Tense times as the Dambwa cubs are becoming sub-adults
On the 14th of July we found some of the lions ambling across Kariba, initially in a sub-grouping of Loma, Rusha, Kela, RS1, RS3 and Zulu. Within a few minutes we could hear another lion to our North West roaring – which immediately set Loma and Rusha off in response. The RS contingent of this group began heading towards the source with Kela, Loma and Zulu staying put.
Not being able to follow the lions directly we had to go around, but soon caught up with RS1 who was now on the main road and attempting to keep up with her mother and sister. After a bit of trot she did so, and as ever, where the RSs are concerned, it was all play: mum chasing daughters, daughters stalking mum, sister ambushing sister. The light-hearted atmosphere unfortunately didn’t last long. As the RSs came to rest around Grand Canyon, LE1 and LE3 came galloping along the road towards them, shortly followed by LE2. As the two males approached with gusto, Rusha bared her teeth and the young males diverted to their older sisters. A moment or two later Leya appeared too (presumably having been the initial roar-ee, perhaps trying to locate her cubs - at the start of the session). As she joined the group we noticed her also baring her teeth and it appeared to be at RS2, who was about 40m away from the group, apparently trying to reach Rusha and his sisters. Normally Leya and RS2 are on pretty good terms, but her display was enough to sit the young man down in his tracks.
Whilst we’d been watching the LE / RS interaction, Kwandi and Zulu had arrived, but soon after this one of the absentees (Kela or Loma) began roaring to the pride’s South – and so off the current group went once more. As RS2 tried to join the move he was charged by Zulu and hunkered himself down in the bushes until all had moved off and he felt he could chance showing himself again. As the pride moved South West, hooking up with Kela and Loma, the 12 came to rest in Sibaka. RS2 remained on the edges of the group initially, but when he did dare to come closer he was rewarded with head rubs from aunts Kela and Loma, and there was no further trouble for the rest of the morning.
The tension seemed to dissipate over the next few days, and the most eventful incident was LE1’s 30 minute (failed) stalk on a flock of guinea fowl at Water Pan 3 on the 18th. The birds had spotted him after about 10 seconds, but you couldn’t knock his persistence.
On the 19th things started off well as we headed into the site before sunrise. We had hoped to capture some exciting play from the cubs and sub-adults before they all settled down for the day, but it was actually the adults who were more playful. Before we even had time to park the vehicle and switch the engine off Kela was stalking Leya, which in turn prompted Rusha to start stalking Kela, and Kwandi to ‘bop’ Loma over the head.
The action continued when Rusha scampered up a tree; the act drawing the attention of RS1 and RS2 who, as Rusha raced back down the trunk, began stalking their mother. The brother and sister suddenly became aware that they too were being stalked: and not in a playful way. Zulu was locked onto them and incoming. RS1 moved behind Rusha, and RS2 lowered his head, vocalising as we’ve seen him do in the past, which often does seem to placate Zulu. It was also at this point that we noticed a fresh wound that hadn’t been present the previous day on RS2’s front right leg. The young male’s fear was obvious, but it seems he’s learnt a trick or two in the last few months about keeping Zulu at bay. But while this incident fizzled out, the quiet didn’t last for long.
For no apparent reason other than a greeting from RS3 towards RS2, Zulu charged at the siblings. It was hard to track the progress of the chase, as it had started on the edge of the southern treeline boundary and pretty much took place within it, but it did seem that RS2 managed to get out of the way and Zulu’s ire seemed more directed on this occasion to RS3.
We were left alone with Leya and the LE cubs, as other lions had earlier continued chasing and playing with each other, also disappearing into the treeline. We listened for sounds as to what might be happening, but eventually Leya got bored of waiting and began vocalising. Within seconds we spotted RS1 and RS3 being chased back out of the treeline by Zulu. The two young females were easily able to outrun Zulu, but were clearly shaken and made a beeline for Leya and the cubs. LE3 rushed in to greet RS1, but LE1 stalked up to and jumped on RS3. Still tense from her recent encounter with Zulu, RS3 lashed out at him before joining Leya.
Slowly, the rest of the pride emerged from the treeline and an ease slowly returned to the group, although RS3 did remain on the outskirts for some time before sitting with Rusha.
The following morning, the pride was at the other end of the site in Chisamu. The morning started off peacefully enough as the pride moved across the area and settling in the shade of a cluster of trees. The RSs were pretty clumped together with Zulu only about 15m away, the atmosphere seemed to have calmed. That was until Zulu began to walk, with hunched shoulders, towards the trio and then charged them. Because the RSs were so closely sat together before the charge, it was hard to tell if it was directed at all or just one of them.
Relations between sub-adults and adults does become increasingly tense as the sub-adults get older, with their emigration or recruitment into their natal pride determined by a number of factors, such as sex and age, but mainly correlated with the entry of unfamiliar adult males into the pride (Hanby & Bygott, 1987). Sub-adults are involved in almost double the rate of aggressive encounters amongst pride mates as compared to adult pride members, although much of this is attributed to behaviour around kills (Schaller, 1972). Hanby & Bygott (1987) however reported that familiar (and therefore the presumed fathers of sub-adults) males are in general tolerant of their off-spring at any age. Schaller (1972), in contrast, states that on only one occasion did he observe a pride’s adult male associate and tolerate a sub-adult male amongst the pride (and the young male was chased a number of times before finally being recruited by his presumed father). Aggression from adult females towards sub-adults (seen by Leya towards RS2, and Rusha towards LE1 and LE3) is not unheard of either. Again, Schaller reported a sub-adult male (22 months) in his study population who was observed for better part of a year frequently resting some 40m from his pride on account of constant harassment from two of the pride’s lionesses, however both had small cubs at the time and as the cubs grew the aggression decreased. Sub-adult females, on the other hand, are more likely than their male siblings to be recruited into their natal pride, but depending on pride size-prey availability/new incoming males may become peripheral, or even nomadic, to the pride.
On the 22nd July a scavenge was put in the site for the lions to discover, and the following morning they had certainly discovered it, and were sleeping off their meal at Pan 3. The food seems to have provided an opportunity for someone to even up the score with Zulu, who was sporting a small wound below his left eye. Nevertheless it was a peaceful morning, although we did observe a possible indicator of Zulu’s aggression starting to include the younger LE cubs, when LE1 approached him for a greeting which was initially accepted – but was then followed up with a growl. Unused to being the object of displeasure, the 18-month old ran round the back of Zulu, sniffing him before moving to sit next to the RS female sub-adults. In response to the sound of Zulu’s growls RS2 lowered himself cautiously to the ground.
About the Dambwa Lion Release Site
The 6 adults (1 male and 5 females) of the ‘Dambwa Pride’ were captive born and released into the ‘Dambwa Lion Release Site’ in 2011, having been walked in the rehabilitation phase of the ex situ conservation project, the African Rehabilitation and Release into the Wild Programme. The pride’s 6 offspring (3 male and 3 females) were born in the site and have had no human contact, display natural behaviours, and are intended for release into the wild in the final phase of the Programme.
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