Matusadona Lion Project: Week 23
September 3 2015

This blog is the ongoing diary of Matusadona Lion Project (MLP) Principal Researcher, Rae Kokes:

There has been some fantastic findings this week in Matusadona National Park, and beyond; and a fair bit of bloodshed.

Whilst I was away from the valley floor during an excursion to the surrounding communal lands last week it appeared pride male M109, “Madoda”, had managed to take down a young sub-adult elephant in the Kemurara 3 river area. At this time the resident Kanjedza Pride females and cubs where loitering further East along the lakeshore, unaware of the free bounty. By the 21st of August, approximately one week after the elephant had been killed, the small pride found the remains and made the most of this scavenging opportunity. This event was a perfect example of the important role the valley floor pride males are playing for resident prides through elephant predation. This carcass provided c. 500kgs of meat for the lionesses and the two young cubs - albeit rather putrid meat by this stage.

MLP 1

Having had their fill the pride moved off from the carcass and were only sighted again on the 27th. Between sightings it has been noted that lioness F101, “Ivory”, who has been appearing ever more pregnant, was spending long periods in an area of thick vegetation by the Kemurara 2 river area. This area is suspected to be where pride member F115, “Kanjedza”, denned down earlier in the year to give birth to her litter of three. I believe it is likely ‘Ivory’ has given birth during this time and is still frequenting this particular area.  She of course will be left in peace and quiet for the next few months.

On the 27th I appeared to have just missed an opportunity to obtain a visual of ‘Ivory’, but instead found ‘Kanjedza’ and her two cubs M118, “Siwela”, and F123, “Masibanda”, feeding on something by the roadside. After finishing the foursome headed off towards ‘Ivory’s’ suspected den site, and I went to determine what they had fed upon. Strewn across the road was what at first looked to be the remains of a very deformed baboon. However, after consulting a tracks and signs book, I identified the fallen animal as being an antbear (a.k.a. an aardvark).  I have never been fortunate to see an antbear so was a tad disappointed that my first encounter was with the remains of one, but none-the-less this was a very interesting find!

I continued on towards the Mukadzapela area thereafter to track the Eastern Pride who I had not sighted for some time. It is crucial that visuals are obtained fairly regularly to gather continuing data on the ecology of study prides, but also to specifically monitor the development and condition of the four young cubs; cub mortality can be a very informative indicator of environmental stressors within an area.  On the 27th though, environmental stressors appeared far from the Eastern Pride as they were located gorging themselves on two kudu bull kills. The lionesses looked to have ambushed the bulls within a large muddy plain in the mouth of the Mukadzapela River that has appeared with the falling lake levels. For two days I remained with the pride watching stomachs bulge and noting consumption amounts amongst pride members; in particular the four male cubs.

MLP 2

By the 29th the carcasses were fully utilised and the pride began to move off, however lioness F105, “Sanyati”, was extremely reluctant to leave the remains to any vultures and proceeded to chase the hooded, white-backed and lappet-faced intruders. Often after a large feed lions will become infectiously playful. With full stomachs they can afford to exert excess energy in the form of play behaviour. The purpose of play in juveniles is thought to aid neuromuscular development, coordination, social bonds and even social etiquette. Amongst adults however play behaviour is open to debate. At a risk of anthropomorphising, could it simply be that in the case of social animals, they ‘enjoy’ such play bouts? Whatever the evolutionary purpose, the three Eastern Pride females turned into over-grown cubs as they made their way along the river course; leaping, bounding and sprinting at one another, and occasionally tackling a cub or two. Moments like this are very special to witness, and to add to this joyous morning, pride member F107, “Elizabeth”, was also showing signs of having been recently suckled, suggesting she too has recently given birth. Similar to ‘Ivory’ she is spending lengthy periods in a thicket up-river, presumably keeping her new-borns safely hidden.

MLP 3

Whilst the population of the valley floor is rising there has been a wonderful finding in the Bumi Hills area. Two young males were reported from Bumi Hills Safari Lodge staff in June and it was suspected, based on the size of the males, that they were possibly the two sub adults that have left the Tashinga Pride. With great thanks to Bumi Hills for sending recent photographs, the males have successfully been confirmed as being the two Tashinga Pride males. They are currently mating with lionesses in the Bumi Hills area, and driving off the resident pride male. This is fascinating migration data. The resident pride male was a part of a cohort of two males that migrated across the Ume River to the Bumi area around 2012/3, from the Matusadona valley floor. One male was shot for a trophy last year leaving the current male to fend for his territory alone. He is estimated to be approximately 8 years old, whilst the Tashinga migrants are estimated to be 2.5-3 years old. Although this is a relatively young age for males to begin ousting older pride males and mating with females, with an overall absence of older males it is not unusual.  A population consisting of younger breeding males may however experience less reproductive success due to poor sperm quality and possible abnormalities.  With the help of surrounding safari hunting operators further information on the population dynamic within and outside the Matusadona National Park will be further investigated and provide data to help improve population area management plans.

About the Matusadona Lion Project (MLP)

Since its commencement in 2014, the MLP, in partnership with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, aims to determine the population status and ecology of lions in Zimbabwe’s Matusadona National Park. The last census in 2005 suggested that just 28 individuals remained, down from nearly 90 in 1998, raising concerns over the population’s long-term viability.  The MLP is collecting data on individual lions, pride structure and distribution, as well trying to understand the environmental and human-induced pressures facing Matusadona’s lions.  This project directly contributes to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority’s conservation and management plans for this apex predator. 

Support the Matusadona Lion Project

MLP is looking for funding to cover the running costs of the project (such as vehicle repair and fuel) as well as to acquire additional equipment (camera traps and tracking collars) to increase the amount of data being collected.  If you are able to help please make a donation here, or contact info@lionalert.org for alternative support options.

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