The quiet before the storm
October 2 2012

Things have been much more relaxed in Dambwa the last week; relaxed to the point of catatonia. But as we plough headlong into summer, and the mercury climbs towards 40 degrees on a daily basis, it’s hardly a surprise that the lions’ activity levels have slumped.

Kela and Zulu

Still it was good to see the pride back together by the 26th after the upheaval which Zulu and Kela’s mating had caused. We found all seven resting at water pan 3 with Kela and Zulu barely giving each other a second glance and no hard feelings between Loma and Temi towards Zulu for his outburst.

Later in the week they had shifted locations to the Sahara area of the site. On the 29th we were able to locate Zulu relatively easily as he sat in the open guarding the remains of a scavenge feed from the numerous vultures which were eagerly eyeing the remains. But the girls proved trickier to find. 100m further East from Zulu’s location was a large thicket favoured by the pride last summer. It seems the females are returning to their old haunts and it took a good 10 minutes to pick out the six forms. Returning to Zulu, we sat watching the vultures with him for the afternoon.

Zulu kept the vultures firmly in his sights all afternoon

The following morning and Kwandi, Loma and Temi were at pan 2, but by 7:30am the humidity was already becoming oppressive and Kwandi led the little band into the cover of the Acacia treeline and out of sight. Heading East we found Kela, Leya and Rusha had taken up the vigil with Zulu at the recent scavenge spot.

An injured Rusha, and Zulu in the background

A short time after our arrival Rusha struggled to her feet making a fair bit of noise as she did so. The reason for her grumbling soon became apparent; her entire left front leg was swollen and initially she was unable to put any weight on it. Limping past our vehicle to get to shade she was able to put increasing weight on it the more she moved, so it would appear to be a bad sprain rather than anything more concerning. Having hobbled the 40m or so to a small grove of trees she found a decent patch of shade and resettled. She will probably struggle for the next few days to keep up with the pride on any major moves through the site though. Luckily for Rusha though the rest of this group weren’t going anywhere. As the morning wore on the only activity of note was the constant rotating of Kela, Leya and Zulu between patches of shade. Kwandi, Loma and Temi remained elusive for the rest of the day.

So, we decided to take matters into our own hands.

Playbacks were conducted on the lions that now form the Dambwa pride when they were in stage one of the program. Up until now we haven’t tried playbacks since their release together; but we already had a few pre-conceived notions from when they were cubs and sub-adults as to who may be most likely to respond and respond most actively.

Kela

On the 2nd October we found the whole pride back together again and resting under a favoured tree in Kariba. Deciding that they’d really had enough rest over this last week we concealed speakers outside of the site, approximately 200m from the sleeping subjects. The results were instantaneous with all seven bolting upright and immediately scanning either side of them.

Playback experiments in the Serengeti in the 1990s showed that lions are not only able to discern the number of potential intruders but also gender. Grinnell et al. (1995) used a series of playbacks to assess the response of male lions specifically and found that two variables affected the subjects’ response: the number of incoming males compared to their own group’s size and the degree of cover. So we deliberately, and perhaps meanly, chose for Dambwa’s first playback a number of lions which outnumbered the pride and was male biased. 

Zulu and Loma immediately rose to their feet staring hard in the direction we’d hidden the speakers. As the pride assessed the situation, Temi briefly rose to her feet before promptly sitting back down. After a full minute of consideration Zulu began to make his way over towards the sound – but stopped after only 10m. Another few seconds’ thought and he was off again and this time was swiftly followed by Kela. Another 40 seconds passed and Temi decided to lend her weight to the effort and was soon followed by first Leya then Loma. As a youngster, Kwandi had been one of our consistently most reliable responders to playbacks and so it was a bit of a surprise to find her moving so far down the order in sixth place. Or, perhaps it was a sensible decision on her part – being so outnumbered maybe she knew it was best to remain hidden? Finally, a limping and forlorn Rusha made the final move at 4 minutes and 2 seconds, still struggling with her injury she clearly wasn’t keen to move but reluctantly followed.

Keeping watch after the "intruder's" had left

While none of the pride roared back in response they did stick together to investigate. Our next trial will perhaps need to be a little more even-handed in terms of ratio if we want to see a real territorial response from them.

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