Making sense of it all

12 10 2011

From our last blog entry you have read that we are highly bemused as to the current situation with the relationship between Athena and the new cubs we know Phyre to have had and any we presume Kenge has given birth to but not located.

The researchers arrived into the site early on Friday (7 October) morning to find Phyre at her den with two cubs; presumably one of them was the one that Athena and AT1 had with them near the carcass at the end of the last blog and that Phyre collected and returned to the den.   Athena and AT1 were also at the den site and were observed staring intently at one of the cubs before Athena got up and picked it up.  Phyre stood up but did nothing to stop Athena from taking her cub.  Athena sat down only three metres from the new mother and started to groom the cub – much to the cub’s protest, still blind at this stage.  We assumed that maybe Athena was trying to look after the cub, but after a few minutes, saw that Athena had blood on her forepaw.  We then spotted blood also on the cub’s abdomen.  Soon after Athena took the cub some 60m away and consumed it.  Phyre shortly collected her remaining cub and left with it.  Whether this is a case that the cub was already bleeding for some reason or that Athena was too rough with the cub and that her predatory instinct kicked in when she tasted the blood when grooming, or whether a more complex situation exists is unknown, and likely never will be.

The research team left this area and drove around the rest of the site to locate the other females.  Nala was discovered resting by waterhole two and was soon joined by Athena and AT1.  Nala then tried to stalk some impala by boldly walking towards them in broad daylight, but, as would be expected, the impala ran off long before Nala got close.

The following day (Saturday 8th October) some of the lions were again found by waterhole two resting in the shade of a tree from the heat of the midday sun.  A courageous male impala was spotted walking past the waterhole within approximately 20 m of the dozing lions; he stopped, watched the resting predators and stared intently at them for a number of minutes.  He then started to approach them, sniffing the air and stamping the ground.  He alarm called numerous times, but still edged forwards.  Fortunately the lions were sleeping so deeply that none of them even lifted their heads to notice the impala.  A few minutes later it decided that it was a bad idea to hang around any longer  in an area with carnivores and darted off to join the rest of his herd.

By early evening on Saturday, just as the sun was starting to set, we heard the unmistakable sound of a cub calling from the Etosha area of the site.  We drove towards the direction of the noise and found most of the pride resting around the cub.  Athena and AT1 kept approaching it, but as the sun had gone down by this point, it was unclear what they were doing with it.  The cub continued to call, but no mother came to collect it.   Phyre was seen with the pride, but did not show any interest in the cub.  As darkness had returned, the researchers left the site under a feeling of confusion as to what was going on with the cubs of the Ngamo pride.

This feeling returned the following morning (9th October) as the researchers found a lone cub calling loudly approximately 300 m away from where one was spotted the night before.  No lions could be seen, so we decided to drive around to find the rest of the pride.  The females, including Phyre, were spotted walking around Serengeti East in the direction of waterhole one.  Phyre started to head towards where the cub was on the other side of Route 66, but returned soon after to the pride.  Then Athena walked towards the cub, which by this point was surrounded by pied crows.  On arrival she chased the crows away, picked up the cub and trotted back towards the rest of the females as they approached the waterhole.  Athena arrived by waterhole one and laid the cub down by itself.  Many of the females took turns coming up to the crying cub to sniff it and biff it, but none showed any interest in caring for it.  Phyre came over for a short while to sit by it, and it was only during this period that the cub stopped calling, which indicates that the cub is probably Phyre’s last remaining offspring.   However, she made no attempts to try to nurse the cub, and she soon returned to sit by the rest of the females.  The researchers left the pride to the sound of the cub calling and possibly abandoned.

Following the cub drama over the last few days, it came as somewhat of a surprise to see one of the tiny little cubs, presumably Phyre’s, with the pride on Monday (10 October) and Tuesday (11 October).  About a week old now and its eyes are already open but there is still a film covering each one, meaning that it cannot see well at all.

It appears that Athena may have adopted the cub, as she seems to now be taking relatively good care of it – unlike the probable mother, Phyre, who has mostly been ignoring it.  Athena has been observed grooming, nursing and carrying the cub around over the last couple of days, as well as attending to it when it calls and moving it into the shade when it gets hot.  Ashanti and Phyre have also on occasion nursed the cub, which suggests that Ashanti is quite likely to be pregnant (as was suggested previously) if she is producing milk already.

