Catching up with the lions of Matusadona
February 15 2016

This blog is the ongoing diary of Matusadona Lion Project Principal Researcher, Rae Kokes:

I’ve been back in the field just short of a month, and am not quite sure where to begin - 2016 is already proving to be a busy year!

On my arrival back I was lucky enough to locate sub-adult male M111, “Shenga”.  Shenga left his natal pride (the Tashinga pride) in early 2015, alongside brother M112, and the twosome appear to have since taken up residence in the Bumi Hills area.  Shenga was darted and treated for a snare wound in my absence by Mark Brightman of the Bumi Hills Anti-Poaching Unit, and has since taken a buffalo and three crocodiles alongside his brother.  They are clearly thriving in their newly sought independency.  M112 was also noted to be mating with some of the young resident females of the area and it is hoped in the absence of a pride male in the area that the cohort may become the new dominant males of this small pride.

As I headed back into Matusadona National Park my priority was to locate Eastern Pride lioness F107, “Elizabeth”.  Locations downloaded from a fitted satellite GPS collar indicated she was possibly denning.  After waiting by the Mukadzapela River, close to a small stream where Elizabeth was hidden up, she eventually emerged displaying signs that she had been recently suckled.  Elizabeth was last observed mating in September, a suspected 10-14 days after losing a previous litter that was never sighted.  The cubs are likely to be c. 1 month old and will remain hidden until they are approximately 6-8 weeks.

As for the rest of the Eastern Pride cubs, all four males are now one year old!  This is a fantastic achievement for the pride.  Probability estimates have been made that for every cub that reaches one year old a parental pair will have had to have copulated some 3000 times.

The collars for pride males M108, “Toulouse” and M110, “Mukadza” have lost battery life to their GPS units over the Christmas period, and although their VHF components are still allowing for tracking the collars need to be removed to be sent for refurbishment. On the 31st of January Toulouse was located alone in the Mukadzapela area and was promptly darted by Mark Brightman, and the collar was removed.  A closer look at Toulouse showed he was in fantastic condition and his mane is developing in stunning fashion as he comes into his prime.

Since the onset of 2016 there has been a significant spike in livestock losses to lions in the Mola area of the Nyaminyami Rural District, west of Matusadona NP.  This area borders wildlife areas of Omay North and Bumi Hills state land, and is an important refuge for wildlife, including lions, as they migrate in and out of Matusadona NP.  Goats and sheep are the main livestock kept in the area and a staggering 33 were lost in January alone.  Following these losses a meeting was held in Mola with Nyaminyami Rural District Council (NRDC) and community members. The aim of the meeting was to hear the concerns of residents and to share conflict mitigation schemes that can be possibly implemented.  The use of noise-makers, improving enclosures, flashing lights, and a wildlife officer programme were discussed.

Many losses have seen livestock being taken whilst being left outside of their enclosure at night and/or enclosures allowing for lions to break in or livestock out.  These issues can be resolved however there are bigger concerns that are possibly contributing to this rise in lion predation. Usually during the rainy season animals disperse making sourcing prey more difficult for the resident lions, which in turn pushes them to easier prey sources in the form of livestock.  Prey is certainly dispersing inland despite a terrible lack of rain, yet there are still large concentrations along the foreshore.  What is of concern is the rate at which this foreshore habitat has expanded.  The area has doubled, and more, in just one season sending densities of prey askew and reducing the ‘catchability' of prey.  Lions will take preference to habitat types that provide a better opportunity to catch prey with good vegetation cover as opposed to areas with large densities of prey.  The foreshore currently has zero cover beyond the tree line with short, sparse and dry panicum grass tufts.

It is also suspected the concerned lionesses that are raiding livestock have recently lost their pride male to trophy hunting.  Research undertaken in areas such as Hwange NP have demonstrated a notable cycle of females losing pride males and in an effort to avoid new incoming males roam elsewhere, and often into areas of conflict.  Has the presence of the two young males from the Tashinga Pride been causing the females to move into the villages?  Yet now it would seem the females have begun to socialise with the cohort.

Whatever the causation, efforts are needing to be sought to tackle this ongoing issue.  Following the meeting in Mola there was great support for a ‘wildlife officer’ programme; a scheme adopted from the highly successful ‘Lion Guardians’ programme in East Africa.  This programme has also proven to be very effective in Zimbabwe in the Hwange area with the ‘Lion Long Shields’ programme.  It was therefore decided to visit the programme and see how it may be implemented in the Nyaminyami area.

Alongside those from NRDC and the Mola Ward 3 councillor, we travelled to Hwange NP and spent time with those of the Lion Long Shields.  Researchers and managers Mr Lovemore Sibanda and Mr Brent Stapelkamp kindly hosted us and we were fortunate enough to meet with the Lion Long Shields guardians and hear of their work.  The simple use of vuvuzelas to scare lions away from areas of conflict was a major topic of discussion along with how the programme is benefitting communities and the inner workings of such a conservation effort.  We were taken to an area where one lioness with cubs was feared to be on the cusp of raiding livestock so efforts were made to notify nearby villagers and ensure all livestock enclosures were strong.  Mr Machaya from NRDC assisted with reinforcing one enclosure whilst councillor Mr Siabwanda discussed with guardians further the challenges that the people of are facing in Mola.

We returned to Mola after our trip feeling very inspired, confident and excited.  There is still much to be done before any such programme can be implemented here, but what was taken away from these meetings is invaluable and we are extremely grateful to the Lion Long Shields team for hosting us.  A tremendous thank you also to NRDC for joining the trip and to Bumi Hills Safari Lodge for assisting significantly with the funding of transport and logistics.

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.

To sponsor one of Matusadona’s lions click here.

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