Each year the Makonde Branch of Wildlife & Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ) undertakes an extensive game count across the flood plains of Mana Pools National Park in northern Zimbabwe. Some 200 volunteers are divided into teams and set out on either a series of walking transects covering the 45km2 flood plains or based themselves at watering holes for 24hr static counts.
Mana Pools NP is approximately 2,200km2 of wilderness with no physical boundaries. It forms a significant part of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Estate and this entire area allows wildlife to migrate from Mozambique in the East, to Kariba Dam in the West and north across the famous Zambezi River into Zambia. The Park was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1984 and attracts thousands of visitors each year. What is often most appealing and unique to Mana Pools NP is that visitors are able to walk freely around the Park as they please, often encountering herds of buffalo, elephant and prides of lions.
This year ALERT staffer Rae Kokes joined WEZ for the game count and even met some of the resident lion population on foot and face-to-face. The count was conducted over 2 days in 4 walks - 2 x AM walks and 2 x PM walks. The walks ranged between 2-6km over the open, very dry, flood plains and within very thick Bush. Each team comprised of a scribe, a GPS/compass reader, spotters, and for some areas, an armed scout. All game within a 250m distance of the transect route was recorded, the scribe having a busy job of noting herd numbers, distances, times, direction of movement, breeding and non-breeding herds of elephants, etc, whilst also keeping an eye out for predators.
ALERT's Rae Kokes acts as scribe on the Mana Pools game count
Temperatures reached a stifling +40oC however the nearby Zambezi River provided perfect cooling off opportunities alongside curious pods of hippos. It almost appeared as if game had intentionally been placed along transects for viewing. The area was bursting with breeding herds of elephant, roaming bulls, eland, buffalo, impala, waterbuck, baboon, kudu, hippo, and crocodiles, but of course our ALERT representative was interested in one species in particular.
During the first morning walk, within a matter of minutes, a distinctive ruckus of growls was heard in the distance. The team proceeded along their transect towards the Zambezi riverbank keeping a watchful eye for the big cats. Another team had spotted a pride of six lions that morning in the area from which the growls were heard, so with an experienced guide the team headed into the thickets.
No spoor was to be seen so the group fanned out to cover more ground keeping as quiet as possible. Luckily Rae soon spotted 4 lionesses resting on a termite mound under a shady tree some, 50m away. The rest of the team was alerted and, all crouching low, slowly tip toed towards the pride for a closer look. The tension grew thick in the air as one lioness began to narrow her stare on the volunteer group. It also dawned on them that there was only 4 lions in view of what was thought to be a pride of 6. Two large males were soon located in a thicket nearby. The six lions continued sleeping, and rolling onto their backs.
At the end of the day the team took the opportunity to revisit the pride. As the sun began to set one female began to stir and a closer look through some binoculars indicated she was possibly pregnant. Soon the males also began to rise and following them was not another lioness as presumed earlier, but a young male cub approximately 2 years old. The team observed a wonderful interaction between what may have been father and son before it was time to head back for dinner at camp.
Specific regional estimates for lions in Mana Pools NP has varied from as little as 97 to as large as 495. Thanks to the dedicated work of WEZ and other groups it would appear populations are slowly on the rise and visuals obtained on transects indicate there is a healthy breeding population on the flood plains.
Despite this promising news the lion population of Mana Pools NP and of Zimbabwe is under threat. It is vital that conservation efforts continue to work towards the security of these habitats.