Both Nala and Milo have expressed dislike towards the little bundle of fluff as it has gone to greet them only to be met with growls and an occasional biff.  However, AT1 is most curious of it, playing with it often and sometimes trying to carry it around with her, emulating her mother.

The cub has also tried to suckle Kwali and, oddly AT1 who does not seem to mind this at all.  In fact, she was once seen to hug the little one closer to her on Monday.  Also later on during the same day she tried to place the cub on top of a mound whilst the rest of the pride were walking away – possibly she thought it was a good waiting spot for the cub where AT1 would be able to find it easily later on.  Unfortunately for the cub however, AT1 is not so adept at carrying cubs just yet, so she was seen dragging the little one up the mound sometimes by its head, tail or leg!  And once she struggled to get the squirming thing to the top, it would tumble back down to the bottom again!

At one point on Tuesday, the little cub sought shade from the heat of the sun underneath the research vehicle.  We were quite worried that it would stay under there until we drove off, but fortunately it wiggled out again a few minutes later – much to AT1’s delight, who had been trying to rescue the cub from underneath the vehicle during this whole time.  She then brought the cub over to Milo, who seemed very disinterested and walked off.  It appears that AT1 is very happy she now has a new playmate around.

We have still not located Kenge who has seemingly found herself a den site way off any access points for the vehicle.

The events over the past week have been extremely difficult to observe and harder to comprehend; the anguish at losing cubs and the confusion felt by all of us as to the current pride dynamic.

The main contributing factors to these incidents that we are considering are:

1.            The presence of an older cub (AT1) within the pride

2.            Potential cub abandonment by Phyre

3.            Anti-competitive behavior caused by a lack of larger prey species within the lions’ territory

Thorough research undertaken upon wild prides has detailed that survival rates of newborn litters to be significantly decreased if there are older cubs present. Figures have suggested litters are most likely to survive for 11.7 months in the absence of older cubs, in stark contrast to 6.5 months with older cubs present (Schaller, 1972). A more recent study conducted by Craig Packer (2001) plotted cub survival rates with the age of present older cubs. The data is based upon the survival of 3 month old cubs within a crèche in the presence of older cubs.

In Ngamo there is an age difference of c. 9 months between the newborns and AT1. This poses very similar differences to those demonstrated by Packer in regards to physiological and behavioural development. Precocial cubs are at an even higher risk than those at 3 months old within a crèche due to the undeveloped nature of precocial born mammals. Bertram (1975) discussed how cubs born of a similar age, and likely to be pooled together into a crèche pose little food competition to one another, whereas younger cubs in the presence of older ones reduces the amount of food available to them significantly.

Females will often seek out the safety and isolation of a den during birth and early lactation but will allow other pride members to approach within close proximity due to their social nature (Schaller, 1972). This has been observed numerous times by different females of the Ngamo pride surrounding births. It is therefore likely Athena (with AT1) had gone to seek out Phyre.  Potentially AT1’s playful nature may have resulted in her removing a cub from the den as a matter of social/object play and simply left it, helpless, away from it’s mother. Unfortunately AT1’s strength and energy, even at almost 9 months old, could inflict serious injury upon a newborn. This heavy-handed play behaviour was also observed earlier in the year with AT1’s interactions with Ashanti’s cub and may have been the cause of its death.

It is also possible Phyre perhaps abandoned the two cubs she has lost, in which case Athena or AT1 could have easily taken them without Phyre attempting to intervene. Many taxa have been documented abandoning their young if their young is sick or in any way less likely to survive. By abandoning their young mothers are no longer wasting valuable energy by attempting to raise a ‘lost-cause’. Phyre was suspected to have given birth back in January and was noted to leave the pride for 6 days. However her absence was short lived as she rejoined the pride and no evidence of cubs was ever observed. We have no clue as to whether this suspected litter ever existed, or if it did that it died of natural causes, was abandoned or was killed.

