Announcement by ALERT

11 04 2011

At 0653h on the morning of 5th April our research team discovered all eight adult members of the Ngamo pride on a zebra kill that must have happened only minutes before the team arrived on the scene.   None of the five cubs born to the pride were present.  At 0731h Athena left the pride in the direction of nearby waterhole two, a location where she has been seen with her cubs frequently.   The research team left the site at 0831h with no further visual of Athena.

When the research team returned to the site at 1100h most members of the pride were still at the site of the zebra kill.  Kenge had departed, presumably to return to her cubs, whilst Athena had come back to the carcass with only two of her cubs.  One cub was seen feeding from the kill whilst another lay nearby, clearly in distress and unable to stand.  Athena’s third cub was not present.  The cub that was observed feeding on the kill was also seen playing and suckling, in apparent good health. Athena’s cubs are +- 75 days old (ten weeks).

The previous day (4th April) was the last time we saw Athena with all three cubs (see picture below) and all seemed fit and healthy.  They were with the rest of the pride (excluding Kenge and her cubs) in the early morning with Athena leading the cubs away at 0702h; Milo following.

During the mid-morning research session of the 4th April Athena was observed back with the pride and without the cubs at 1104h.  As is normal and has been observed frequently we can assume that she left the cubs to sleep in a den that she had selected whilst she socialized with the rest of the pride.  During the late afternoon Athena left the pride and it is assumed returned to her cubs.

On the 5th the pride was observed with a zebra kill in the morning session.  Athena had brought two of her cubs to the kill at some point whilst the research team were not in the site between 0831h and 1100h.  When the research team rejoined the pride one of the cubs that was present seemed to be unable to stand.  Athena did approach it during this time to sniff it and was observed suckling the other cub.  There was no sign of the third cub.

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On the morning of the 6th April the rest of the pride had moved during the night to the far side of the site near waterhole three, whilst Athena remained at the kill site with the one healthy cub and one seemingly injured one, which later died.  A postmortem conducted by Dr Stevenage in Bulawayo confirms that the cub had a bite wound to the head which entered the brain cavity.   It is likely that the cub was bitten by an adult as they aggressively jostled for position at the kill,  a known cause of death for some cubs in the wild.  We have searched areas around where the Athena and the cubs have known to have been denned over the past weeks looking for the missing cub, but we have encountered no sign of it.  It may have been taken by a predator (such as an eagle or a python), killed by a venomous snake or been left behind at the den site when Athena went to the kill with the other two cubs, and subsequently got lost and starved.

We can only speculate at this time as to what has happened to the missing cub or why one of the cubs at the kill site was fatally injured, however we will seek to find answers, but appreciate that these are unlikely to come.   Whilst these events are of course devastating to the team, they are not unexpected; we always knew that many cubs born to our release prides would not survive for a variety of reasons, as would happen in the wild.

Cub mortality rates in a wild situation are very high with studies suggesting between 50 – 67% + of cubs fail to thrive.  The highest level of mortality is with first time mothers.  The following graph shows reproductive success from a study of lions in Botswana that provides evidence that survival rates for cubs with first time mothers is as low as 26%, most dying after their initial exit from the den and before their first birthday.  A first time mother’s “shotgun” approach to motherhood does produce a number of surviving cubs but it is the more careful older females that seem to reduce initial mortality to the emphasis of survival.  Whilst Athena may be older than many first time mothers at 6 years, she is still going to make the same errors of a younger first time mother.  Kenge is also six years old but a second time mother and therefore likely to have a higher survival rate for her two cubs which are now +- 45 days old.

LL = lost litter, i.e. never emerged from den

0<1 = cubs that emerged from den but died before age 1

1<2 = cubs that died before reaching 2 years

2+ = cubs that essentially survived.

The causes of cub mortality are not often known.  A study of lions in the Serengeti suggested 25% of cubs were taken by predators, 28% starved and 47% died of unknown reason, many having simply disappeared.

According to Schaller, the response of a lioness to her cubs is a balance between care and neglect, between her own desires and the needs of her offspring.  As an intensely social creature a lioness prefers to be with other pride members rather than separated from them with her small cubs.  As such, lionesses will often seek out pride members and spend the day with them; up to twenty four or more hours may elapse between visits to the cubs.  Female can be careless with their cubs, sometimes even leaving them when a predator is present, or simply failing to return to a den site to suckle them for no apparent reason.  Lionesses make little attempt to keep newborns isolated from contact with the rest of the pride and will readily allow pride members to enter the den.  Full integration of cubs into the pride is a gradual process, often based on whether the cubs are able to keep up with the moving adults, but integration may start before they can walk up to 5 or 6 weeks of age.  This is also the age when cubs are often brought to kill sites with some feeding on meat even at this young age, dependent on the varying development of their teeth.  Mother’s will allow their cubs to interact with other members of the pride without concern, although they may call if they observe a cub approaching a feeding adult.  Schaller noted that he observed a cub approach a feeding male; the cub ignoring its mother’s call.  As it approached the male slapped the cub; which could cause fatal injury.  The choice of following a lioness or remaining behind at a den site remains with the cubs.  If they follow the female they are not always able to maintain her pace and may well be left behind.  If she does not find it within a couple of days it will likely die of starvation or be taken by a predator.  Cubs that remain behind will hide to avoid being found by predators.  At a kill cubs may be crushed or bitten to death by adults competing for food.  The greatest reason for cub mortality is probably abandonment by their mother, sometimes for no apparent reason with even seemingly healthy cubs being left behind and subsequently dying.

As has been mentioned these events are difficult to understand and even more difficult to accept, but they are part of the natural life of a lion and therefore part of life in the Ngamo pride.

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One response

12 04 2011
Joyce Kinton

How distresing to hear about Athena to lose one of babies,,
Poor Athena, she will have grown close to her offspring…
This is the way in the wild and David and his helpers cant be with the pride 24 / 7…..Its it sad and I imagine We can see this every day…
Bless the cub, it will have an everlasting place right now, where theres no killing and living an eternity with joy and running on the grassy meadows, near Rainbow River..its our pure joy to see them there when we go home…
Time to see the other cubs are ok…blessings….Joyce xx

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