The following is taken from the diary of Rae Kokes, Principle Researcher for ALERT's Matusadona Lion Project.
Despite what has seemed to be never ending rain I’ve had an outstanding week with the lions; with a wonderful discovery. After locating a group of 4 known lionesses on the 5th of April I was fortunate enough to track them again on the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th! The fantastic four have been roaming the northern shoreline ranging from Fothergill Island to an area known as ‘Coco Bush corner’ some 3kms away. On the 7th I remained with the girls into the evening to witness an ambush attempt on some unsuspecting impala. Having briefly lost visual I positioned the vehicle in an open area on the nearby peninsula. Suddenly I could hear galloping heading towards my door and a dash of gold sprang through my headlights. With my spotlight quickly switched on I could see the girls trying in vain to herd a lone impala ewe towards the waters edge, yet she sprinted to safety inland.
I decided to leave the hunting party in peace and make my way back to camp after setting up my camera trap. Lions are often very cryptic in their behaviour, however they can also be creatures of habit. They will often use the same roads and game trails to pass through areas and I have begun to slowly see patterns in certain areas whilst recording spoor found. With this is mind I decided to set up my camera trap at the end of ‘Mukuti Road’ - a very dense and windy road through mopane scrub, in hope of the lions passing through perhaps towards the Kemurara river area.
On the 8th I headed back towards Mukuti Road to check for spoor and any stills on the camera. Only 2 photo’s had been taken…of a lioness with 3 very small cubs. I was gobsmacked! The presumed mother and cubs were photographed heading towards Coco Bush corner and despite the torrential rain the night before the spoor of tiny lions could be seen.
I soon found lioness F109, also known as ‘Matusadona’, overlooking the lake off the beaten track. It became apparent she was alone by her soft, mournful calls in the cool morning air. She repeatedly rose to pace, stop, call and listen but her calls were not answered. My initial thinking was she had been separated during the previous night’s hunt and that perhaps the others were resting elsewhere with the photographed cubs. I spent the entire day with her before losing sight just before twilight. I headed east along the shoreline looking for any trace of her and was prompted to peek into a certain bush by a guide from Spurwing Island Lodge who was on a game drive. I rolled the vehicle slowly forward to peer into an opening in the vegetation and slammed on the brakes. Peering back were 3 small cubs and 3 lionesses. The cubs looked to be approximately 2-3 months old and in good condition. After their curiosity of my vehicle faded they resumed attacking branches and shrieking for attention from the dozing lionesses.
The group finally emerged from the bushes and I was able to identify the 4 lionesses as those I had been observing since the 5th, including F109. Interestingly F109 was still vocalising but no longer in what sounded to be a sombre tone. She was calling to the cubs, and it was evident she had been suckling them. She was presumably the mother. The other lionesses were seen briefly interacting with the cubs and appeared very familiar with them.
The following day I picked up spoor but after circling the lakeshore was just about ready to give up. Fortunately another guide, from Changa Safari Camp, had spotted the girls, the cubs and Shepherd, the infamous male lion. I managed to get a fantastic visual of the group laying in a circle in the coco bushes encompassing the cub creche. With lunch and breakfast already packed I settled in for the day with them and what a treat. The day consisted of play bouts, suckling and naps. At one point a young bull elephant roamed into the area. His breaking of branches soon woke the cats and F109 quickly rose. The cubs followed their mother as the bull pushed his way towards the pride. They froze and Shepherd let out a chilling snarl warning the pachyderm to keep his distance from his offspring. The bull raised his head and glared down his trunk disapprovingly before moving off. F109 called softly to her litter and moved off into the scrub.
The group moved out in the open later allowing for some fantastic shots. At one stage F106, the eldest female, took chase after a large water monitor lizard. Eventually 2 of the females headed off west roaring away whilst Matusadona, F106, Shepherd and his cubs, headed back into the cover of the coco bushes.
On the 10th the lions passed through camp chasing a small herd of waterbuck. F109 was heard calling to her cubs and I found spoor outside my door the following morning. Unfortunately this wasn’t followed with a sighting however I have just this moment returned from one sighting in a small creek. The group appears to be Shepherd and the girls again but a subadult male is also present. The visual is quite poor at the moment so I will be heading back once the heat has died down.
Finding a litter of such young cubs in the wild is such a rare privilege, and to be able to spend 11-12 hours a day with these lions is very humbling. Their characters are slowly emerging and I am beginning to understand their relationship with this unique area much better.