The field season has finally begun again here in Matusadona after a longer than expected break. A lot was accomplished overseas and this year looks to be another pivotal one for the Matusadona Lion Project.
I washed back onto the shoreline on the 20th for 2-3days before having to leave again for a talk. However, those 48hrs proved very interesting in terms of lion sightings.
Since returning from the December break, I have watched the lake water levels continue to drop, and drop. It is now standing at a mere 61% capacity, which is the lowest it has been in a very long time. We are now in the time of year where the lake levels should be rising; however, new turbines in Zambia and the lack of rain is seeing more lakeshore appear each day. Fortunately, the waters are receding at a reasonable rate allowing for grass to rejuvenate. It may be that Matusadona will regain its infamous lakeshore, and one hopes that the game too will, in time, return.
On the 22nd of February, the roads were unusually dry and I began to track collared lioness F107 (Elizabeth) inland between the Karonga and Jenje Rivers. Spoor of 2-3 females were picked up following that of a buffalo herd, and vultures were spotted circling above the mopane trees. Had the members of the Eastern Pride caught themselves a prized meal?
I left the vehicle and headed along a sandy game trail along with a professional guide, Steve Chinhoyi of Rhino Safari Camp. As the VHF signal began to increase, we soon came across a newly flooded water hole littered with evidence of recent visitors: buffalo, zebra, kudu and lion. The signal directed us to an overgrown thicket close by and we slowly crept into it, hoping to catch a glance at Elizabeth.
With fantastic ‘bush-vision’ Steve spotted Elizabeth peering out over the lush grass at us some 40m away. She was very well covered and presumably felt relatively safe despite our presence, and permitted us to continue searching the area for a carcass. We followed the stench of a carcass through the undergrowth expecting to find a defeated buffalo, but we instead found a female kudu. From examining the drag marks and the frantically laid spoor around the water hole, we were able to piece together the incident. Perhaps, following the buffalo to the water hole, the lions happened across the kudu and gave chase- sending all species fleeing, apart from the unfortunate kudu cow. Based on the lion spoor, I could also presume the other 2 Eastern Pride lionesses were in the vicinity of the kill. After gathering required data, we left Elizabeth in peace.
By the afternoon, I returned back to my base at Changa Safari before heading out in pursuit of the Jenje Boys coalition, following a report of them being sighted that morning. Another flock of vultures ominously hung above the area we were headed to and the signal for Kanjedza Pride lioness, F101 (Ivory), was picked up. We found the coalition in the company Ivory and another Kanjedza Pride lioness, F115 (Kanjedza).
Some of you may remember that my last sighting of Ivory was shortly after I had presumed her 2 cubs had been killed, possibly by male M110 (Mukadza). Seeing her on the 22nd, confirmed my suspicions, as she showed no signs of being suckled or lactating; which indicated that her cubs are likely to have sadly died. During this time, I also observed her mating with what at first appeared to be a new male. On closer inspection, we were able to identify this dark maned stranger as Jenje Boys member M109 (Madoda). During my time away, Madoda and Mukadza have developed stunning dark manes which resulted in them being almost unrecognisable at first glance!
It would appear that the Jenje Boys are now the dominant pride males of this area overseeing the Kanjedza and Eastern Pride, and very possibly the Tashinga Pride. Their confident roaring choruses certainly suggest these males have claimed this territory and their impressive dark manes are a wonderful sign of them coming into their prime.
Whilst admiring the three of them, a third lioness was spotted across a small vlei, circling around the other lions. I wasn’t sure as to who this was and my first guess was the Kanjedza lioness F118 (Silver), who has only been sighted twice back in August. A frenzy of photos was taken before the lioness disappeared into the scrub. I headed back to camp as a storm began to blow in and began to trawl through the Lion ID Database for photographic history of F118. The photos did not match Silver’s whisker spot pattern - the only reliable feature by which to identify a lion. I examined the photos closer and was able to recognise the lion after noting 3 small tears in her right ear. After hours of comparing photographs and whisker spot patterns, I am fairly certain this lioness was in fact Eastern Pride lioness F105 (Sanyati).
This has been a rather surprising finding. No Eastern Pride lion has been sighted east of the Jenje River since May, and after the sudden loss of lioness F106 (Gogo) and F114 (Ngoda) in September, I have been sceptical as to whether the pride will continue to range throughout their large territory. This raised the question: does the sighting of Sanyati mean the Eastern Pride are still continuing to utilise this area? Or have I in fact had it all wrong? Are the Kanjedza Pride and Eastern Pride merely fragmentations of a large single pride? This is certainly not unheard of amongst lion populations and previous studies in the valley floor area have documented the merging of prides.
One other factor that may explain Sanyati’s presence, however, is the arrival of cubs. Sanyati showed signs of being suckled, and walked with very swollen teats of milk. Last year, this area was where Matusadona had denned with her litter. Therefore, it is likely Sanyati has returned alone to a favoured denning area. This initial sighting did not see any interaction between her and the other lions, nor do I believe they even spotted one another. It may have been a simple coincidence they were in the same area, which was lucky incident for me!
Very sadly, the following morning we discovered why all 6 lions had been in the area, and also further suggesting why Sanyati was so close to a neighbouring pride - a poached elephant. The lions had been briefly feeding on the carcass, as they had in the past with other poached animals. There have been very few poaching incidents towards the end of 2014, however, there has been a recent spike, most likely owing to the opportunity for poachers to use the recent storms as cover. The presence of Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority alongside the Matusadona Anti Poaching Project is making a profound difference on the valley floor, so this finding has been a terrible blow.
Going forward into the next week, my agenda now is to track down Sanyati and note whether she will be joined in this area by her pride members, F107 (Elizabeth) and F109 (Matusadona), and to also remain vigilant for some new additions to the valley floor population.