On Monday the 5th of May Dr. Norman Monks, ALERT Director of Conservation, arrived to assist with call-in stations and the darting of lions for collaring.
The night before, and following the cheetah kill in Sanyati West Bay, I went to investigate the carcass remains. A fairly large portion of the carcass had been left, almost skilfully dissected. I decided to use the left overs to investigate whether other carnivores were prowling around. The carcass was dragged a short distance out into the open and a camera trap set. The following morning my efforts were rewarded with photo’s of lioness F109, ‘Matusdona’, dragging the carcass to the nearby scrub.
I managed to track her the following morning. It appeared that she was alone and again with no evidence of suckling, further suggesting further that she had in fact lost her entire litter of three cubs. Matusadona kindly took up residence for the day and allowed me to introduce her to Dr Monks in the afternoon, and it seems that sighting was a catalyst for many more.
Our intention is to collar 5 lions in total; F106 and F107 from the Eastern Pride, the pride male M101, F101 from the Kanjedza Pride, and a member of the recently sighted male coalition. Baited call-in stations were to be used which involve hoisting a large piece of meat and securely fixing it to a tree, placing cone speakers above in the branches and playing the sound of an animal in distress. The bellowing cries of a buffalo calf were used to lure the Matusadona lions in hopes that such a din may be a familiar dinner bell sound to them.
We had followed spoor of 2 lionesses on the morning of the 7th and decided to try our first call-in station in the Gordons Bay area in anticipation of the lionesses being close by. Predicting lion presence in an area and also hoping specific lions would approach the bait is no easy task and hopes could not be raised as it was quite likely that no lions would show up.
We positioned our vehicle in view of the bait and began calling. After playing the buffalo calf track through its entirety we paused for 5 minutes to wait for any approaching lions. Nothing; so we started to play the recording again. After only a few seconds a lioness emerged from the bushes, gazing up into the baited tree. She was soon followed by another three lions and all began to circle the tree straining to observe where this dying animal may be. As they encircled and sniffed the hanging bait I was able to ID the group as F106, F107, F108 and F114. F106 and F107, ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Go-Go’, were the two lionesses I had planned to collar from the Eastern Pride. We could not believe our luck! We allowed the lions to begin feeding on the meat, stretching to reach it. By positioning the meat off the ground and forcing the lions to raise themselves onto their hind quarters we could ensure a clear shot could be taken to dart them in the side of their rumps. It was decided that F106 should be collared first and was done so very quickly and efficiently.
Once the collar had been fitted and morphometric data gathered a reversal was administered and F106 came to, resuming feeding and socialising with the rest of her pride. I managed to locate her the following morning, now joined by the sub adults of the pride, M103 and F111. She appeared completely un-phased by the previous evening’s events, and once I was satisfied she was moving with ease with the collar, I left her with the pride.
On the 8th we hoped that the pride male, Shepherd (M101) was perhaps in the area and following the females. With that in mind we relocated our call-in station to the Kemurara 3 river area. After an hour of calling and no response we began to think that perhaps the male had moved elsewhere when suddenly a figure was spotted in the darkness lurking towards the bait. Using night vision binoculars we could identify the animal as being a lion but its tentative steps to and from bait made identifying which lion very difficult. Shortly after a second lion was spotted and both began to cautiously feed. Their behaviour suggested this was not the Eastern Pride again. Finally a spot light was lowered onto the lions slowly and I identified them as the 2 Kanjedza Pride lionesses, F101 and F102, ‘Ivory’ and ‘Marge’. I was stunned to find the lionesses here and had been expecting that finding Ivory to collar would take some time, yet here she was. We allowed the girls to feed however they never quite relaxed and small sounds and movements were met by fierce stares. They presumably were very aware of being in the Eastern Pride’s territory and the smell of lion on the bait from the previous night may have heightened their anxiety. Because of this we decided against darting for risk of the lionesses running into the bush and not being found again.
On the 9th our third call-in station was attempted and drew in the Eastern Pride lioness known as Matusadona. I had received reports of spoor of a lone lioness in the area from the previous day and had believed it was again Matusadona roaming alone. She enjoyed a few mouthfuls from the bait before moving off and allowing us to remove it and place it elsewhere. Our quarry was the male, Shepherd, and we decided to relocate along the lakeshore in hopes of finding him there. By now the incessant cries of the buffalo calf were becoming more than tedious but we proceeded to call for another hour; only managing to lure Matusadona back to the bait.
The following morning I set out at dawn to look for Shepherd’s spoor and found he had walked into the area and headed straight to where we had been calling. It looked as if he had met up with Matusadona and both had possibly headed to Fothergill Island. At approximately 2.5kms away from the calling area it was possible the lions would hear the calls from the island but with prevailing winds rising at night there was a possibility they also may not. Despite this we tried again and before we had even begun to call Matusadona appeared again! She enjoyed even more of the bait before disappearing into the darkness once more. We continued to call and I scanned the shoreline with the night vision binoculars. Suddenly she was back and had brought company - Shepherd. The 2 approached the bait and the large male began to tuck into the now offensively smelling remains. He was quickly darted and we successfully collared him. All the while Matusadona watched from a distance, appearing quite bored by the performance. Shephered quickly came round and resumed feeding as if nothing had happened. We allowed him and Matusadona to enjoy the rest of the bait and headed back to camp.
Shepherd was tracked the next morning and found roaring and patrolling along the shoreline seemingly showing no awareness of his collar or the previous evening’s darting.
This week has been a pivotal moment for the study. With 2 animals now collared a plethora of data can be gathered. A very exciting finding was made just last night in fact whilst tracking Shepherd again, but I’ll save that for next week’s blog...
All collars will be removed at the end of the study.
Exceprts from the diary of Rae Kokes, Principle Researcher for ALERT's Matusadona Lion Project.