Two years ago today everything changed for the Ngamo pride. In early January 2011 Ngamo lioness Athena was seen becoming more distant from her pride members. She would often leave the group to roam and seek out thickets and bushes to rest alone, shifting her increasing weight as she lay. Athena was heavily pregnant and on the 20th January 2011, whilst resting in a dense thicket she gave birth to a tiny, blind cub - AT1.
Athena licked and caressed her defenseless young cub, encouraging her to suckle from her swollen teats and doze in the warmth of her body. She gained strength and energy from the nutrition of her mother’s milk, and was kept safe by her mother’s presence. As time moved on AT1 slowly opened her eyes and gazed upon her pride lands for the first time.
Athena moved her den every so often to other thickets, and on occasion rejoined her pride to socialize and feed. By the 8th of March Athena had relocated to a rocky outcrop far from where her cub was born. It was here our researcher discovered that in fact there was not just one cub; there were three.
The following days saw the rest of the Ngamo pride becoming more and more curious of the new arrivals and spending time in the area of the current den. By now the three cubs had grown considerably in strength and were able to keep up on occasional walks into the plains of Ngamo, often using the roads as an easier way to get around.
On the 14th March 2011 our researcher was treated to a family portrait for the first time. Whilst feeding on a fresh zebra kill pride male Milo was joined by Athena and their 3 cubs. Although still taking milk the cubs gnawed away at the rich red meat in between scrambling over their fathers mane and their new stripy play toy.
After witnessing such special moments the following weeks were sadly far more solemn. In the first week of April one of Athena’s cubs went missing and was never found, whilst another was discovered fatally injured at another zebra kill site. It appeared the small cub had been caught in an aggressive conflict between the adults at the kill. Still extremely vulnerable and fragile at this age cub mortality is often high. Despite the loss AT1 was becoming more and more integrated into the pride and by June was being observed with her elders on a daily basis.
Our researcher began to notice a strong paternal bond forming between the small cub and Milo. Having no other cubs to play with, pride members Nala and Narnia soon became fantastic larger substitutes.
Above, AT1 with Narnia, below, with Milo
As AT1 grew into her paws and began forming and strengthening social ties within the Ngamo pride her mother, Athena, began displaying predatory behaviours towards the cubs that had been born to Kenge and Phyre. The extremely difficult decision was made to remove Athena from the pride and she remains in good health at Antelope Park’s breeding centre. AT1, at 9 months old, but already weaned, remained in the care and guidance of the rest of her pride. Some concerns existed of any impact of the loss of her mother on AT1’s development, but over the following months it was clear that AT1 adapted well with no observable detrimental impact upon her behaviour or health.
At 13 months old AT1 was beginning to gain height, musculature, grace and ferocity. Still the apple of her father’s eye AT1 was often observed being granted prime placement at kills by Milo, and even by the most dominant female Phyre.
Phyre had quickly become a maternal figure to AT1, socializing frequently with the cub and growing very patient with her playful bouts and aggression at kills.
By November 2011 AT1 finally got the playmates she had been missing all along in half sisters KE3 and KE4 born to lioness Kenge on the 4th October. By December AT1 was inundated with cubs to play with following the further addition of half sister and brother AS4 and AS5, born on the 4th November to her aunt Ashanti.
AT1 with AS4 and AS5
After the gradual integration of the four cubs into the pride AT1 cautiously introduced herself to her siblings. With the new cubs being much smaller than AT1 their mothers displayed caution in swats and the bearing of teeth to her whenever AT1 attempted to play with them. Soon though AT1 began to demonstrate great care and softness whilst playing with the 2 and 3 month olds and, still under the close watch of their mothers, reveled in their playful energy and affection.
AT1 with KE3
As the cubs quickly grew playtime with AT1 intensified into highly entertaining games of catch and chase, rough and tumble, and hide and seek. Despite having begun to blossom into a little lioness AT1 was reverting back into a small cub with her siblings and often seemed torn when faced with decisions upon whether or not to behave as a cub or lioness.
On the 13th April 2012 however AT1 appeared to decide it was time to show her true inner lioness. After a lazy morning by water hole two AT1 and pride member Kwali took off into the rolling hills and open grasslands of Ngamo together. The reason: a small herd of zebra had decided to do the same. AT1, after studying her fellow lionesses for months, slunk into the rippling grass and silently edged towards a lagging zebra.
The tension built, the silence was palpable, and with her instincts overpowering her, AT1 launched towards the zebra. With the helpful strength of Kwali the twosome pulled the zebra down to its death and began a very special feast indeed: the first kill AT1 had been directly involved in.
AT1 with Kwali
After that AT1 became an integral part of the Ngamo hunting team, although her inexperience would often be the pride’s undoing
Despite her developing maturity, the young cub in AT1 could still be seen on occasion whilst playfully chasing her favored guinea fowls. Our researcher soon became accustomed to hearing the shrieking of guinea fowl flocks, followed shortly by seeing them rocket into the air, then finding AT1 sauntering behind them gleefully. On one known occasion she managed to catch herself a fowl for a dinner for one.
In May 2012 the research team began to examine the prides territorial behaviours and specifically the territorial development of AT1. Now at 16 months old AT1 should be actively partaking in territorial defense alongside her older pride members. Playback experiments of unknown lions roaring have been conducted with data gathered so far showing that AT1 is indeed an active defender of her territory, sometimes even positioning herself at the front of the cavalry.
AT1 with Kwali
As a young lioness AT1 has to earn her social status within the Ngamo pride. Being the equivalent to a teenager she’s met the disciplinary paws of many pride members over the last year and has lost some of the favoritism bestowed upon her by Milo at kills.
Currently, AT1’s status seems to be above some of the less dominant adult females in the pride based on our observations, which is rather impressive for her age. AT1 has always spent significant amounts of time with Phyre, the most dominant female, which may have contributed to her higher than expected status in the pride.
AT1 with AS5 and KE4
Now, at 2 years old AT1 is categorized as a sub-adult, and an independent member of the pride. Her success demonstrates the magnificent capabilities of the Ngamo pride to live and reign as a self-sustaining pride without human intervention. To successfully raise a cub to this age is no easy task, but the pride’s stability, self-sufficiency and wild independence have ensured the survival and development of this wild born cub, with four others in KE3, KE4, AS4 and AS5 developing well.
In the wild females will most often remain with their natal pride, strengthening bonds and kinship ties further by living as an independent adult but contributing to the successes of the pride in hunting, defending a territory and raising young. For AT1 she will be released into the wild. She will need to wait for her half sisters, KE3, KE4 and AS4 to come of age as she will be released with them when the youngest (AS4) of the four females reaches around two-and-a-half years old in mid 2014. She will be contracepted in the meantime to prevent inbreeding with Milo. When she is ready for release AT1 will be around three-and-a-half in age, will be a skilled hunter - having learnt from her natal pride - and be able to act as the dominant female to lead this pride of four to success in the wild, the ultimate goal of the program.
Our team, and all those who have followed AT1’s triumphant story, will no doubt pause for a moment today to reflect on this special lion’s journey. AT1’s story represents all the successes, failures, joys and heartbreaks of any wild lion, but most importantly she represents a future for the world’s most iconic species.