As predicted last week Shepherd did eventually venture back to the mainland from Fothergill Island after the Jenje Boys trio left the area. The pride male investigated each and every bush visited and marked by the coalition and made sure his presence was known with some full-hearted roaring along the lakeshore.
On the 27th of May I made a wonderful discovery. Whilst heading towards the Kanjedza River in the late evening light I came to a halt to examine something laying in the road up ahead - 3 lions! It was the Kanjedza Pride lions; the large sub adult male Madiba and Ivory, but there was a third. I was able to creep in closer for a better visual and expected to confirm the third lion as Kanjedza Pride lioness F102. F102 is an older looking lioness with quite a recognisable face, etched with scars and ‘wisdom’. This lioness however appeared younger and also far more relaxed with the vehicle than F102 has previously been seen to be. After obtaining some facial shots I headed back to camp once the pride disappeared into the bush. I trawled through my existing lion ID kits and photo’s of unknown lions reported and it appears this is in fact a new lioness.
This is a very exciting and interesting development. For some time I was certain the Kanjedza Pride consisted entirely of just the 3 lions M102, F101 and F102, despite having heard reports of sightings noting many more adult lions together on the lakeshore in that area of the park. Have I had it wrong all along? Is the Kanjedza Pride much larger and possibly merely more fragmented? I also noted this new lioness, F115, appeared to be suckling indicating a litter to the pride hidden away somewhere.
On the 28th I had a very memorable day, in fact one that stands out significantly amongst the 12 weeks I’ve been here so far. I headed towards the Kanjedza River again in hopes for tracking the new lioness sighted. Spoor soon emerged onto the road and disappeared again taking me down ‘Look Out’ road; a small track nestling along the cliff tops that encompass the mouth of the river. I hopped out of the vehicle to look for tracks in a sandy patch of the road when a flash of yellow caught my eye - it was Matusadona’s last female cheetah. She sauntered along the road, completely ignoring me and the vehicle before choosing an open view over the river. In typical cheetah fashion she laid on her side holding her small head up; vigilant to prey passing by in the distance.
Given how relaxed she appeared to be I moved closer to her and sat down on the opposite side of the road. For about 10mins we enjoyed the cool morning breeze gusting up the cliff tops and through the mopane. She picked up scents of impala, scrub hares and duikers in the distance and soon moved off leaving me quite elated and lost for words.
After this stunning moment I continued back towards the Kanjedza and down into the False Kanjedza River following further lion spoor. Then, peeking over the brush, were the Jenje Boys. It turned out it was in fact their spoor I had been following, so perhaps they were following the Kanjedza Pride?
I had hoped to spend more time with the coalition and obtain better facial shots to record whisker spot patterns. After waiting with the trio for 7hrs my patience was rewarded by all 3 choosing to come and rest right by the vehicle out on the riverbed. Their presence was quite overwhelming. I could see every scar on their legs, flanks and faces, evidence of battles for pride tenure and survival. Eventually the threesome headed off amongst the ilala palms and into the night.
On the 29th I received a report from Rhino Safari Camp that F106, Gogo, had been spotted with other lionesses and it appeared they were feeding on something quite large. I headed over there in an available boat and found Gogo with the other Eastern Pride lionesses and the young sub adult male, M103, Nevanji. Unfortunately it seemed I had just missed dinner as none were feeding and no remains were found. I was informed they had been heard feeding for 2 days and numerous crocodiles were in the area. I suspect a hippo may have fallen as a meal. The pride’s young sub adult female, F111, was absent and has been absent from the last few sightings of this group. Her absence seems to coincide with the sighting of the Jenje Boys in the vicinity of Gogo and co. Although I cannot confirm, I am concerned that the young female may have encountered the coalition…
On the 30th Shepherd was back on Fothergill Island and spoor and telemetry signal indicated that he in fact did not venture west whilst on the mainland before swimming back. I managed to obtain a visual of him roaming the island and had suspected female F109, Matusadona, was with him. I have been expecting her to come into heat soon following the loss of her litter, and presumed Shepherd’s frequency on the island was perhaps him also expecting the same and looking for the lioness who is often on the island. By the 31st however Shepherd headed back to mainland alone and again loitered around the Changachirere area rather than heading west. He was looking quite slim and appears to have sustained an injury to the lower end of his tail. Whilst strolling across a small bay and directly towards my bedroom at Changa Safari Camp, I noticed his tail lacked its normal rigid posture whilst walking and he has perhaps fractured or broken a vertebrae. Is this an injury from the Jenje Boys or perhaps a crocodile during the now quite treacherous swim from Fothergill? Despite this injury he sprinted quickly into the bushes to feed upon a rather offensively smelling old impala carcass outside camp.
Shepherds less than ideal condition and continuing presence in the eastern sections of the park have me pondering as to whether a pride take over is currently underway. The falling of a pride male to new lions can often be a long, drawn out process unlike what is portrayed in many natural history documentaries. The thick vegetation in Matusadona may allow Shepherd to evade conflict for longer and remain in the prides periphery, however the strength of the Jenje Boys coalition is no doubt a daunting prospect for Shepherd. It should also be noted though that male lions will often spend long periods away from their lionesses whilst exploring the corners of their territory and this could be the simple answer as to Shepherds absence from the pride. I have also only been following this lion for a mere 12 weeks and to state I understand his behaviour and habits in their entirety would be very arrogant and incorrect. I am still very much only beginning to grasp to intricacies of these pride’s ranges, habits and interactions and every week the story becomes richer and fuller.
This is to be my last blog for a couple of weeks as next week I will be heading home to see family and friends. ALERT's Director Conservation Dr. Norman Monks is very kindly overseeing research here whilst I am away and will no doubt uncover even more interesting findings!
Exceprts from the diary of Rae Kokes, Principle Researcher for ALERT's Matusadona Lion Project.