Principle researcher Rae Kokes updates us on the latest from the Matusadona Lion Project ...
I’m very happy to report we have successfully collared all 4 lions and things are now in full swing here.
On the 26th of July we made our way to Rhino Safari Camp where Camp Manager Jenny Nobes had heard a tell-tale commotion in the scrub just beyond the camp; it was reported that the Eastern Pride girls were in the area. Our telemetry equipment indicated that both collared lionesses “Gogo" and “Elizabeth" were close so we went to investigate as to whether a kill had been made. En route we had a wonderful chance encounter with the resident female cheetah. I haven’t seen her in quite some time and this was back in the Kanjedza River area on the Eastern side of the park, some 35kms away. Cheetah have enormous home ranges so her presence here was no surprise and perhaps an indication of her different habitat/area use with the changing season.
We circled the island and zig-zagged through the tunnelling roads of Jesse bush. Our signal was increasing and during moments of silence bones were heard crunching. Unfortunately the vegetation was just too thick to penetrate so we left the feeding girls in peace.
That evening we set up our final call-in station for our final attempt to collar the remaining male; four lionesses of the Eastern Pride were attracted to the station, followed by all three members of the Jenje Boys coalition. Soon chaos ensued. All seven lions took turns to feed, intertwined with mating and fighting. Growls, snarls and roars boomed all around us as the lions slipped in and out of sight in the car headlights. Finally we managed to dart our sought after male who comically attempted to continue feeding whilst the sedatives began to take place. Once he had fallen unconscious, and with some quick manoeuvring, we positioned the lion and ourselves safely away from the remaining six, highly-strung lions. The collar was fitted, measurements were taken, and a reversal administered just in time for “Mukadza” to come round and rejoin the mating and fighting with the lionesses.
On the 28th I managed to obtain an early morning visual of “Mukadza", lioness “Jenje" and a 2nd member of the Jenje Boys coalition “Madoda”. The collar was fantastically well hidden in his blonde mane and appeared to cause no irritation as he followed “Jenje”. The lioness was obviously in heat and displaying to both males, yet surprisingly, receiving little appreciation for her efforts from the males.
The rest of the Eastern Pride girls made their way to the Jenje River on the 29th to kill what I suspect may have been a waterbuck, however again, due to the dense vegetation, no visual was obtained. We did manage to grab a quick sighting of the girls on the lakeshore whilst we were in a boat. All had terribly extended bellies and struggled to rise when a young bull elephant began to approach. Lioness “Elizabeth” demonstrated either pure lethargy or pure arrogance as she gazed at the approaching elephant and held her ground. This obviously swayed the elephant’s curiosity in the lions as he changed route into the scrub.
By the 31st the data from the two collared males was beginning to build a fascinating picture. It seems the boys are doing their very best to split time equally between the two prides and moving from the Mukadzapela River to the Kanjedza River area in one evening, covering nearly 35kms overnight. With a coordinate recorded for 12pm we decided to locate the boys on foot close to Gordons Bay. We stumbled across what looked to be a popular buffalo hang out within a small, green vlei. A sausage tree up ahead leant over a small river bed dotted with Coco bushes and mopane trees. We were closing in and crept silently over the powdery sand. Suddenly a guest joining us on the walk began to frantically click her fingers. Myself and the pro-guide leading looked to where she was pointing - some 5 metres in front of us were two completely comatose male lions. We slowly edged our way back to the shade of a nearby tree and waited for the boys to wake up in their own time. Unfortunately a water monitor startled the boys and after glancing at our small group in the distance decided to move off.
On the way back we came across what looked to be some lion remains and my heart sank. Had the coalition perhaps ran into the young Kanjedza Pride male, “Madiba”? Fortunately the remains were confirmed to be those of the carcass located by ALERT Director of Conservation Dr Norman Monks in June, however the tufts of hair found appeared far too long to be that of the sub-adult female “Minnie” who I had presumed was the deceased. I therefore strongly suspect the remains belong to the young sub-adult male of the Eastern Pride “Nevanji”. The date around his disappearance and the likelihood of the males killing a young male rather than a female support this notion, however this still leaves me pondering “Minnie’s” disappearance back in May.
On the 1st of August I followed spoor for a male through the Ivory Vlei area and past a camera trap set there. I was very pleased to find stills of “Madiba” moving under darkness alone through the area and looking to be in good condition. Further along the Kanjedza road I located Kanjedza lionesses “Ivory” and “Kanjedza” moving into the scrub and possibly hunting. A large amount of kudu had moved into the area recently, possibly due to drying water sources further inland. By the end of the day telemetry signal for collared “Ivory” suggested she was remaining in the same area.
On the 2nd I was fortunate enough to have one of Changa Safari Camps pro-guides allow me to join a walk with guests to where the lions may be feeding. The signal grew and grew in strength when suddenly a lioness fled from the shade of a nearby Coco Bush. Our group huddled together silently to try see the lions through the scrub when a guest whispered quite animatedly “Look, there’s cubs!”. We allowed the lions to move off and heard the soft calls of one lioness as we inspected a nearby kudu cow kill. About 40% had been eaten suggesting it was taken the previous evening. Scattered around the kill and in a nearby opening however were more exciting clues - cub spoor! The guest with us had spotted two very small cubs, and the spoor also indicated two. Whilst inspecting the tiny paw prints “Ivory” made it quite clear we were not welcome so we headed straight off to leave the family in peace.
Later that afternoon we managed to return in a vehicle at a distance to obtain a visual of “Ivory, “Kanjedza” and the two small female cubs enjoying the kudu kill. The cubs were in beautiful condition, no doubt from the spoils of such kills and mothers milk. They fed on the carcass briefly before bouncing and pouncing on it, and one another. Finally the group moved off and I left the group feeling very content that Shepherd’s cubs have finally made an appearance.
How the new coalition will react to these cubs I am not sure. I suspect that they may kill them despite already mating with “Ivory” who I believe is the mother, but I do hope I am proven wrong. For now though the population has grown by two very cute little cubs.
It has been quite an eventful few weeks whilst collaring the 4 lions and it would not have been remotely possible without the help of the following people and organisations:
- Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority - special thanks to Mrs Dorothy Siwela and Mr Mike Jonasi
- Changa Safari Camp
- Rhino Safari Camp
- Spurwing Island Lodge
- Gache Gache Lodge
- Ume River Conservancy
- Matusadona Anti-Poaching Project (MAPP)
- Dr Norman Monks
- Nathan Webb
- Colin Hewitt
- Troy Reid
- Don Percival
- Matthew Hood