From calm to chaos
June 17 2014

June has been nothing if not eventful in the Dambwa release site so far. The month started off normal enough as we found the pride in the afternoon of the 2nd of June making an inspection of the Eastern end of the site. Now rapidly approaching a year old, the three RS cubs were accompanying the adults on patrol. Seemingly taking their new adult responsibilities extremely seriously they kept formation close to dad.

The RS cubs tow the line with Zulu

The following morning however the pride was back in the West of the site, and minus the RS cubs but now in the company of the LE cubs. Keen to practice a little hunting, the two LE boys spent most of the morning trying (unsuccessfully of course) to sneak up on individuals in a flock of blue waxbills who seemed totally unfazed by the lions’ presence.

Too young for patrols, LE3 is reunited with mum the next morning

The pride feeds

The RS cubs continued to be absent until the morning of the 5th when we found the pride – with the RSs but minus the LEs! – at waterpan 3, busy feasting. Seemingly none-the-worse for their solo jaunt over the last few days, the youngsters intermittently fed between breaks for play. A little after 8:30 Leya rose from the carcass and began heading West, as her signal rapidly faded we hoped having had her fill she was now on the way to collect her cubs who would also get the chance to feed. Sure enough, half an hour later she returned with three excited bundles galloping along behind her.

Play break for RS3 and Zulu

Leya leaves to collect her cubs

As she turned off the road to head back to the carcass and began feeding once more, the cubs became distracted by Kwandi’s legs passing by and began following her to the waterpan. With Leya’s face safely shoved back inside the carcass the cubs suddenly realised they’d made a mistake and not only lost mum but had now walked straight into the RSs!

The two litters clearly hadn’t seen one another for some days and the excited chatter of greetings and play was too much for Rusha. Perhaps just wanting some peace and quiet, she rounded up the LE cubs and took them over to feed beside their mum before resettling herself.

LE3 greets RS3

LE2 finally finds mum and breakfast

The following week on the 10th we once more discovered the pride at pan 3. All were in fine vocal form that morning and predominantly Loma, Rusha and Zulu led the pride in three hearty roaring sessions. After several hours with the pride in the morning, we left for the day – or at least we thought we were.

Over May and into June we’ve been creating fire breaks around the release site in an effort to protect the area during the upcoming dry season, when wild fires through the forest are rife. With the grass still pretty green in places, burning has been slow going. Whilst it’s worked to our advantage in terms of being able to control the burns, it definitely worked against us on the afternoon of the 10th. A call came through early in the afternoon that a fire had entered the site from the Southern boundary. On arriving the towers of smoke belching high into the sky were more than a little intimidating and could be seen some kilometres away; strong, gusting winds that afternoon added an extra challenge. With several areas of the site clearly ablaze we headed straight for the lions’ location from earlier that morning – pan 3. No lions were in sight, which was a blessing as the area around the pan was on fire in every direction – thanks to those winds. We’d picked up the lions’ signals as we drove to the pan further west, but there was no time for a head count and we set to work beating out the flames with branches. After an hour most blazes around this part of the site were out, but there were several more to get under control further East and South. An exhausting few hours later and the last embers were finally out and it was only as the sun was setting that we were able to go and check that indeed all members of the pride were safe. In fact not only were they all safe but totally relaxed and seemed nonplussed by the afternoon’s perilous situation.

On the borders of a charred Sahara and Chisamu

The following morning we found them on the main road through the centre of the site investigating the areas now cleared of grass; an estimated 50% of the site was affected by the fire. Temi was off on her own not too far away giving a herd of four impala some serious bother – but seemed to be enjoying herself at least.

Temi causing trouble

There was barely time to catch breath after the fiery incident earlier in the week than it was time for a visit from the vet. All the adults in the site are fitted with VHF radio collars – most of which are in need of replacement. Our first port of call on the afternoon of the 12th was a seriously not-interested-in-being-darted-thank-you-very-much Zulu. Unfortunately the vet cuts a rather distinctive figure, and despite having not seen him for a number of years it would seem that, like an elephant, Zulu never forgets… and was off into the bushes and tall grass before we even had time to draw up a plan of action. However, after plenty of persistence and patience Zulu was darted a little after 1600 and was asleep a few minutes later.  After a new collar was fitted, Zulu’s new frequency was programmed into the telemetry, a quick shot of vaccinations and the reversal was given. Barely 15 minutes later he staggered off on rather jelly-like legs in search of his pride.

Zulu getting his new collar

The other lions had split into two groups and with enough light left before the end of the day we encountered Rusha, Kwandi and Rusha’s cubs. A dart in the shoulder for Rusha and she too was soon becoming woozy from the anaesthetic. Of course whilst her cubs are growing and becoming more independent every day, this was obviously a confusing experience for the RSs. All three stuck close by their drowsy mum, with RS3 greeting a rather giddy Rusha a couple of times, perhaps to reassure her mother or herself. With a safe pair of paws close by in the form of aunt Kwandi, the cubs kept vigil in the northern treeline with her as we set to work. Once more Rusha received a new collar and vaccinations, but also a contraceptive implant. This should be effective for the next 18-24 months. With six cubs in the pride currently, all the females will be receiving the contraceptive. Whilst Zulu was back up and at ‘em in 15 minutes, Rusha decided to take the opportunity for a slightly longer nap well after the reversal was given. Kwandi had obviously got bored of waiting and headed off in search of the others and whilst we kept watch on Rusha’s recovery from one side, her offspring sat watching and waiting for mum to wake up from the other.

Bright and early the next morning Temi was next. Her collar had already been replaced last year, so it was a shot of vaccines and an implant for her. Leya and Loma were last on the hit-list; now thoroughly suspicious of our presence and the vehicle this took a little longer but eventually the two sisters were darted (with the rest of the pride looking after the LE cubs nearby whilst mum was out), collared, vaccinated and implanted and soon back up on their feet.

Kela and Kwandi will receive similar treatments later in the year.

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