We’re slowly heading into the dry, winter season here, with each day's high temperatures finally falling, and the nights growing longer. The lake is also going through its seasonal changes; the water is rising approximately 3cm a day and open grasslands are beginning to vanish into the lapping waves.
The Eastern pride have spent the majority of their time towards Tashinga and Rhino Safari Camp and I was given a report of a crocodile kill right outside Rhino’s dining area!
On the 28th my vehicle was still static in the camp car park, and to add insult to injury I was given a report of a visual of 3 lions in Gordon’s Bay that morning. Fortunately the National Geographic cameraman sympathised with my frustrations at being stuck in camp and collected me in his vehicle to take me to the scene. We encircled a small, steep hill overlooking the bay, peering into the thick mopane scrub, and staring back were two male lions.
The males appeared quite relaxed with our intrusion and after allowing for some ID photographs continued to doze. The original report from a Changa Safari camp game drive was for 3 lions yet a third could not be seen. I decided to return a little while later after grabbing some much needed lunch and waited the afternoon out occasionally dozing myself…
Finally at 7pm the boys began to stretch and stir. They flopped their way down the hillside and into the bay to join with their third musketeer. They all looked to be in fantastic condition. Two had very small, blonde, whispy manes and one a larger, darker mane on his chest and elbows. I estimated them to be approximately 5-6 years old, and in their prime; ready to find a pride. After a brief drink they sauntered off west and disappeared. I attempted to track them the following dawn but all sign had vanished.
The three males have thickened the plot of the study; will they challenge Shepherd and take over the Eastern pride? Will they perhaps turn to the Kanjedza pride and chase away the sub adult male M102, Madiba?
Around this time the Kanjedza pride had also disappeared but I believe this may in fact have been due to the presence of some Eastern pride members in the area; evident from spoor found on the lakeshore. The spoor had indicated a lone lioness was still in the area, possibly with Shepherd. The reports I have received from Rhino Safari camp had not included any small cubs, so had the mother, Matusadona, perhaps stayed behind with her litter of 3?
On the 29th this was confirmed with a sighting of mother and cubs by the Fothergill shoreline. After vocalising to her litter the young lioness began to lead them towards the waters edge, and from then on the tension just grew and grew…
With waters rising, Fothergill Island has become a floating buffet for lions, and it was apparent Matusadona wanted her fill. As she began to approach Shepherd made an appearance from the scrub. He slowly crept towards the small family, but displaying some uncertainty. Lions have an etiquette when it comes to meeting and greeting. Members of the opposite sex are often far more polite and tolerant of one another, even if they are not of the same pride, and depending on whether or not cubs are present. Given Shepherd is quite likely the only large male with a dark mane in the area he is easily recognisable from a distance. A lioness however is not so obvious. Shepherd lowered his head and stiffened his limbs as he paced towards Matusadona. She quickly spotted the large male and displayed her familiarity with him by trotting confidently towards him and flickering her tail. These small gestures through body language relaxed the male, but just to be sure his defences were not still up Matusadona gave a very brief but very convincing flash of teeth.
Finally mother, father and cubs sat together in harmony. Cubs suckled, and father gazed, but mother still had other plans. She abruptly rose and calling the cubs she led them slowly into the shallows of the water. Numerous crocodiles littering the area quickly submerged below the dark ripples as the lioness waded out further. Inch by inch the water’s depth grew and the cub’s began to call. They struggled to keep up with Matusadona and to keep their noses and mouths above the water. Mother turned and watched her litter swimming around her trying to find shallower water. It was the perfect example of 2 primordial forces of a lioness - the instinct to hunt and feed, and the instinct to protect and care for her young.
As the cubs cries became more frantic Matusadona headed back to land. The commotion had drawn Shepherd’s attention and he had sat by the water’s edge watching his progeny swim away. My heart was POUNDING by the end of this ‘Jaws’ re-make, but it wasn’t over. Another TWO TIMES this happened, the last during twilight hours drawing the attention of all surrounding hippo and even more crocodiles! By night fall the mother had perhaps realised her litter was not yet ready for the Fothergill swim and left them sleeping on dry land.
On the 1st the drama continued. A lone cub was found by the shoreline calling. It took refuge in some fannel weed and managed to avoid some nearby elephants. On the 2nd spoor indicated that it had followed 2 lionesses and possibly Shepherd elsewhere but there was no spoor of any other cubs. By the afternoon I was contemplating as to whether Matusadona had swam to Fothergill taking 2 cubs with her and leaving the 3rd, and whilst scanning the shoreline I noticed 4 impala rams stood rigidly staring at something. And there she was. With an enormous stomach she plodded towards the water, but she was alone.
Before I knew it she was swimming towards my vehicle and I could hear her calls. Lionesses will often leave cubs to go hunting and once they return will call to them to lure them out from hiding. This calling can go on for some time, but this afternoon all her calls went unanswered. She stood in the shallows sniffing and gazing into the water and eventually swam back to the island to continue searching.
Although I cannot confirm my ‘gut-feeling’ is that Matusadona may have returned to her single cub and has lost her other 2 to the water. Lion cubs often face very high mortality rates and losses such as these, although difficult to witness, are fascinating insights into the ecology of the Matusadona lions.
I am continuing to stay in the area to confirm as to her whereabouts but this morning I was distracted by the 2 cheetah brothers on a fresh impala kill in Sanyati West Bay. They made it very apparent that previous kills may have been disturbed and/or stolen presumably by lions as both brothers were very anxious. None-the-less I managed to take some great photo’s before they dragged the adult male impala into the scrub.
Exceprts from the diary of Rae Kokes, Principle Researcher for ALERT's Matusadona Lion Project.