A Day in the Life of Ngamo Cubs

25 02 2012

As lilacs and pinks flood the early morning sky a little cub gently licks the sparkling dew off a delicate grass blade.  Nearby, her brother, half-sisters, aunts, mother and father are settling in to watch the sun rise over the Ngamo release site.  After a sleepy night safely hidden in the den whilst the adults searched for prey through the darkness, our little cub stretches and steps out into the light.

When left alone in the den she and her siblings instinctually understand the protection provided by mum, dad and the pride has gone; all are on their best behaviour so as not to attract any unwanted attention from predators. Although there are no other large carnivores, elephant or buffalo in Ngamo the large resident snakes and frequent eagles pose a formidable threat to the young cubs when exposed and alone.

When the adults return, dropping the safety net over their cubs, playtime can commence.

The now golden morning rays descend upon the pride and the cubs of the Ngamo crèche come to life with a bang.  Mock-battles rage as tails are pulled and paws are bitten; its every cub for themselves. Play bouts amongst the youngsters may appear as mere fun, but these interactions are crucial for their development.   So what sort of play will this young female cub engage in today? Perhaps some social play with her brother in the morning, followed by a lunch time of object play with a mean looking bush, a quick spot of predatory play upon some unsuspecting guinea fowl and finish the day off with some locomotory play by running as fast as she can through the bush to beat everyone else!

Research of wild prides has shown lion cubs engage in and exhibit social play more often than any other play type. This type, often the most conspicuous, helps cubs form and maintain social bonds vital for adulthood within a pride. Other young felids, such as cheetah cubs, engage in locomotory play far more often than social play as a means of improving neuromuscular development and to aid flight response. Cheetah cubs are often at an even higher risk of predation than lion cubs, often from lions; therefore it is vital their cubs are able to flee quickly enough from a young age. Yet the kings of the jungle can afford to mess around socially with one another, within the safety of the pride,  as no one messes with mum and dad!

After a tiring day of play, and finally waking up the adults, its time for a thorough bath and a good feed.  Our little cub flops down upon her mothers fore paws and grasps her face to greet her. Mother begins to lick her cub from head to tail removing any ticks and dirt picked up during the day and cementing further the bond between mother and daughter

Once fresh and clean the Ngamo cub expresses her hunger with ear piercing cries and eventually convinces mum to roll over so she can have dinner.  The cub fights for her place to tuck into a fantastically healthy meal of mother’s milk bursting from her teats, sustained after her own huge zebra meal from the day before.

Once contently full the Ngamo cub snuggles into her mothers chest licking her lips and paws before slowly drifting off into a deep catnap…





AWOL

21 02 2012

One may presume that tracking and locating a group of adult lions with an estimated combined weight of 1000 kgs is a piece of cake – well you’d be VERY wrong.  Although more than often our researcher can predict the prides location based upon their behaviour and the previous day’s events, there are some days when research becomes like finding needles in a haystack.  On the 17th after a long hours’ search we found the females and toddlers resting upon Route 66 close to Leopard Tree.

It wasn’t long however before the females were once again up and began prowling the Tree Tops area leaving the cubs behind in the tall grass.  Unfortunately for the avid huntresses though Kenge’s 2 little (and awfully loud!) cubs are now at a very mobile and curious age following the pride wherever they go, including hunts. Although it is fantastic to see the 2 little cubs integrate even further into pride life their often-piercing cries and play bouts do muck up the lionesses hunting opportunities at times!

On the 19th we located Milo in Amboseli who appeared to be in the same boat as our research team-looking for the elusive females. He struck the most regal of poses, sniffing the morning breeze indicating the females were perhaps in the Maasai Mara area upwind of Sir.  But we didn’t find them.  The next day and after two even longer hours searching we spotted the girls resting off the beaten track in Maasai Mara causing a serious anxiety spin for some nearby impala. After an early morning slumber the lionesses rose reluctantly to their paws and headed off towards WH1 in search of some game and most likely going AWOL again before the next research session!





When the hunter becomes the hunted

19 02 2012

We’ve begun to catch the Ngamo lions being fairly active during midday hours these last few days. With no large kill made for a week it appears the girls are beginning to try their luck within their normal sleeping hours for hunting opportunities.  On the 16th we stumbled across Nala at water hole 2 stalking some nearby impala and zebra. At first we suspected sister Narnia to be in the area also locked onto the herd, however it soon became apparent Nala as on her own hunting mission.  As the game began to move off into Etosha, Nala broke her cover and stealthily glided close past our vehicle, muscles twitching with anticipation.

The herd, still contently grazing, moved behind a small thicket creating a perfect ambush opportunity for Nala. Nala decided to take advantage of the cover and began to move in closer upon them. Unfortunately though one pesky impala had spotted her. The impala quickly alerted her fellow herd members and all fled in unison.

