Principal Researcher Rae Kokes bids farwell to Matusadona for 2014 ...
"I’m not quite sure where to start with this blog. I had hoped to send out an interesting read before I head home to the UK for Christmas; fortunately for me the lions have been very obliging recently.
After losing Kanjedza lioness F101, “Ivory”, to the inaccessible Nyamuni area, I headed West once again to the Mukadzapela region to locate the Eastern Pride. On the night of the 30th of November we finally had our long awaited first rains during a fantastic storm. However, this instantly turned driving conditions into a following morning of slipping, sliding and digging. The vehicle managed to grip its way into Mukadzapela, where lionesses F107, “Elizabeth", and F109, “Matusadona”, were located. I suspect they had been feeding on a hippo that had recently died from a brutal territorial fight by the lakeshore, and as expected a good feed and good rains make for very playful lions. The lionesses ambled to a nearby tree where they proceeded to enjoy a rigorous game of ‘slap-face’ with one another before sprinting off into the scrub. “Matusadona” is still showing signs of pregnancy and I sincerely hope to find a new litter in the new year.
By the 3rd of December the roads had begun to dry out again which allowed me to gather camera traps, deployed some time ago, that have been funded by Idea Wild. These camera’s can be left for weeks at a time however I am unsure when I will next be able to access them with the promise of more rain and the notorious Matusadona roads. I headed towards the Tashinga area and to an isolated bay where I have been anticipating capturing the Tashinga Pride on a camera, but I was in for an even better surprise.
A herd of impala fled as the vehicle stumbled down the steep road and suddenly a lioness appeared, carefully stalking them into the bush. I headed towards the area and spotted another two lions in the scrub, also in pursuit of the herd, but lost them to the Terminalia. I cruised slowly along the tree line in desperate hope of spotting gold but it appeared my first glimpse of the Tashinga Pride was to be a short one.
I made my way back to the exit road defeated when, sat ahead of me, was a pride of 7 lions!
Three lionesses, three sub-adult males and one sub-adult female sat watching impala dart about the Bay, completely un-phased by my frantic photo taking and data writing in the nearby car. Just when I thought the day could not get better the hunt began. An older lioness took the lead taking her elder pride members to the scrub leaving the sub-adults to flank along the tree-line. By now darkness had fallen and an impala snorts announced the start of the chase. A herd sprinted through the car headlights followed by two of the young males. Chaos ensued as impala and lions dashed back and forth between lakeshore and scrub. Finally, growling was heard and an adult lioness was seen carrying off her prize to a nearby coco bush. Not intent on battling over a relatively small meal the 4 sub-adults continued to harass some impala ewes hiding behind a small bush. Again the males gave chase after the young female flushed the impala into the open, but they failed to catch. Eventually the prize winning lioness finished her meal and the pride regrouped for a communal catnap and allowed me to catch my breath.
Locating the Tashinga Pride has been a fantastic development for the study. Being able to successfully determine the pride’s dynamics and identify individuals has provided invaluable data to the Lion ID Database to determine the Valley floor’s true population. There may be other pride members but for now the lion population has a confirmed 7 more animals in fantastic condition. Whats more, photographs of lions kindly provided by Lynne Taylor of the Tashinga Initiative have allowed me to cross-reference whisker spot patterns and confirm these are in fact the same lions spotted back in May in the same area and are therefore likely to be the resident pride. Some of the photographs have been confirmed to be of the young female in the pride. Such historical photographs of sub-adults help provide further insight into cub survival.
The Tashinga Pride soon disappeared back into their inaccessible realms and I headed back East. On the 7th I focused on tracking the Jenje Boys coalition and using satellite GPS data downloaded from the collar of male M110, “Mukadza”, I headed to an area known as ‘Shepherd’s Bush’. On arrival a flock of vultures was spotted - had a kill been made? A lone elephant slowly moved off in the distance and my thoughts turned to the male’s elephant killing tendencies….and it turned out they had struck again. A dead juvenile elephant was spotted just beyond the tree line, c 3/4 years old. The marks of canines could be seen along the spine and there was evidence of a struggle in the sand as the animal was probably subdued. Part of the anus and face had been consumed where the skin is far softer and therefore allows for easier entry into the body.
Kanjedza Pride lioness F115, “Kanjedza”, made an appearance closely followed by “ Mukadza” and coalition member M108, “Toulouse”. After a joint feeding effort the boys left “Kanjedza” to the spoils as they went to drink. Whilst busy taking photographs my attention was drawn to behind the vehicle. It appeared an elephant herd was arriving; possibly the herd of the fallen elephant. An adult cow wafted her trunk through the air, her ears extended out and her front foot poised - a sure sign of tension. She led the herd around the car to the kill. “Kanjedza” continued to feed briefly then soon realised the predicament. She moved off slowly to the cover of a nearby tree, snarling, only to be snuck up upon by more herd members from behind. She fled across the kill with trumpets screaming after her.
One of the most enjoyable parts of field work, besides monitoring the lions, is observing the other wildlife of Matusadona, and elephants are simply fascinating. It is well known how intelligent these larger-than-life animals are and there has been many a discussion on the complexities of their behaviour and individual characters. I have often read of elephants grieving or mourning but have never witnessed it first hand, and doing so was very powerful.
The herd huddled closely together, trunks held high to catch the scent of death and lion. Many tugged on and fiddled with small branches as they paced around whilst others gently swayed and grumbled as they neared the little body. One particularly gaunt cow appeared very stressed and a sub-adult female looked to be reassuring her as she rubbed alongside her flank and placed her trunk in her mouth. Eventually the herd began to move off but the cow remained behind blinking slowly and gently shifting the sand at her feet. Her temporal glands, found on the sides of her head, were seeping heavily into her sunken cheeks. She finally left the scene and followed her herd away leaving me quite taken aback by what I believe was a display of very deep emotion. Although quite difficult to watch it is reassuring to know this elephant died of natural causes as opposed to at the hands of poachers. Poaching levels have dramatically subsided on the valley floor in recent months and that is thanks to the dedicated work of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in Matusadona NP and the Matusadona Anti-Poaching Project.
Eventually the lions returned to the kill and all three members of the ‘Jenje Boys’ coalition appeared, which is a very rare sight. Observing them all together one could see differences in body size, mane growth and even character. Despite rarely moving as a single unit the coalition still appears very well bonded and a formidable force.
I am heading back home for the Christmas holidays in a couple of days and am very happy to be leaving on such a high note. The population now stands at 19 known to be alive lions (the last estimate was of 28 lions in 2005) providing an important starting point for continuing field work next year. There have sadly been many deaths this year, some very unexpected, but none-the-less I am hopeful for this population. Lions have an incredible ability to adapt and survive should conditions be favourable and it is those conditions, and possible pressures on the population, the study will delve into further next year.
Thank you to everyone for the support this year and have a very Merry Christmas."