Rae returns to Matusadona
July 17 2014

After a well earned break, Prinicple Researcher for the Matusadona Lion Project returns to the Park, providing this update on the latest developments...

Matusadona Lion Project

"I’m now back in the wilds of Matusadona and there has been an unbelievable amount of activity taking place with the lions whilst I was away, and since returning.

On the day I left the park the Jenje Boys coalition was sighted with a Kanjedza Pride lioness. It appears all 3 boys mated with the lioness whilst I was away and have been spending significant amounts of time in the Eastern region of the valley floor. A week later I received a report of ‘Jenje’, the smaller male of the coalition, being spotted with the Eastern Pride lionesses at Rhino Safari Camp. This was fascinating news and indicated that perhaps the coalition were attempting to take over 2 prides simultaneously, or the coalition was beginning to fragment.

However, concerns grew as to the safety of the Eastern Pride’s 2 young sub-adults; 'Nevanji' and 'Minnie’. During pride takeovers younger cubs below 12 months are often killed by the new incoming males. This act of infanticide then stimulates the lionesses to come into estrous again and mate with their new pride males. At c. 18 months old Nevanji and Minnie may merely be chased away from the pride, perhaps with other pride members, or they may face the wrath of the coalition.  A week or so before my leave I had noticed that the female sub adult Minnie had been absent from the Eastern Pride for some time; had she had an encounter with a Jenje Boy?

I have been very fortunate to have my colleague and ALERT's Director of Conservation, Dr Norman Monks continue the research whilst I was away, but sadly he confirmed what I had been dreading.  A lion carcass was found in the Gordons Bay area and the wear of the teeth and skull size suggested it may very well be Minnie.  I have also had no report nor any sighting of Nevanji the young male.  It may be that the Eastern Pride is now down to just 6 lionesses.

On the 6th of July a visual was obtained of Eastern Pride lioness ’Gogo’ close to Rhino Safari Camp where the pride seem to be spending all their time at the moment.  I’m contemplating as to whether this shift in area usage is a consequence of the now peaking lake levels, or the pride take over.  Back east in the park and the Kanjedza Pride have been spending more time down from the hills, and lioness ‘Kanjedza’ was located with the largest of the Jenje Boys in Gordons Bay.  We followed the pair into a nearby vlei and witnessed 6 matings.  This couple were also the two seen mating the day I left.  Presumably this first mating was a false heat on Kanjedza’s part, or ‘appeasement sex’.  Often when new males join a pride of lionesses the females will mate with them as a peace offering as such, and to determine whether or not the males will reside with the group permanently.  During these copulations the females will not conceive.  However given this was nearly a month ago I suspect this second mating is a sign of Kanjedza accepting the male, ‘Toulouse’, and may very well fall pregnant.

Currently we are attempting to collar 4 lions - 2 males and 2 lionesses. Dr Monks has returned to the valley floor to undertake the darting and we also have the assistance of Nathan Webb and Colin Hewitt from Antelope Park.  On the 10th we carried out our first collaring attempt by calling in lions with distress calls and bait.  I have been hoping to collar the large male Toulouse and given the sighting of him with lioness Kanjedza I had hoped he would make an appearance. As night fell and the moon rose a male was spotted slowly approaching the hung crocodile meat.  He sniffed it cautiously before moving off but I was able to identify him as M109, another member of the Jenje Boys.  He was soon accompanied by Kanjedza.  Has she been in fact mating with two of the coalition of three?  Whilst mulling over the pair’s presence the lions decided to in fact sleep nearby, completely ignoring the fresh bait…this continued for some time. We decided by midnight to terminate the call-in and try again the next evening.

The following day we picked up spoor for the pair and possibly another male heading towards the Jenje River and we followed with speakers and bait ready. Unfortunately no lions showed but 4 hyena did which was a fantastic surprise. To date I have only sighted two hyena and heard them only a three times. They are notoriously scarce despite my finding plenty of spoor. Since returning I have been shocked by the amount of hyena spoor found on almost every stretch of road and I believe this is down to the Eastern Pride’s absence in the area. The large dominating pride must place significant pressure on the canids and now while the cats are away the dogs will play. However our second call up attempt that night showed us exactly why the hyena should not let their guard down. Two large female hyena appeared at the bait and we watched a fascinating territorial interaction between them right behind our vehicle.  Suddenly a lioness, lead grey in the moonlight, slid out from the shadows, head held low and paws poised over the sand.  She took chase after the hyena and was soon followed by a male sprinting throughout the mopane scrub after their competitors. This is the first interspecific interaction I have witnessed and did not fail to impress!

Once satisfied the hyena were gone the lions returned to the bait and began to feed. I identified them as Ivory and Madiba of the Kanjedza Pride.

Matusadona Lion Project

Madiba, the large sub adult male, was quite cautious and perturbed more so by Ivory who growled at his attempts to join her on the bait. As Ivory reached up to feed it was evident she was lactating and was also in need of a substantial feed.  Dr Monks, with complete precision and ease, successfully darted her and we quickly had a collar placed on her.  A closer look at Ivory showed she had recently received some blows to her hind quarters and we could also confirm she was certainly lactating.  Then it hit me.  I had observed Ivory, Madiba and Shepherd before and I had suspected Shepherd had been mating with Ivory. Could  Ivory be carrying Shepherd's cubs? I was actually quite choked up by the thought given the sad and sudden ending of Shepherd’s reign. We tracked Ivory the following day and saw she had enjoyed the rest of the bait once she had recovered and showed no irritation from the collar.

On the 12th we headed West towards Rhino Safari Camp. I had been given a report of all 6 Eastern Pride lionesses being there and that presumably meant lioness Matusadona was there and I have been hoping to collar her. She has spent significant amounts of time alone and following her movements will no doubt provide copious amounts of data.  We set up our call-in station and began to call when we soon heard the distinctive growls of lions feeding…If feeding on a large kill it was unlikely the lions would be lured by the distress calls of another kill site. We decided to wait and try our best.  By 8pm a lone male appeared with an enormous belly and very little interest in our bait. Despite not feeding his presence was great news as it appeared to be a new male. I suspect he may belong to a coalition of two, known as the ‘Mukazapela Boys’, but I have only observed these males once as they are very skittish.

The following day we found the male and in a fantastic turn of events he was mating with F107, an Eastern Pride lioness!  We followed the mating pair on foot into the Mukazapela river area before losing them into the thick scrub. So are the Jenje Boys focusing their efforts with the Kanjedza Pride leaving the Mukazapela Boys to the Eastern Pride lionesses?

We’re still continuing our collaring efforts and learning quickly that despite reports of the Matusadona lions hunting crocodiles, crocodile meat is not that sought after. We are closing in on the male ‘Toulouse’ and hope to collar him, Matusadona and another male before the week ends. We’re all quite exhausted after a week of long and late nights but hopes are still very high and more recent sightings have kept excitement levels peaked. I’ll share more about these in my next blog."

Matusadona Lion Project
 

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