Fortunately the infamous Zambezi Valley heat has been very merciful this season, or so I feel! Although temperatures have peaked over 40o C it hasn’t been overly uncomfortable here.
What has also been noticeable is the lake level. This year the lake has dropped far quicker than normal and we are now seeing great expanses of mud appearing by the waters edge. This is not a good sign, or smell. When the water level falls too quickly the underlaying grass does not have time to rejuvenate and then simply does not grow, providing less grazing. Some of the resident lakeshore dwellers are beginning to show the toll of the dry season as pelvic bones and ribs are beginning to protrude.
Lion sightings have been few and far between this week, but have also led to a large amount of tracking and circling.
On the 4th telemetry signal for Eastern Pride lioness F107, “Elizabeth”, led me to the inland reaches of the Mukadzapela River.This beautiful river has crystal clear spring water flowing along a deep red, sandy bed for most of the dry season, however this is starting to dry up. Fortunately the elephants are fantastic borehole diggers and using their feet and trunks dig ‘elephant holes’ in the sand to the water table below, forcing cool water up to the surface. This means a variety of life can still be found plodding along the Mukadzapela - which ironically translates to “the place where all the animals are gone”.
That morning I was fortunate enough to be guided up the river with professional guide Steve Chinhoyi from Rhino Safari Camp, in pursuit of the increasing signal strength for “Elizabeth”. The lioness had been in the area for 2 days by then and I presumed a kill was the reason why. Spoor of a lone male buffalo, or ‘Dagga Boy’ was strewn along the banks - had they managed to nab the prey?
A sighting was later obtained of “Elizabeth” alongside lionesses F105, “Sanyati” and F109, “Matusadona”, all with enormously bloated stomachs and drooling mouths. We managed to sit with the girls at a safe distance, on top of a nearby bank. Being able to sit with the study animals out in the open and observe them on foot is such a treat as the vehicle can be very claustrophobic at times and takes away many beautiful elements of the bush; the sounds, the smells and the feel of the sand between toes.
Whilst resting, signs of a nose bleed were apparent on “Elizabeth”. Sneezing intermittently but breathing normally it is likely she sustained a nasty blow from a fellow diner perhaps.
Unable to locate a carcass without disturbing the peace I returned in the afternoon and sighted what looked to be 4 lionesses fleeing into the scrub. Had the missing Eastern Pride lioness F108, “Jenje”, finally returned? We managed to finally track down what the lions had fed upon by smell. A large waterbuck bull. This is the first recorded waterbuck kill and given the large portion the girls had consumed suggestions that lions generally avoiding such prey because of a bad taste supposedly produce by oily secretions in the species' skin/fur are questionable.
I left a camera trap by a newly dug ‘elephant hole’ the lions were drinking from in hopes of catching lioness “Jenje”. The footage revealed I was in fact mistaken and only the 3 lionesses were present, and also that the deployed camera trap was a very tasty snack effort for a curious hyena (fortunately no camera traps were seriously harmed in the making of this blog)…
“Jenje” has not been sighted, nor have I seen any sign of this lioness since the end of July and my concerns are growing. I had hoped that cubs were perhaps the reason for her absence, but even with a litter the lioness would still return to her pride on occasion. There are many possibilities and explanations for her absence and possible death even, but I can only speculate and hope she will return. If this study animal has died however that means the Eastern Pride has fallen from 11 pride members (including cubs) to 3 in just 6 months. That is a huge loss for 1 pride and only time will tell how this will effect their stability as a pride, territory use and dynamics. To date the 3 remaining lions appear to be doing well, hunting sufficiently and continuing to roam a large portion of their known territory. In an attempt to look at the possible benefits however there are some ‘high-notes’ to consider.
When first located in March, the pride of then 10 consisted of many underweight animals and I suspect at least 2 of the then 4 younger lions died from starvation. Thereafter the pride were often fragmented; located in groups of 2-3 presumably to improve daily intake amounts from successful kills for each lion. With now just 3 lionesses there are less mouths to feed which will bode well for them and also for any cubs they may have. It also would appear their acceptance of the "Jenje Boys” coalition has strengthened after the sudden loss of elder lioness F106, “Gogo”, which may also see an increase in cub survival for this pride. Pride males are often indirect insurance for cubs, defending them from intruding males and also allowing them to feed at kills.
And adding more hope to the Matusadona lion population figure was a sighting reported on the 7th. In the Mucheni area 5-6 lions were spotted on the lakeshore fitting the description of the Tashinga Pride who I am still to locate and identify for the Lion ID Database. This pride has been suspected to consist of just 1 adult lioness and 4 sub adults following infrequent reports. However photo’s taken of one adult lioness seen at this recent sighting appears to be a different animal to that of a sighting reported back in April.
Unfortunately despite my best efforts in racing to the area and searching in a car, boat and on foot for 3 days I was unable to locate the pride. Regardless of this frustration many important questions have arisen to be answered. Is this pride larger than suspected? Are there more breeding animals? And will this now larger pride perhaps begin to clash with the significantly smaller, neighbouring, Eastern Pride?