The 7th of March was D-Day for our research team, lion’s manager and one particular Ngamo lioness; Phyre. Following the loss of two litters of cubs in quick succession we have decided to fit Phyre with a contraceptive to give her body an opportunity to recover from the rigours of pregnancy. We are also aware that should she conceive again when she next comes into oestrus that the chances of a litter surviving in a pride with already five much older cubs would be greatly reduced. The contraceptive will last only 18 months, and can be removed earlier if needed. Phyre will then be able to resume oestrus cycling and take a third (hopefully lucky) attempt at motherhood. By this time we would also hope that the other five cubs would be ready to move on to a release into the wild making room in the pride (and site) for Phyre’s cubs.
The procedure, fairly straightforward and quick, requires the lioness to be sedated for a short period of time while the minute implant is placed between the shoulder blades. We were able to also able to tackle another issue that needed attention by removing Phyre’s collar, which has been in need of refurbishment. She will receive a new one next time she needs to be darted, although that could be quite some time.
So, early morning on the 7th our researcher set off to find the Ngamo pride, and more specifically Phyre, so that we knew her whereabouts ready for when the vet arrived. As mentioned in previous blogs, finding the lions can often prove troublesome as the batteries on the collars are starting to, or already have run out. Narnia, Kenge, AT1 and the four youngest cubs were found upon Route 66, but giving up no clues as to Phyre’s whereabouts. Milo also was keeping silent on the matter whilst alone in Maasai Mara. By 09:15 the research crew needed to head back to camp to liaise with the lion’s manager and vet to discuss the mission at hand having failed at the early morning task.
At 10:15 the research team, along with the vet and a loaded dart gun, headed back into the site to search further for the missing Phyre. Our lion’s manager kept a watchful eye out in the back of the vehicle as our researcher meandered back and forth along road after road. Again, Milo, Narnia, Kenge, AT1 and cubs were spotted but there was still no sign of Kwali, Nala, Ashanti or Phyre.
By 11:30 our researcher decided to head down a little used 2-track in the Hwange area, close to where Ashanti had denned when her cubs were first born. Like lions in the wild, and other large mammals, the Ngamo pride often use roads and game paths to get about. They provide not only an easier route without the hassle of tall grass and bushes but also create good visuals of any potential game. Once the midday heat kicks in the lions will usually flank away into the grass or scrub near the path for shade. They are observed away from this route network when they have made a kill or are denning with newborns in a thicket. We were therefore very surprised when our lion’s manager luckily spotted the 4 missing lionesses sat deep in the thick grass far, far away from the two track! Comments had been passed around the camp that perhaps Phyre and the girls knew our agenda – in jest, of course – and finding them so far from usual hangouts must have been coincidence, right? As we obtained a better view we could see Phyre sitting at the back of the group amidst the thick foliage and thorns of an acacia bush. Both Nala and Ashanti were positioned perfectly in front of Phyre blocking any chance of a clear shot – coincidence again?
After a while the lions went on the move, with the entire pride meeting up and repositioning in the Etosha area, luckily for us an area of short grass and few bushes. Just as our vet took aim Nala once again moved to slap bang in front of Phyre who was resting in the shade of a weedy mopane tree. We changed our vehicle position to enable the vet to get a shot. When it came it was a quick, clear, accurate shot into Phyre’s shoulder.
Despite the loud snap of the dart gun and nasty pinch from the dart Phyre fled only a few meters before the sedative began to take effect, whilst the rest of the pride moved off further. Phyre began to stumble and sway before slowly laying down and falling unconscious. As soon as it had been confirmed she was lights out (and the rest of the pride was not returning) our experienced lion handlers placed Phyre onto a stretcher and onto the back of a vehicle and quickly whisked her away to the nearby management pens where we could work on her safely.
Once inside the pen our vet began to insert the contraceptive implant. Our lion’s manager gave her a quick health check, including using a thermometer in a place that would make any person or lion normally cringe, and our researcher took some important body measurements. By now Phyre had been unconscious for 10mins – any longer than 30mins and complications could arise. Once all had been inserted, prodded, measured and tested Phyre was given a reversal to the sedative and all staff moved safely out of the pen in good time.
After a tense 10 minutes Phyre awoke rather groggy but non-the-worse for the experience and made her way back through the open gate into the release site.
By the afternoon Phyre had rejoined the pride. Her missing collar appeared to attract minimal attention though both Kenge and Ashanti assisted in giving the once hard to reach spot a good clean. All-in-all the darting was a complete success but it has left our researcher questioning the Ngamo lionesses telepathic capabilities…