A promising start for the Matusadona Lion Project
March 20 2014

The following is taken from the diary of Rae Kokes, Principle Researcher for ALERT's Matusadona Lion Project:

A local anti poaching team reported the whereabouts of the lions I saw last week, now in a thicket near Gordon’s Bay.  I quickly jumped into the vehicle and headed there to spot a lion I have nicknamed White Fang and the younger adult female I’ve been referring to as ‘Ivory’ disappear into a dense coco bush.

Determined to obtain a better visual and establish if the rest of the pride were present I took to some shade and waited the day out. After the heat began to rise I tried my luck along some passable game trails in hopes of seeing tracks leading elsewhere but nothing was found nor heard. I made a quick trip back to camp for lunch and headed out again, still in high hopes of spotting them.

The area they were presumed to be in still is a stunning open vlei meandering inland from the shoreline. Plentiful green grassland gives way to powdery white sand pans decorated with large, shady coco bushes - perfect lion territory. 

The sun soon began to give way to a spectacular waning moon flooding the vlei in silver. My eyes began to slowly adjust to the dim lighting when slowly a ghostly figure appeared from the dark vegetation. It was Ivory. And bathed in moonlight she let out the most magnificent roar. Having announced her presence to the evening she gently rubbed herself amongst some mopane shrubs and called softly. She was soon followed by her older lioness pride mate (F102 - my nickname for her is embarrassingly western and non-creative so I won’t share…), White Fang, M102 - the large subadult male, and F104 the small fluffy cub. With all accounted for Ivory roared again and headed out onto a bare sandy pan close to a bachelor herd of impala. The others followed her and all took positions in the sand to partake in a lengthy staring contest with the impala.  As the staring match continued I decided to leave the lions in peace. Although it is crucial to obtain as many hours of observation as possible it is also important the lions are habituated to my vehicle slowly and that their behaviour is not interfered with. 

A few days later I headed out towards the Jenje river looking for fresh spoor.  In a moment of pure spontaneity I glanced to my right at an open vlei to see 10 lions lolling in the grass! I crept over as quietly and quickly as is possible in a Land Cruiser to count one large male, five lionesses and four cubs. The lions were entertaining themselves by watching a herd of zebra across a small gully, but eventually moved to the the mopane scrub for shade from the 9am sun. 

Matusadona Lion Project

The male was one I recognised from photo’s sent to me from others working in MNP and he has been nicknamed 'Shepherd’ on account of his habit of following people back to your vehicle who are on guided walking safaris.  From what I could see he appeared to have a small wound on his side and when he rose I could see he was limping. 

By the afternoon the pride were back out in the open providing me with a fantastic opportunity to get some ID shots. This involves body shots and close ups of whisker spot patterns. Each and every lion has its own unique whisker spot pattern, similar to our finger prints, and keeping a record of these, and any scars or other distinguishing features, helps to ID individual lions. The lionesses were in great condition. Two appeared to be lactating. The oldest lioness, who is perhaps the mother of some of the others, was on the skinnier side but proved to be a typical older leader in the pride as she lead the girls off in pursuit of distant impala. 

Matusadona Lion Project

Matusadona Lion Project

As the lionesses headed out Shepherd reluctantly followed and, in the open, I could see he has been in a recent battle. He had quite a few deep gashes on his hindquarters and underbelly possibly suggesting an attack from behind from another lion, but his presence with the pride suggests he won what may have been an attempted pride take over. 

Matusadona Lion Project

Last but not least the cubs emerged. Two subadult males, a subadult female and a juvenile female. Sadly the youngest was very thin and is in desperate need of a big feed. She did appear energetic and kept up with the pride as they headed to Sanyati West Bay but without a good meal soon she may not survive. 

Matusadona Lion Project

Matusadona Lion Project

The cubs tackled some wide gullies, leaping across comically, and one even braved a deeper than expected body of water in the dark! 

The pride have since moved into the Changa area and I am about to head out again to track further. The impala densities in the area are seemingly high from what I have observed so far and will hopefully provide the pride with a sufficient feed for them and the youngest cub.  A herd of 60-70 buffalo was also found in the Gordon’s bay around the time Ivory and co. were in that area. It may be that the lions are following the herds.

After just 10 days I can happily say there are at least 15 lions here! Including 9 breeding individuals - a promising start. 

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