Bullying in the playground

20 03 2012

 

Our researcher has felt quite sorry for AT1 at times since the arrival of the new cubs.  Often she has been observed watching her younger siblings play with a look of bemusement on her face. As we know AT1 lost the two siblings of her litter early on in life and never had other cubs to play and interact with whilst growing up in Ngamo. Nala and Narnia pitched in as fantastic playmates whilst she was a youngster but this was never quite the same as playing with peers.

However over the past few days it seems AT1 has been reminded she is still very much a cub and not quite yet a lioness. Rather than proving her maturity amongst the pride AT1 has been throwing her weight around with the cubs.

On the 13th those in the research vehicle were in fits of laughter as AT1 battled with a dead, weedy tree before winning a tough match of tug-of-war over a stick with KE3. KE4 and AS4 looked on with their own sticks giving them a good chew but AT1 was having none of this and demanded all sticks be within her possession. Proving to be the real bully of the playground AT1 proceeded to steal the sticks from the cubs and wrestle AS5 to the ground on the way. The little male however made sure his thoughts on AT1’s foolhardy behaviour was known as he gave her a firm bite on the nose.

On the 15th we saw some further bullying but this time amongst the lionesses. As AT1 frolicked about further with her mini gang Ashanti moved off for a grooming session with Phyre. Both appeared in social heaven as they licked one another’s faces and quickly caught the attention of Kwali. Kwali sauntered over to join the love-fest but as she approached Ashanti flattened her ears and began to growl. Kwali gently bent down to greet Phyre but was met instead by a forceful paw in the face from Ashanti. Never one to argue, Kwali backed down close by and watched the two females groom feeling somewhat rejected!





Teasing hormones

14 03 2012

Since fitting Phyre with her contraceptive implant on the 7th we’ve started to observe her more flirtatious side returning. On both the 11th and 12th Phyre has been noted displaying typical signs of a female in estrous; flickering of the tail, arching of the spine, erratic social displays to males. We all agree that Phyre is a rather good-looking lioness and, like any hot-blooded male, Milo has found these seductive encounters difficult to ignore. Sadly though it seems Phyre is merely dealing with a temporary hormonal imbalance rather than an estrous cycle and therefore Milo’s advances have been met only with sharp teeth and claws.

Our sympathies went out to Milo as he approached Phyre and her wiggling rump only to receive a large smack around the chops.

The rest of the females looked on, as Milo sat down with a large sigh of disappointment and with a splash of irritation no doubt. Ashanti, showing signs of a more conservative mother, shielded her cubs from Phyre’s provocative behaviour and engaged in some heart warming head rubs with her little girl, AS4.

Both these stunning photographs have been taken by two of our current photographic volunteers, Steve Pugh and Mike Darkin, from the UK.  The role of this volunteer program is to join the research team in our Ngamo site and assist in recording the life of the pride to assist with understanding their behaviours and development.  If you are interested in joining this program please visit our volunteer page, scroll down to the Antelope Park section and click on the wildlife photography option.





Mini-roars

11 03 2012

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed observing Ashanti’s little girl and boy more and more with the pride recently. They, along with KE3 and KE4 have been milling around the pride on a daily basis and igniting a playful mood in AT1.

There were no cubs spotted on the morning on the 9th however, which was a blessing in disguise as the females spotted a small herd of impala in the Valley area and got straight to work. The Valley, Hwange and Tree Tops areas managed to escape the bush fire that swept through in Ngamo last year allowing the grass to tower and thicken. An impala ram was seen over looking the ocean of grass from a tall termite mound keeping a watchful eye out over his harem of females. We tried our best to maintain a visual of the females from the road with binoculars poised but the grass was impossible to see through. Our researcher placed her binoculars down and decided the sit and listen intently. Sure enough the sound of fleeing impala was soon heard and Kwali was seen chasing the ram and his females along the boundary road but sadly they managed to escape into the grass.

On the 10th we found the pride had relocated in the Camp area. We’ve noticed over the past few months the pride, especially the females, are roaring less and less. This is perfectly normal behaviour with young cubs now a part of the pride. Whilst roaring is a vital component of territorial defense lionesses will not advertise their presence nor challenge intruders if there are young cubs present incase a conflict were to occur putting the cubs at risk. However Milo has been noted to advertise his territory on occasion still and one particular bout certainly caught the attention of one of his girls. Our researcher was shocked to hear a ferociously deep mini-roar bellow from a nearby bush where both KE3 and 4 were resting by mother Kenge. Even Kenge appeared quite taken a-back by the cubs vocalization. Although we could not see which cubs specifically piped up our researcher put an educated guess upon KE3 who so far has shown to be the most boisterous and noisy of the two sisters.





Telepathy or coincidence?

8 03 2012

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…





Cubs! be quiet and pay attention

5 03 2012

Both KE3 and KE4 have been observed with the pride virtually every day recently, but this has not been the case with AS4 and AS5.  Being exactly one month younger than the KEs, mother Ashanti is leaving them in a den still, giving them a chance to conserve their energy and keep out of the way when the adults are hunting!  On the 3rd March the entire pride, including AS4 and 5 were together. Both cubs appeared in good condition, if a little gangly at this age.  Even at a mere 4 months old AS5 is already beginning to show signs of the huge growth spurt he will go through. The difference in height is already quite visible between brother and sister but it is still AS4 with the larger character!

