Friend or foe?
August 26 2014

The infamous Kariba heat is already starting to rear its ugly, sweaty head and consequently it’s been a tad slow again this week - but with another unbelievable finding.

On the 17th, and still having not seen much of the Eastern Pride during the winter months, I headed to the Mukazdapela River area following a report of two lions sighted there by a guide from Rhino Safari Camp. I was welcomed by a wonderful visual of Jenje Boys member M109, ‘Madoda’, and Eastern Pride lioness F105, ‘Sanyati’. The two were enjoying a cool breeze skimming off the mouth waters of the river between sporadic bouts of mating. This continued late into the night and throughout the 18th. 

By the 19th I headed by back East to locate the Kanjedza Pride lionesses and Jenje Boys male ‘Toulouse’ who was still residing with this small pride. Following telemetry signal for lioness ‘Ivory’, and coordinates from ‘Toulouse’s’ satellite GPS collar, I headed up the False Kanjedza River with professional guide George Van Wyk, towards a spot where a recently poached elephant was located by National Parks scouts; I presumed the lions were enjoying the spoils. I still had not seen any further evidence of the two cubs belonging to ‘Ivory’, and given the frequency of ‘Toulouse’s’ presence with the female, I was beginning to accept it was likely they were gone. 

The False Kanjedza River is a hidden beauty. Meandering through mopane scrub, elephant footprints are flooded with cool, crisp spring water under fallen logs and toppled rocks. We soon picked up lion spoor and began to close in on our coordinate. Climbing a small embankment, our bare feet silent in the warm morning sand, suddenly an enormous gold head appeared on our path. It was ‘Toulouse’, apparently heading down for a morning drink. He paused in his tracks and stared at us for a good five seconds, perhaps still half asleep and unable to understand what these two bipedal beings were. It eventually clicked and the large male ran off with a grunt. We slowly continued up the embankment and soon spotted the large grey and silent mass some 25m away amongst the long, dry grass. We approached slowly when George paused and pointed. A lioness was feeding and at her feet were two squabbling cubs! I punched the air with excitement then quickly doubled over to avoid her spotting my unusual shape in the bush. I moved back to try obtain a better visual all the while George was keeping a close eye on her. She did not spot us for some time, but as George retreated to my position the doting mother launched into full maternal defence mode. The cubs unfortunately headed slightly towards us once ‘Ivory’s’ snarls began, making the situation more intense. The lioness circled away from us and softly called to her litter. George and I stood our ground having taken further steps back to increase the distance between us and the lions. Finally the cubs re-joined their mother and I had hoped this would calm the salivating lioness. We lost visual and began to make our way back when a sound that would strike fear into any man’s heart crashed through the morning air. Like the crack of a whip ‘Ivory’ snapped her jaws at us and growled as she lunged towards us. It was time to leave! 

This finding has had me very excited and very perplexed (after my heart resumed its normal pace and position in my chest). I could somewhat safely presume that ‘Toulouse’, the still fairly new male to the pride, was in the vicinity of ‘Ivory’s’ cubs and had not killed them in an act of infanticide, as expected by incoming males. So there are a few theories as to why all is well:

  1. ‘Toulouse’ is in fact the father. It is possible that the Jenje Boys coalition were loitering around the Kanjedza Pride territory whilst ‘Shepherd’ was elsewhere and the large male possibly found a wandering ‘Ivory’ whilst on heat sometime in March;
  2. ’Toulouse’ has been fooled into believing the cubs are his thanks ‘Ivory’s’ “hospitality” during the succession of mating bouts since May;
  3. Or ’Toulouse’ is simply a nice guy! This is hardly the most scientific explanation, with little reference to the ontogeny of lion behaviour. However, there is some basis in the individual nature of lions and some are simply more accepting and better-natured than others;
  4. Or the cubs are fantastic at avoiding the 200kg lion and are keeping well out of harm’s way.  

The only way of hoping to shed light on which theory was most plausible was observing the male with the cubs. Fortunately, I was able to return to the carcass later on the 19th with three National Parks scouts and place camera traps above the carcass and at the nearest water point where spoor suggested the lions were frequenting. 

After five days I retrieved the cameras on the morning of the 24th after noting the lions had left the area. We did however bump into ‘Toulouse’ moving off to the Kanjedza River apparently on the look-out for someone. The camera by the carcass was set to record video and the other camera captured stills by the water point. The footage is outstanding. From the videos it appears the cubs were avoiding the male and were not seen in any shots alongside him. Were they keeping vigilant with the help of their ferocious mother? I then reviewed the stills from the water point and have found a sequence of images showing the male interacting with the cubs. He appears to be standing over one causing the cub some distress before running off, yet the male does not chase nor appear aggressive. Mother ‘Ivory’ then appears and leads the cubs back to the male and all sit together in peace. The cubs then resume playing a mere few feet from ‘Toulouse’.

'Toulouse' towers over the cub

'Ivory's' presence calms the cubs around 'Toulouse'

The wonky angle of the photos come courtesy of the cubs' rearrangement of the camera trap

Based on these stills I believe the cubs have been accepted by the male – for now - for whatever reason. There are some significant wounds on ‘Ivory’s’ rump which still gives me an inclination that all is not right just yet socially with the new male and this aggression could eventually be inflicted on the two little females. 

As wonderful as this news is I have still be concerned over the whereabouts and well-being of the pride’s large sub-adult M102, ‘Madiba’. I picked up what I thought was his spoor by the Nyamuni River and wondered if he was aware of the elephant carcass. The last video on the camera proved me to be right with a great shot of the young male gazing at the camera. There are many other videos of ‘Madiba’ stealing a few bites from the elephant before running off out of sight from ‘Toulouse’ - a risky game, and this is perhaps who ‘Toulouse’ was looking for that morning, but for the time-being he appears to be doing well.



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