even becoming Rusha’s primary associate and baby-sitter in chief for the next few months.
With the birth of Leya’s cubs at the end of January, this sub-grouping of Rusha, her cubs and Temi became a pretty permanent fixture until late March when the LE and RS cubs were introduced. Temi once more however went solo. Over April and May she’d from time to time be present with the pride but always keeping a distance. Since mid-June however, she’s pretty much been a full-time fixture once more and bar the odd wander to hunt some impala in the newly burnt areas of the site she’s been with them pretty consistently. There’s still a little bit of work to do to build up the bonds again with pride members, and now the cubs are of an age she seems more willing to tolerate she needs to work in building a relationship with the LE cubs especially. But after a bit of a rocky 12 months for her, it’s incredible to see not only all 13 lions regularly together, but also the process by which she’s reasserted her position within the group.
Temi, working her way back into the fold
Temi might be a bit aloof, but she’s almost certainly the best teacher those cubs could hope to have around in terms of hunting. On the 26th June the pride was hanging around the recently burnt Chobe and Sahara areas of the site. We’d noticed a small herd of impala close by as we were looking for the lions earlier and it didn’t take too long before Temi picked up on their presence too. Her stalking in turn alerted Rusha and RS3, who joined in the approach. With Rusha resettling to observe the herd, Temi took RS3 for a master class in stalking. The young huntress in the making her approach however was a little enthusiastic and clearly needs to start paying more attention to exactly what her master is doing.
Another interesting dynamic that seems to be developing within the pride is that between Leya and Rusha’s son, RS2. The young male over the last week or so has been seen to follow the mother of the LE cubs around and seems to be making a point of sitting close by whenever her cubs her suckling. Whether this is in the hope of acquiring some milk for himself (despite having been weaned for the last six months! And with Leya he truly has no chance), a protectiveness over his younger siblings or just mere curiosity he’s sticking close by her side at the moment.
Milk monitor: RS2 keeps watch on Leya and the cubs
It was a confusing situation we arrived into on the 27th. With Loma and Zulu roaring themselves hoarse by waterpan 3, Kela and Temi sitting close by and Rusha (presumably her cubs too) and Kwandi in the boundary nearby and Leya AWOL. Over the next half an hour there was more or less a constant rotation of lions coming out of the treeline boundary and others going in, before all changing again. The turning point came when Leya arrived to the scene with her cubs in tow and eventually all finally settled down around the waterpan, with RS2 of course taking sentry next to Leya and cubs.
Zulu and Loma ring in a new day
The morning of the 29th we arrived a little after the pride had found a scavenge opportunity which we had left in the site the previous afternoon. These scavenges allow not only the older pride members but now increasingly the cubs to put to use foraging behaviours; as well as teaching the cubs the benefits of paying attention to vultures – something the RS cubs have been observed doing on an increasing basis of late.
Zulu and Rusha feeding
We arrived to find that all pride members were feeding, except the LE cubs who could not be seen – and who we weren’t even sure if they were present or not. Rusha got herself into a bit of a bind and found her head trapped between Zulu’s massive front paw and the ground for close to 20 minutes. While he huffed and puffed and growled at her audacity for getting too close to him, she cunningly continued feeding from the underside of the carcass – all the while with his dinner plate paw mashing her face into the ground.
At a little before 9am a movement was noticed in the grass about 20m away from where they were feeding. Suddenly, there was LE1, 2 and 3. LE3 immediately began feeding next to Kela on a stray piece of intestines, LE1 meanwhile went straight to mum to share on her piece of the carcass, while the young female LE2 went straight in alongside Zulu who had hauled most of the remains off for himself in the tall grass some minutes previously.
Whether the cubs had been hiding in the grass the entire time and had been waiting for things to “calm down” before entering the fray, or whether they’d been left behind and had managed to find their own way there is unknown. Either way, the trio had it made now; whilst there was still some scraps lying around from which the other pride members continued to feed Zulu would only allow the youngest cubs to feed from his stash. Chasing off everyone within a 10 metre radius, while his youngest offspring crowded round and could be heard having a fair old battle between themselves everyone else was kept at arm’s length. To be fair everyone else had been chowing down for well over an hour, and it was nice to see that Zulu takes his parental responsibilities as seriously as the cubs’ mothers.
Zulu watches over the LE cubs feeding in the grass nearby
Later in the morning the LE cubs were still feeding as it neared towards midday. Zulu still sat close by guarding but had permitted both RS2 and LE to feed alongside them. The youngest members of the pride didn’t have it all their own way however. As Leya left to re-join her sisters in the shade nearby, it wasn’t long before daughter, LE2 followed. She was immediately honed in on by RS1, who ankle tapped and shoved her for the better part of 40 metres.
Eventually finding Leya, LE2 nudged and cajoled her into rolling over and allowing her access to suckle. When that didn’t work she began crying – well, screeching – to try and encourage her mother to let her have her milk. After five minutes of what can only be described as a tantrum, Leya eventually relented and perhaps more to keep the peace, allowed LE2 to suckle.
This is the first time we’ve seen Leya refuse the cubs access. At five months old the cubs are rapidly approaching potential weaning age. We saw with Rusha that she weaned her cubs from around six months old. It’s a good job then that the LE cubs have dad to stick up for them around a carcass – because mum might be gearing up to shutting up shop.
L-R: LE3, LE1 and LE2