Matusadona Lion Project: Week 24-26
September 22 2015

This blog is the on-going diary of Matusadona Lion Project Principal Researcher, Rae Kokes:

On the 2nd of September I headed up into the hills and to the Southern boundary to begin a call-up survey.  The vast majority of work undertaken is within the NP’s valley floor area where lions and prey have been historically abundant, yet this area equates to only approximately one quarter of the Matusadona National Park, and very little is known about the remaining c. 1000km2.  To date, accessing this huge wilderness has been extremely difficult; the limited road network having had little to no maintenance over the years due to a lack of funding, resources and tourism.  Since May, however, exercises undertaken by ZPWMA, with the assistance of the Tashinga Initiative, Zambezi Society and Matusadona Anti-Poaching Project, the roads of Matusadona are once again drivable.

With improved accessibility a 6 station survey was plotted to sample as large an area as possible within the escarpment/southern boundary region. The last survey undertaken here was in the 1990’s, consisting of 4 stations; therefore information pertaining to the current situation of lion and hyena density in these areas is lacking. Understanding predator density here will help reflect habitat quality and prey availability and provide a better insight into the Park’s overall viability for lion.

Two stations were sampled along the Southern boundary of the Park on the first evening, overlooking breath-taking hills of stunning summer colours.  Similar to the recent collaring exercises a bait was tied to a tree and the calls of an animal in distress were broadcast.  After an hour of calling at our first station, with no respondents, we moved to our second location. Within the first ten minutes of our calling the surrounding night air echoed with the calls of approaching hyena. A short while after, a commotion was heard in the tinder-dry grass and a large female hyena sprinted towards the vehicle. She was soon followed by another clan member and the twosome excitedly circled the speakers, whopping and cackling. The larger of the two hyena began to approach the bait tied high in a nearby tree, and made every effort to climb and jump at the tempting freebie.  Hyenas are unable to jump and climb well, unlike lions, so her efforts were made in vain.

This behaviour was fascinating to observe. The hyena of the valley floor are notoriously skittish for the most part, being too anxious to approach a bait, let alone a strange vehicle.  Were the hyena here more accustomed to human presence and activity with the close proximity of surrounding communal lands perhaps, or is a lower density of prey species in this area making them bolder towards a potential free meal?

Unfortunately, by the end of the evening, and after returning to our beautiful fly camp at Kausiga Spring, we had to abandon the survey and return to the valley floor the next morning as my wisdom tooth had become unbearable to deal with. This was a real blow but the survey will be re-attempted shortly.

After returning from Harare to deal with the wisdom tooth ordeal, the Eastern Pride were located back in the Eastern area of the Park. The three females and four cubs had moved into the Gordons Bay area, obviously in pursuit of prey. The cubs are estimated to be c. 8 months old and are beginning to grow into their taller and more ‘lanky’ phase. For every sighting a body condition score is taken for the cubs to help monitor estimated food intake through the seasons, and dependency of the cubs on their peers. The cubs are beginning to score slightly lower conditions as we move into the dry season, however this is somewhat expected as all four cubs have now weaned from their mothers and are requiring larger portions of kills to sustain themselves.

MLP 1

Sightings of the pride also indicate lioness F107, “Elizabeth”, may have lost her litter. She was suspected to have given birth towards the end of August and GPS locations from a fitted collar suggested she was frequenting a den. Since this time she has spent no time in any specific area nor has she physically shown any further signs of suckling.

Meanwhile in the Kanjedza Pride, the two cubs to lioness F115, “Kanjedza”, appear to be doing very well, and lioness F101, “Ivory”, looks to still be frequenting a suspected den site in the Kemurara River area.  For the Tashinga Pride newcomers are also expected.  Collared lioness F121, “Chura”, has taken up residence in the Omay North area across the Ume River. She was spotted by those at Bulembi Camp recently and is thought to have given birth in the area.

MLP 2

The Jenje Boys cohort have also been frequenting areas across the Ume River and a report of another young male in the area seen feeding on a buffalo by Musango Safari Camp could be the reason as to why.  This could be the first interaction the pride males have had with a nomad since their take-over of prides on the Matusadona valley floor. Whilst covering three prides simultaneously they are spending very little time with specific groups of females, providing opportunities for new incoming males to attempt a take-over, which poses a risk to dependent cubs. This is a dilemma that faces many male coalitions. Remain as a single group, overseeing prides, and improve chances during conflicts by numbers and force, or fragment and move alone, reducing opportunities for incoming nomadic males, but also reducing chances of winning any contest against larger groups of males. Only time will tell if the Jenje Boys will remain as a threesome or not, and what impact this may have on resident prides of females and their offspring.

About the Matusadona Lion Project (MLP)

Since its commencement in 2014, the MLP, in partnership with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, aims to determine the population status and ecology of lions in Zimbabwe’s Matusadona National Park. The last census in 2005 suggested that just 28 individuals remained, down from nearly 90 in 1998, raising concerns over the population’s long-term viability.  The MLP is collecting data on individual lions, pride structure and distribution, as well trying to understand the environmental and human-induced pressures facing Matusadona’s lions.  This project directly contributes to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority’s conservation and management plans for this apex predator. 

Support the Matusadona Lion Project

MLP is looking for funding to cover the running costs of the project (such as vehicle repair and fuel) as well as to acquire additional equipment (camera traps and tracking collars) to increase the amount of data being collected.  If you are able to help please make a donation here, or contact info@lionalert.org for alternative support options.

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