Another plausible reason for Athena’s behaviour with the cub she consumed (other than the simple suggestion mentioned earlier) is the lack of larger prey species (and in particular, zebra) in the release site at present.  The last zebra was killed and consumed on the 20th September and restocking has yet to be affected.  Our research has shown despite the abundance of other smaller prey species in Ngamo available to sustain the pride, they are mostly dependent upon larger prey species.  Whilst smaller prey (e.g. impala, duiker, steenbok etc) constitute some 46% of all kills made they make up only around 12% of the biomass consumed.  Larger prey (e.g. wildebeest, zebra) account for 65% of the biomass consumed (the balance of 23% from scavenging)

We witnessed similar behaviour exhibited by Athena back in April.  Kenge’s litter of two cubs had survived to two months of age and were slowly being integrated into the pride. Shortly before Athena had lost two of her litter of three leaving her with the one surviving cub known as AT1.  As with the current situation, during this time all the zebra within the Ngamo release site had been taken leaving only smaller prey species to feed upon.  Athena was witnessed killing and consuming one of Kenge’s cubs and the second was also found dead some days later and being consumed by Athena although cause of death is unknown.  All pride members then, as now were adequately fed and of fine body condition. However with no large prey available Kenge’s litter of two were two times the competition to AT1 for a limited resource.

In June 2011 we saw Ashanti give birth to her first litter of three. Three weeks after the initial observation only one cub, AS1 was seen and it appeared Ashanti was abandoning him onto Athena.  Athena was seen suckling the related cub, tending to him regularly whilst AT1 again engaged in very rough bouts of play. Sadly though his body was found some days later.  We were unable to confirm confidently cause of death but the cub was not consumed.  It is possible AT1’s play was too rough.  During this time there was a large herd of zebra roaming the release site and all lions had gorged themselves on numerous successful kills.  It is possible that Athena exerted energy temporarily caring for AS1 as he posed no threat to the survival of her own cub during a period of prey abundance. The kinship between Athena and Ashanti (who are sisters) may also have played a role in her behaviour towards this cub.

Lion reproduction research has shown that although lions are non-seasonal breeders they are more likely to conceive and give birth during times of prey abundance, and cub survival will also increase (Bertram 1975, Mosser 2009, Packer 1988 & 1990, Schaller 1972, Van Orsdol 1985).

The scarcity of zebra in Ngamo at certain times as a result of funding deficiencies is mimicry of dry season prey levels in many habitats. Although the Ngamo pride are well fed and are almost permanently exhibiting 5/5 body condition scoring, they may be acutely aware that their main prey resource has diminished at certain times.  In regards to Athena this poses a serious dilemma for her as a mother.  At almost 9 months old AT1 is still very much dependent upon her although is almost fully weaned.  This means she now requires a larger intake of meat per day.  Unfortunately paucity of food in the form of zebra (but not through other sources) and other mouths to feed like those of newborn cubs become direct competition and a threat to AT1’s survival.  It is reasonable for us to believe that Athena may have intentionally killed Phyre’s cub as a means of ensuring her own cub’s long term survival whilst other observations of AT1 with young cubs may be no more than play behavior with detrimental consequences for cub survival. This has been documented in the wild and amongst many other mammalian carnivore species. It is thought non-parental infanticide can prove to increase both direct and indirect benefits to the perpetrator in regards to access to limited resources and numerous other factors (Schmalz-Peixoto 2003).  Cub survival rates in the wild often range between just 30-50%, with the impact of dry seasons and prey scarcity accounting for 68% of cub deaths (after male infanticide) (Packer 1988).

We are considering the removal of Athena from the pride in an attempt to increase litter survival although this must be weighed against any detrimental effects surrounding AT1’s further development without a mother, and Athena’s possible adoption of Phyre’s remaining cub and any improved survival chances this cub may have as a result.  Although we have no reason to believe or evidence to show Athena is behaving abnormally as a consequence of captive breeding and rearing, this programme is a world first and it is always possible we will witness abnormal behaviour. In captivity some mothers will kill the cubs of others, whilst some do not.

We do not believe any mistakes nor failures have been made but as always we have taken our findings into serious consideration. Due to many uncontrollable factors and limitations such as funding we allowed breeding to occur in Stage 2 of the four-stage Rehabilitation and Release into the Wild Program. This decision was made in hopes of speeding up the release program by producing cubs earlier that are suitable for a wild release.

According to our release program protocol it is intended that lions released into Stage 2 are of a much younger age than those in Ngamo (6ys +).  Again, this situation of older lions in a stage two release area is as a result of funding deficiencies to have been able to release them earlier.  Younger pride groups mimic those that are pushed out of a natal pride territory in the wild and are forced to establish their own pride and territory. During Stage 2 pride stability and self-sufficiency is monitored in a small area before a release into the larger Stage 3 where pride members have reached adequate reproductive age (4-6yrs).

