Cooling tempers
December 13 2014

The morning of the 28th November found all pride members except Rusha and her off-spring in Puku Dambo. Rusha and her trio were in the East of the site, initially in a favourite thicket in Sahara. During the mid-morning she led the RSs West through Sahara, as they neared the border with Bwizu it was clear something had caught their attention as all four began to scent the ground and scan their surroundings. The vegetation in this area of the site is pretty dense, and as the lions searched we lost sight of them for several minutes, but a tell-tale impala alarm call cleared up the mystery of just what had intrigued them.

L-R: RS1, RS2 & RS3

When we managed to catch up to them - now in Bwizu - we could see the 3 RS youngsters, but no sign of Rusha and her signal was rapidly diminishing. It wasn’t clear whether she’d gone after the impala or continued on her original path. But the cubs seemed to know where they were heading and set off in a semi-jog towards Puku Dambo. They must have heard or known something we didn’t as it was here that they met up with Rusha at Pan 3. As the trio arrived we saw something we hadn’t seen before; Rusha hissed and bared her teeth at her cubs. “Teenage” lions can be handful, and the RSs’ are certainly no exception. With more energy translating into mischief than is good for them it’s possible they’d taken one too many liberties with mum that morning and she just wanted some space. But as they become more independent of her it’s clear the dynamic between the once-tight knit family is changing.

Early on the 29th we found all 12 on the border of Bwizu and Puku Dambo. Not long after, Rusha led Kwandi and the RSs East across Bwizu. Slowly over the space of about 15 minutes, the rest of the pride eventually followed, with first Leya leading Loma in that direction and finally Zulu leading Kela and LE cubs after them. Kela can be exceptionally lazy, but she can also be exceptionally affectionate and for the better part of 10 minutes as the cubs tried to keep pace with the group, she chased them, ankle tapped them and ran along-side them in the cool early morning.

Leya and Loma set off

Some lazy days followed as we headed into December, and the 2nd of the new month seemed to be following in the same vein. Initially we found Kela, Kwandi, Leya, Loma and Zulu resting together in Tsavo. As we’d been looking for the lions we’d picked up Rusha’s signal a few hundred metres earlier, and so after establishing neither Rusha and her cubs, nor Leya’s cubs, were with this group, we circled back in search of mum number 1 and her troop. After a brief search of the area we narrowed down Rusha’s signal to an area about 300m away from the other group. Going round in circles and scouring clumps of tall grass, bushes and thickets we just couldn’t find them. Switching off the telemetry and heading back to the other group, within metres of giving up we quite by chance spotted the RS family stuffed in a bush. As we couldn’t see them very clearly we decided to head back to the other group and entertained the possibility that Leya may fetch her cubs later in the afternoon and the RSs might join them too.

It was slow going for a while until just before 16:30 when Loma rose and began heading north-west. Leya initially followed but sat down again after 50-60m whilst watching as her sister continued onwards and out of sight. Just as we were watching Loma’s exit on the right-hand side, some vague shapes to our left could be seen weaving through the grass: it was of course Rusha & co. It was a bit of an odd mixing of groups as they made their way to within about 100m of the group before disappearing once more into the tall grasses. Kwandi especially seemed aware that “someone” was there, but with the two groups out of sight of one another no one seemed to know who…

However, whilst we’d been watching the RSs’ progress we completely missed the arrival of the LE cubs on the other side of the vehicle. Leya was still some 60m or so off the main group and was now surrounded by her youngsters. After several greetings, she led them off in the same direction in which Loma had left earlier.

Leya with LE1 and LE3

Kwandi’s curiosity was getting the better of her now. She knew someone was there, but still hadn’t seen the RSs. Inching forward, with neck craned and ears pricked, she moved some 50m towards them – but still both were out of sight of one another. After several minutes of this invisible stand-off Rusha eventually led her trio towards Kwandi, moving in for a few greetings before spotting Zulu and Kela some 50 or so metres away. And that’s when things got even stranger; she froze – stock still, flattening her ears slightly and hunching her shoulders. This wasn’t the kind of reunion we’ve come to expect from these particular lions. As her cubs crowded around her, Rusha’s eyes stayed riveted for a good two minutes on Kela and Zulu.

A tense Rusha arrives to the group surrounded by her cubs

Suddenly, the atmosphere changed and she went trotting over to Zulu, tail aloft, and he stood to accept her greeting. However there was still something odd going on. As RS1, 2 and 3 approached in her wake Kela bared her teeth, and when any of the cubs tried to greet her she’d make quite clear their solicitations were not wanted – even slapping RS3 away. As mentioned earlier, the RS cubs are a rather boisterous trio and are not afraid to push their luck - repeatedly. Given Rusha’s reaction to the sight of Kela, and Kela’s reaction to the arrival of the RS family it’s possible again that one or all of the cubs had annoyed someone at an earlier point in the day and these were the remnants of an earlier incident. Kela is by far and away the most placid lion in the pride, and has never shown anything but tolerance towards both litters of cubs and seems to revel in their company. So if she’s giving someone the cold shoulder…  someone probably deserves it.

The rains arrive in Dambwa

Whatever the problem was, things seemed to return to normal and a sedate few days followed and interactions between Kela and the RS cubs returned to peaceable interaction. Even the arrival of the much-anticipated rains on the 10th couldn’t stir the pride as they luxuriated in the new cooler, if still slightly humid, conditions. However, even chilled out cats need to shake a leg every once in a while and it was on the 12th that their legs were finally shaken.

After a couple of routine maintenance tasks had been carried out mid-morning in and around the site, we thought we’d pop in for a quick visit to see the pride before the next very obvious storm on the horizon moved in. Quite clearly something had caught their attention as all 12 were lined up with eyes riveted front and centre. Rusha set the move in motion and with everyone initially following suit. However, when the LE cubs came to a stop soon after we elected to remain with them until we could be sure our noisy vehicle wasn’t about to ruin an ambush.

An impala warning call was soon heard from the direction of Pan 3 and 150-200m away Leya could be seen running to the South. Leaving the LE cubs, we moved forward and found Rusha, Zulu and the RS cubs breaking into a trot as they neared the waterpan – then… it was chaos. Kela, Kwandi and Loma, out of sight to us, had launched the attack and sped towards the northern treeline after part of the herd of impala, whilst Zulu, RS1 and RS2 singled off one or two of the herd back East in the direction the pride had just arrived from. Meanwhile RS3 flew in front of our vehicle in hot pursuit of another… Rusha… we utterly lost track of, and who knew where Leya had ended up?

RS3 watches her would-be lunch disappear

Over the next 20 minutes or so, all pride members (except the LE cubs) returned to the water pan with no one showing signs of any success. With nine lions involved in the hunt, it could have been a case of too many cooks. But even so, it was an interesting “quick visit” before the rains made their presence known once more.

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