Matusadona Lion Project - Week Eight & Nine
April 26 2015

On the 12th I located the Eastern Pride still lingering along the lakeshore with all 4 cubs in tow. The pride have been slowly meandering back and forth covering c. 3-4kms a day pausing for impromptu play bouts and cat naps. 

En route West pride male M108, “Toulouse”, and Kanjedza Pride lioness F101, “Ivory” were found mating in the Kemurara 2 area and later that evening pride male M110, “Mukadza”, was noted to be mating with Eastern Pride lioness F107, “Elizabeth”. This is the second time this month Elizabeth has been observed mating and I no longer believe she is pregnant. There is also some mystery over her movements and behaviour towards the males. I have yet to note any association/interaction with the 4 young cubs and the males, and it would appear when the pride males are in the vicinity of the Eastern Pride Elizabeth is quick to lure them elsewhere. 

By the 15th the research vehicle was piled up with equipment ready for darting and I was joined by colleagues Dr Norman Monks, CEO of ALERT, and Nathan Webb, General Manager of Lion Encounter, Victoria Falls. With thanks to ZPWMA I have been granted permission to collar a further 4 animals this year with satellite GPS collars. These collars provide an enormous amount of unprecedented data regarding lone animal and pride movements, range, territory use, overlap, and more. 

On the night of the 15th we headed out in pursuit of the Tashinga Pride who had been located in the Mukadzapela region. A call-up station was set up with the much appreciated assistance of the Matusadona National Park Ecologist, Mr Ashley Mudungwe, and Senior Scientific Services Ranger, Mr Robert Nyamini. A call-up station consists of large speakers placed within a tree playing the recording of an animal in distress (a buffalo calf in our case) intermittently until a predator arrives. With very little moonlight we scanned the surrounding bush for movement with night-vision and infrared binoculars. Distinctly soft contact calls were heard between the buffalo wailing and appeared to be drawing closer. After our fourth playback and as silence fell, a steady, heavy pant was heard very close behind those of us sat on the back of the research vehicle. Three large lionesses melted through the greys and blacks of the scrub towards the tree as we sat frozen watching. The Tashinga females had joined us.

Lioness F121, "Chura", awakening from sedation

Once the lions had their attention sufficiently focused elsewhere Dr Monks was able to quickly and safely dart lioness F122, “Chura”, an adult lioness of the pride. Whilst sedated a collar was carefully fitted and morphometric data gathered. Chura was then safely brought around from the sedative where she was watched over by pride male M109, “Madoda” who had come to investigate the commotion. Madoda is the third pride male I have been seeking to collar and confirming his presence yet again with the Tashinga Pride meant we would possibly be able to collar him the following evening. And whilst being fantastically obliging and returning to our call-up station Madoda was successfully collared the very next night. 

Initial plans had been to place GPS collars on other pride animals to help gather data on territory sizes usage, overlap and also fragmenting amongst pride members. Prey availability on the valley floor appears to result in prides often moving in groups of no more than 3 lions. This was quite evident amongst the Eastern Pride lionesses. However since the loss of lionesses F106, “Gogo”, and F114, “Ngoda”, the remaining 3 lionesses have spent significant amounts of time together as a threesome, therefore collaring another animal would provide little gain. It was decided to instead change lioness F107’s, “Elizabeth’s”, collar, currently a VHF one, for a satellite GPS one. We located Elizabeth in the Jenje River area and her collar was quickly changed before she rejoined with pride male Mukadza.

By this time we couldn’t believe our luck - 3 lions in 4 nights. We remained in the Mukadzapela area on the 20th after tracking the Eastern pride there with cubs in tow. This is the first sighting of the pride with juveniles in this area of their territory. The Jenje Boys coalition had also moved into the area where they made a suspected elephant kill. Male Madoda, as expected, has been recorded fragmenting from his counterparts and residing in the Tashinga area with the Tashinga Pride meeting back with the other males at such kills. 

On the 21st the Eastern Pride moved onto Muuyu Island and into Rhino Safari Camp during a brief period with no guests. I followed the females chasing impala along the lakeshore around the island under nightfall. By late evening they made an appearance under the raised room I was sleeping in investigating the ripe smells from the nearby parked research vehicle. They kindly moved on when asked to do so…A large commotion was then heard further along the lakeshore and I rushed out to relocate the girls. 

 

With no cubs in sight Elizabeth and lioness F109, “Matusadona” sat prone by pride mate F105, “Sanyati”. Heavily panting, Sanyati rested with her head on blood soaked paws. Had a killed been made? Where was the carcass? Why was no one feeding? Where were the cubs? Matusadona called softly to her forlorn pride mate and headed off towards the tree line, Elizabeth closely following. As Sanyati continued to catch her breath, blood splatter was noted on the sand around the area and spoor of running lions and hippo. Eventually the lionesses rejoined with the cubs and Sanyati rose to her feet unsteadily. She had a large puncture on her sternum and appeared to have lost a fair amount of blood but which had since stopped. 

Lioness F105, "Sanyati", injured after a fight with a mother hippo

By first light spoor and blood was looked at in further detail and it seems the small pride tried their luck with a juvenile hippo and were met with possibly the mother, seeing Sanyati taking the brunt of her tusks. There has been little to no evidence of the lions actively hunting hippo in the area though this has been noted in previous studies. Sanyati has since moved off from the area with the pride appearing no worse for wear. 

We have been attempting to collar a Kanjedza Pride lioness this last week, in hopes that lioness Ivory, who is already fitted with a VHF collar, may lead us to her cryptic pride member’s whereabouts. For the last couple of weeks she has been in the Kemurara 2 river area, I believe with lioness F115, “Kanjedza”, who is suspected to be denning. By the 23rd Ivory had moved to the Kanjedza river where a kill had been made. Fortunately Changa Safari Camp professional guide Sean Hind and guests were willing to walk to investigate and we made a wonderful, though rather aggressive discovery. Whilst slowly making my way around a dense thicket 2 cubs were heard squabbling in the undergrowth. We circled back around to a safer distance into the riverbed itself and were quickly met by the youngster’s less-than-happy mother. Kanjedza tore out from the bushes, tail and teeth swirling warning us to keep our distance. We did. And we quickly left the feeding family after leaving a camera trap in hopes of capturing the cubs. 

Kanjedza is a lioness I am hoping to collar but with young cubs it is unlikely she will now come to a call-up station. When hearing an animal in distress this will indicate to a listening lion a feeding opportunity but also the risk of encountering other alien lions and/or even hyena - a great risk to cubs. We therefore headed West after hearing a report of 6 lions in the Crocodile Creek area. However after 2 days tracking and calling not a whisker made an appearance. It is highly likely these lions do move into the hills and/or far along the base of the escarpment where there is little accessibility. 

Currently we are having to face the facts that collaring an animal in this pride may take longer than expected and we may have to continue our efforts at a later date, but for now data is piling in from the 3 fitted GPS collars expanding the population ecology study further. 

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