Swimming for the Kill
April 21 2014

The following is taken from the diary of Rae Kokes, Principle Researcher for ALERT's Matusadona Lion Project.

Well this week has definitely taken gold for being the most exciting with the lions. I’ve spent nearly every day recently with the same lions, who I am referring to as the Eastern pride.  Most visuals have been of 4 lionesses in particular, and the male known locally as Shepherd. However I was beginning to wonder where the rest of this pride were. I originally found this pride close to the Jenje River consisting of 10 individuals and photographs from operators in the park suggested the females I had been observing were occasionally sighted with others I was yet to see.

On the 13th having followed the spoor of the 4 lionesses along the lakeshore I was called to an area close to the Kemurara 1 riverbed. A game drive for Changa Safari Camp had spotted a larger pride of lions moving into the mopane scrub. On my arrival the lions had settled into the dense vegetation and obtaining any visual was very difficult. I decided to return later that day once the heat had begun to subside. It turned out my timing could not have been better. At 3:30pm exactly I crept the vehicle around a corner to view 9 lions emerging from the thickets and making their way slowly to a nearby creek. The group consisted of Shepherd, the large male, 5 lionesses and 2 sub adults (1 male and 1 female). I recognised 3 of the lionesses however the other 2 appeared to be pride members not yet seen. The 2 sub adults were youngsters I recognised from my first sighting of the pride last month.

During every sighting I ensure I obtain as many facial shots as possible of every lion. Having now spent so much time with the 4 lionesses I am able to recognise them with ease but for other pride members I am still dependent on whisker spot patterns. Thanks to my photo’s I was able to cross reference patterns with photo’s from my sighting last month and identified one lioness, F108, whilst the remaining lioness appeared to be a new pride member I had not seen before. Excitingly though I have photo’s of this lioness from 2012 during a sighting by Spurwing Island Lodge. This particular lioness has a very distinct whisker spot pattern and facial photo’s from 2 years ago matched up with mine taken this week. 

Now as many will claim, cats do not like water, and often lions are no exception, yet with living next to an enormous lake you would think the Matusadona lions were somewhat accustomed to water. It turns out the long reigning Shepherd has no qualms with deep water and he demonstrated this by wading straight into a small, deep, creek. However his accompanying lionesses were not so debonair. After ensuring the still waters had been snarled and hissed at sufficiently the lionesses leapt onto the opposite bank with a splash. Most were able to clear the jump without getting too much fur wet. The small sub adult male though managed to give himself a thorough dunking. 

Matusadona Lion Project

Matusadona Lion Project

We followed the lions criss-crossing across roads and game trails when the research vehicle suddenly gave up on the pursuit. It appeared a battery terminal had met its end. Fortunately the anti poaching team were in the area and very kindly came to my rescue and towed the vehicle back to camp just after night fall. Along the way I decided to have a quick peek into the darkness with the spotlight and instantly found Shepherd enjoying a cool drink. It was apparent he had lost his pride as he called softly into the night and paced around the lakeshore in hopes of hearing a reply.

With the vehicle fixed the next day I headed out to find the pride scattered again on the lakeshore. They had taken up residence in another area of thick vegetation so I decided to return later in the day. Having located 2 lionesses close to Changa Safari Camp I followed them to the rest of the pride on the lakeshore, and some approaching elephants. As the light faded for the day, one lioness, ‘Jenje’, sat nestled in the warm, red, sand cautiously watching the small herd of 4 elephants. The tension was palpable as they edged closer and closer to her. Finally her nerve broke and she fled into the scrub. The adult cow in the herd must have caught her scent and stampeded after her. The trumpeting ruckus then sent the rest of the pride into a roaring frenzy in response to the elephant’s din. The lions sat encircling the elephants and continued to bellow their roars at the now cowering herd. Silence fell, and the elephants huddled together. It was a full moon and the grey mass quivered as the lions waited for their next move with baited breathe. Then suddenly, with a burst of courage, the cow charged at Shepherd. His snarls were ignored and he was sent scampering away with the rest of pride following closely behind.

After the commotion the lionesses and sub adults began to head towards Fothergill Island. Currently the causeway area between the mainland and the island is rapidly disappearing. We are now entering the season where the lake water begins to rise and once again Fothergill becomes an island trapping all inhabitants on it. I have heard reports of lions swimming onto the island to enjoy the larder of impala trapped there, and could only presume this was the pride’s intention. We followed them as they treaded through the shallower area of water and lost them into a thicket.

Matusadona Lion Project

Spoor the next morning confirmed they had in fact braved the 2 ft deep water, and large crocodiles, and crossed onto Fothergill. On the 16th I decided to take a risk and drive onto Fothergill. The one rocky road onto the island is now under water, pushing + 2 ft depth in areas, but my risk was rewarded. Within 10 minutes I found a huge impala herd of c. 150 animals and suddenly, crashing from the coco bushes, a lioness. She swirled amongst the ewes and rams and to my right were 2 other lions squabbling. I had found my first kill. It was over very quickly and the pride resumed to following the herd. I left the lions to a night of indulgence. 

Matusadona Lion Project

The lions returned to the mainland, and F109's litter of three cubs, on the evening of the 17th and I managed to catch their crossing on the camera trap. The following day I was treated to a visual of the sub adult male interacting with what is possibly his younger half sisters and brother.

Matusadona Lion Project

Having lost the lionesses again to the scrub I found Shepherd resting alone in a small bay. After enjoying a snooze the large male abruptly rose, walked, paused, stalked and launched. The lionesses had ambushed a herd of impala towards him and he managed to catch an adult ewe. Unfortunately the 2 photo’s I managed to take were blurry due to manual focus and my shaking with excitement…Shepherd was not followed and left to enjoy dinner whilst the rest of the pride pursued the impala further and successfully caught their own dinner. 

Matusadona Lion Project

To have confirmed a new lioness in the pride is fantastic news along with the survival of the sub adults since my first observation last month. However my fist sighting also recorded another younger sub adult male and a juvenile female. Their absence may indicate that they have fallen to the high mortality rate often fated to young wild lions. I am still anticipating finding another lioness with the Eastern pride based on photo’s obtained from 2012 and my hopes are the other youngsters may be with her. 

Being able to witness and record kills is also great progress. Where, when, what, how, are all crucial details to be recorded along with prey size, age, gender and health. This is a direct insight into the pride’s ecology and integral to the study.

A big thank you to Jo Sharp, GM of Changa Safari Camp for photo’s of the lions wading through the water to Fothergill Island.

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