We have considered that the Ngamo release site area is not of adequate size and this too may have created issues regarding maternal and infanticidal behaviour.

We are also considering leaving Athena in the pride but instigating a contraceptive program for the breeding females within the Ngamo pride until such time that funding is available to relocate the pride to a stage three area.  We have secured land for our first stage three release site yet are hindered by a lack of funding to proceed further. We are constantly seeking out new ventures to source funding and are forever grateful to our long-standing followers and contributors.

Our progress in gaining funds is continually compromised by unfounded accusations presented by others, such as the unjustified allegation of our involvement in the barbaric canned hunting industry. We have always welcomed those who question our procedures, ethics and credibility to discuss their questions with us further and allow us to prove our dedication to facilitation of viable lion population management plans. Unfortunately many prefer to judge and accuse from a distance; unaware that their accusations that the program is not proceeding as fast as they would like, combined with fabrications about providing lions to be hunted are hampering ALERT’s progress in lion conservation as a whole through our holistic approach that goes far beyond the lion release program from a captive source.

ALERT and its partners have overcome many obstacles and challenges over the years as we seek to develop a viable program to reintroduce lions back into the wild from a captive source, and despite this current confusing situation we will continue our efforts to save the Africa lion, possibly making difficult choices along the way, and thank all those who continue to support us in doing so.


Bertram B. 1975. Social Factors Influencing Reproduction in Wild Lions. Journal of Zoology (London), Vol 177, pp. 463

Mosser A. & Packer C. 2009. Group territoriality and the benefits of sociality in the African lion, Panthera leo. Animal Bheaviour, Vol 78, pp. 359

Packer C., et al. 2001. Egalitarianism in Female African Lions. Science, Vol 293, pp. 690

Packer C., et al. 1990. Why Lions Form Groups: Food Is Not Enough. The American Naturalist, Vol 136, Issue 1, pp. 1

Packer C., et al. 1988. Reproductive success of lions. Reproductive Success: Studies of Individual Variation in Contrasting Breeding Systems. Pp. 363. University of Chicago Press, London

Schaller G. 1972. Serengeti Lion; A Study of Predator-Prey Relations. University of Chicago Press, London

Schmalz-Peixoto K. 2003. Factors Affecting Breeding in Captive Carnivora. University of Oxford, D. Phil Thesis

Van Orsdol K., et al. 1985. Ecological correlates of lion social organisation. Journal of Zoology (London), Vol 206, pp. 97





3 responses

12 10 2011

Reading this made laugh and cry and understand why there is an element of confusion.

It’s so very sad that there is only one cub left and not knowing 100% why must be very frustrating. It appears that several cubs have been born into this pride but only one, AT1, has survived and the loss of the others unknown. I didn’t realise that there is only a 30 – 50% chance of cubs surviving in the wild – that is a very low percentage.

If Athena is removed from the pride, is it possible for her to be reintroduced back into the pride at a later date? You say that AT1 is still dependant on her, what are potential risks to AT1 if Athena is removed? As it is vitally important to ensure that AT1 does not become too high a risk herself. If you suspect that Phyre may have had a litter earlier in the year, is it possible that some Lionesses do not make “good Mothers”?

I certainly don’t think that “any mistakes/failures” have been made on your part and this is as you put it “world’s first”. There are bound to things that happen that you do not have answers for – this is nature, but with the research that you continue to do shows that you are exploring all avenues of concern and that you are very active in trying to find a solution to “making sense of it all.”

You have done and continue to do a wonderful job. Good luck and I am keeping my fingers and toes crossed and praying that Phyre’s remaining cub survives.

12 10 2011
Joyce Kinton

Im so sorry the latest news isnt good….
Lions like any other animal facing extiction have to be allowed to live their lives in the “Wild”, yet keeping such a record of their comings and goings Im sure has helped those who seek only to keep these majestic animals to survive…
I do hope funds can be found for those who have made this study their lives and consequently helping to maintain the numbers of the prides…..

13 10 2011
Jan Caire

Thank you for your detailed update. It must, indeed, be very difficult to understand and witness what has been happening in the pride. You also have difficult decisions to make – leave things as they are and perhaps the viable cub rate will continue to be very low or remove Athena and risk losing AT1 – it would seem the contraception idea could be the best unless Kenge or Ashanti have cubs that survive. You are all doing a great job and the knowledge that is now gained will help future lions. Good luck –

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