A welcome return to Matusadona National Park
July 18 2016

I can happily report that fieldwork has finally resumed here in Matusadona NP after some unforeseen challenges resulting in a temporary suspension of activities.  There have been many developments in and beyond the Park, and I will try to summarise the best I can!

During my absence, and since returning to the field, the Jenje Boys cohort have killed a further five elephants, taking the total of known elephant kills to 20.  With the exception of one bull elephant, which presumably was over powered whilst in a very weakened state following an aggressive encounter with another elephant, all animals have again been younger sub-adults.

A buffalo bull was also recently taken by the cohort in the Bhizi River area; a rare event.  There have been some very positive sightings on the valley floor of buffalo herds, with counts ranging from 214 to 260 animals, including plenty of healthy calves.  Zebra also appear to be on the increase and sightings are becoming more commonplace in other areas.  Although the waters of Lake Kariba have finally begun to rise again, we are still enjoying the vast open expanses of a large foreshore area.  Increasing impala herds are still grazing on the panicum grass which is still retaining some nutritional value with thanks to our late rains this year.

What has been most rewarding since returning to the valley floor are the numerous sightings of the resident prides and wonderful development of cubs.  The Eastern Pride are still joined by the four sub-adult males, now c. 18 months old.  This is the first litter observed by this study to have reached 18 months old.  The Eastern Pride is now also joined by a young female cub, F125, “Suzie Q”, born to pride member F107, “Elizabeth”, aged c. six months.  This young female has been noted to be maintaining a good body condition during all sightings, and despite the boisterous playful advances of her much older and larger brothers, the little female appears very capable of holding her own.

The Kanjedza Pride have returned to being an elusive twosome.  The few sightings that have been obtained, and a review of locations from lioness F101’s, “Ivory”, GPS collar indicate that both lionesses have been pregnant and are suspected to be moving with young cubs.  Yet, a mating bout was observed between Ivory and pride male M108, “Toulouse”, recently, which has raised concerns over the wellbeing of a litter Ivory was suspected to have had.  No cubs born to either lioness since the onset of this study have survived to 12 months.

The Tashinga Pride were recently sighted in the Chura River area, escorting two cubs aged c. six months.  There have been expectations however of the pride to have cubs of >12months old in their midst, based on known mating bouts and signs of pregnancy amongst the four lionesses.

So far, the study has focused the majority of research on resident prides in the valley floor area, where lions have historically been most abundant.  However, understanding the population in the other less accessible areas of Matusadona is crucial to investigating the viability of lions in this protected area, and how this sub-population contributes to the larger population of the Mid-Zambezi region.  To that end, a call-up survey was recently undertaken in the escarpment and southern boundary area of the Park. 

Call-up surveys involve a lot of leg-work, but are extremely exciting and rewarding.  Large speakers are rigged up on top of the research vehicle and play the sounds of a buffalo calf in distress for one hour in all directions. This is done at specific points throughout the study area to ensure a significant portion of the survey zone is sampled.  During the hour of broadcasting bellows we then record who comes to investigate the din.

We had some wonderful sightings of hyena at nearly all of our call-up stations, and two leopardesses also made an appearance.  Our most interesting encounter was at the only station where lions responded.  In a stunning area south of Vulunduli station known as Sekata Valley, three lionesses and a sub-adult male responded to our calls.  Using an infrared camera to watch the cautious pride and take photos, I at first thought I recognised the adults to be those of the Tashinga Pride; F119, F120 and F122 with collared lioness F121, “Chura” missing further north along the Ume river that day.  The pride crept closer and allowed us to observe them with a spotlight.  All were in very good condition and appeared to have recently fed.  Eventually we lost sight of them to the night and continued on to our next calling station.

A review of footage taken during the encounter, and observation of fresh spoor down in the valley floor area of what was likely to be the Tashinga Pride has left a large question mark over this sighting.  Locations gathered from Chura’s fitted satellite GPS collar show she has not ranged into the Sekata Valley in the year since the collar has been deployed, however the extent of her known range is less than 10km away from this sighting of the 4 lions.  It is certainly plausible the Tashinga Pride range into this area and reports from PWMA rangers have confirmed the presence of lions here numerous times.  Yet reviewing Chura’s movements and that of the pride males is creating an interesting picture that is suggesting this may actually be a new pride to the study.

Fortunately a camera trap survey by Oxford University’s WildCru and the Zambezi Society is currently underway in the Park and will hopefully help solve this mystery.  The survey is aiming to establish large carnivore abundance and distribution throughout the Park utilising data of known resident lions and leopards from this study.  112 camera traps have been deployed in the field and the survey has been extended into the southern region of the Park to help with my review of carnivore activity in this little studied area.  Certain camera traps in an area close to our sighting of the suspected unknown lions have already captured interesting footage of lions.  It is hoped at the end of the survey footage will help us to determine which lions are who and where!

About the Matusadona Lion Project (MLP)

Since its commencement in 2014, the MLP, in partnership with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, aims to determine the population status and ecology of lions in Zimbabwe’s Matusadona National Park. The last census in 2005 suggested that just 28 individuals remained, down from nearly 90 in 1998, raising concerns over the population’s long-term viability.  The MLP is collecting data on individual lions, pride structure and distribution, as well trying to understand the environmental and human-induced pressures facing Matusadona’s lions.  This project directly contributes to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority’s conservation and management plans for this apex predator. 

Support the Matusadona Lion Project

MLP is looking for funding to cover the running costs of the project (such as vehicle repair and fuel) as well as to acquire additional equipment (camera traps and tracking collars) to increase the amount of data being collected.  If you are able to help please make a donation here, or contact info@lionalert.org for alternative support options.


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