On that morning we found all females and cubs resting on the road that passes near to water hole one. Suddenly Phyre sat to attention, vigilant to an approaching herd of impala. Phyre rose to her paws and skulked off into the nearby vegetation whilst the others sat exposed yet frozen. The impala slowly mingled their way into a large thicket, obscuring any view they may have of the lions. Narnia, always looking for an opportunity quickly flanked left around the thicket and out of sight. Meanwhile Ashanti, Kenge and AT1 focused their attention upon some grazing zebra who were completely unaware of the cats.

The zebra began to move in closer, to within 15m! Noisy little AS4 and 5 soon picked up upon their mother’s behaviour and piped down, also focussing their attention upon the strange stripy beasts. Suddenly an impala ram spotted the lionesses and gave the alarm. Neither the zebra nor the rest of his herd reacted immediately, but just as it appeared the lionesses luck was in the game spooked and bolted away.  AT1 wasn’t about to let this opportunity escape her and she too bolted after the animals. After a quick 20m sprint she realized her efforts would be fruitless and gave up. We then spotted Narnia appearing from the thicket presumably from attempting to ambush the herd and push them towards the other lionesses. Despite the failure the whole event was no doubt an important learning session for the young cubs and it was fantastic to observe them paying attention to the adults behaviour and learning when to keep quiet!





Lightening reactions

28 02 2012

The scene in Ngamo on the afternoon of the 23rd can only be described as apocalyptic.  It has been unpleasantly hot and humid for the past few days and both the lions and our research team were looking to the skies for some much needed relief. By 4pm the skies began to grey.  By 4:30 they were black, and by 5:30pm a threatening electrical storm began to dance around Ngamo.  As the wind howled and bellowed the pride were spotted closing in upon a mixed herd of zebra and impala in the thickets of the Amboseli area.  Our researcher struggled to keep an eye on the hunting lionesses as the lightening strikes drew closer and closer. Before the resolution of this hunt could be determined it was decided that the research session should be quietly terminated, and the metal vehicle returned to camp and out of striking distance!

Lightening was still being forged in the skies above Ngamo the following morning  at 5am and  continued through to 7am. Upon arriving in Ngamo we located Ashanti and Kenge resting within the open grass area of Maasai Mara. As the lightening lit up the morning sky around the lionesses the torrential rain also began pounding down upon the less than impressed cats.  Yet it appeared the weather would soon be in their favour.  Prey was seen approaching the females up-wind of the waiting lions. None of the herd spotted the crouching huntresses and the young zebra stallion leading the way was heading straight into Kenge’s striking distance. Our researcher stood dripping in the rain in the open vehicle unable to flinch a muscle as the zebra rambled tantalizingly closer to Kenge.  Kenge had virtually became one with the grass as she pressed her body hard against the ground.  The zebra came within 30m of the lionesses yet neither moved an inch.  More often than not a lion will wait patiently for game to approach within 30m, or will stalk to this distance, before giving chase; this appeared to be the ideal hunt. Sadly neither lioness went for it and both sat sodden as the herd began to move away.

Yet Kenge decided that she was not about to give up. As the herd disappeared over the brow of the hill, Kenge began flanking north up Route 66, anticipating the herd’s movements.  Amazingly, she couldn’t have been more precise as the zebra also headed to Route 66 then into the large thicket of Amboseli. Kenge slid into the thicket downwind of the herd leaving Ashanti a little confused about where she had gone. Ashanti rose to her paws and began frantically searching for her hunting partner, eventually entering the thicket herself. We decided with such a poor visual obscured by the dense vegetation, to leave the girls to it and headed off to find the rest of the pride.





The social life of AT1

17 02 2012

At nearly 13 months old young AT1 is a well-established member of the Ngamo pride, but who does she appear to be closest to?  And what does she make of these youngsters running around the place?

Sometimes AT1 can be found with the adults

And sometimes with the cubs

We took a look at who her nearest neighbour has been when the pride is observed since the beginning of the year.  Dad is obviously a little daunting for AT1 and he ranks lowest of the adults as the lion she is most likely to be closest to.  She is also clearly avoiding the current mothers of the group (Ashanti and Kenge) who at this time are highly protective of their cubs, and occasionally very grouchy, especially when they have sharp teeth clamped to their teats.  Former favourite Narnia has dropped down the list below aunt Kwali.  In second place is Nala with Phyre her most frequent nearest neighbour. AT1 has clearly understood which side her bread is buttered and is sticking close to the alpha female of the pride, although that situation is likely to change when Phyre too becomes a mother (expected) in the near future.  This pattern is also mirrored when looking at which lions AT1 greets most often.  As for which lions greet AT1; its Narnia, a lowly lion in the pecking order of the Ngamo pride, that most frequently greets our young lioness.

And there is clear favouritism between AT1 and the other cubs of the pride as well.  The interactions between AT1 and KE4 and AS4 are few and far between, although both will occasionally entice a play bout.  Young male AS5 comes second, but is least likely of the four cubs to start a play session with AT1, preferring to tackle smaller adversaries.

AT1 and KE3 however seem to have a little love affair going on.  AT1 is found with KE3 as her nearest neighbour more than the combined number of times she is found nearest any other cub.  And the number of social interactions between the pair are double than those with any other.

Occasionally it can all get a bit much, especially when the youngest members of the pride come in numbers.

And so, like any young lady, our precious AT1 finds a quiet spot away from all the others: just to be on her own with her thoughts (probably about what is for dinner)








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