Appearing most frustrated Nala turned abruptly on her heels in the opposite direction and headed into Serengeti East. Little did the miffed lioness realise though that the hunter had become the hunted. The large impala herd followed Nala closely as she skulked away into the grass. The zebra snorted whilst the impala scraped their hooves upon the ground defensively. Following a predator and making themselves visible may seem a foolish move, but a predator you can see is far less dangerous than one you cannot!





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)





Phyre on fire

12 02 2012

Mothers Kenge and Ashanti have obviously had enough of their cub’s endless energy and, in need of break, left their cubs in a den on the 9th.  The females, free of interruptions from demanding cubs, slept soundly and undisturbed for most of the day before setting off upon their daily rounds in the late afternoon. Nala and Narnia lead the way south from the Kruger area into Etosha and all sleepily followed. However something suddenly woke Phyre up as she leapt in the air with a startled growl. Nala turned back to Phyre’s rescue to investigate the disturbance and bare her canines at whatever it was on the ground causing such a reaction. Eventually the lionesses lost interest and AT1 curiously approached too before catching up with the parade leading away. We pulled our vehicle up to where Phyre was given a shock, and where we suspected there was a snake of some sort.  We were bang on the money!  A 3-meter rock python spread out from his coils.  We’ve seen a few pythons in the release site over the past year and a half and although they are impressive they pose a serious threat to young cubs.  It’s therefore great to see the caution the lionesses use when approaching these monster snakes.

The 10th started off with a spark and ended with a bang for the pride. We found the females moving through Serengeti East towards water hole 2 in pursuit of a large impala herd. The females, downwind, formed a perfect linear formation, hidden in the tall grass, some 100m from the herd and watched intently their prey’s movements.  Unfortunately the herd began to move further off towards water hole 1 and the lionesses obviously felt this time the odds were against them and took to some nearby acacia’s to sleep. However unbeknown to them a very young impala calf had been left by their mother some 70m from the pride. We watched with baited breath the entire day as the calf continuously rose and broke its cover, yet no lions spotted it.

By the afternoon we could no longer see the calf and the pride began to move off south along Route 66 with Kenge leading. As Kenge passed through an area of very tall grass Nala took up the rear and suddenly began to stalk. We spotted a lone impala, which we presumed to be the calf’s mother in the area and it seemed Nala was hot on her case. Then out of nowhere Nala and Phyre shot like a bullet over the open grass of the Camp area in pursuit of the previously seen impala calf!  The calf circled frantically trying to out run the hungry lionesses but all in vain. Phyre closed in upon the little lamb and grabbed it by the neck. She then sprinted away from the other startled pride members but Ashanti, Kenge and Kwali were not about to let a potential mouthful go to waste. The females scuffled momentarily over the catch and Kenge, Kwali, Ashanti and Phyre all managed to split the calf adequately. Most surprising was Milo’s reaction. He jogged over to the girls but rather than throwing his weight around as usual for a bite he merely sniffed at those with meat and moved off to wait until they had finished!

To no ones surprise not even a hoof was left for the rest of pride. By the time the lucky females began to clean themselves up the mini-Ngamo pride arrived. KE3, KE4, AS4 and AS5 ran frantically to Kenge and began to lick the blood from her whiskers. They had obviously heard the commotion and braved leaving the den alone in hopes of catching a meaty meal. However they had to make do with another milk-based dinner from Ashanti.

All must have been grateful for Phyre’s quick thinking and moves!





One of our tortoises is missing…

8 02 2012

It has been alarmingly dry over December and January. Although we do not want a repeat of last years flooding the Ngamo vegetation has been in dire need of a shower or two. Thankfully our calls have been answered and the December rains have finally appeared in February.

We found the pride in the northern area of Etosha on the 3rd, which appears to have become the new play area for the Ngamo cubs, and all were still finishing off breakfast.  By the afternoon, after another sweltering day, we found Milo panting in the shade of a small tree in the Camp area. We were unable to locate the rest of pride who had no doubt gone to also seek shade too, so spent the research session sympathetically watching Milo and his huge mane in the heat. Fortunately for Milo by 17:30 a thunderous storm cell was forming above Ngamo and in a matter of minutes the heavens opened up. The rain quite literally washed our research vehicle away as we tried to race away from the impending lightening.

We observed an unsuccessful hunt by the lionesses on the 5th, although we must point out, little AS5 had decided to tag along with mum and his incessant cries probably did the hunt no favors. Ironically though it was he and the rest of the mini-Ngamo members that showed the adults what for by taking out and devouring (partly) a tortoise on the 6th. We found AS4 knawing on the little teenage mutant ninja tortoise’s leg but we suspect that it was AT1 who perhaps caught and killed the reptile. Despite AS4’s best efforts she is not quite strong enough at 3 months old to break open a tortoise shell on her own. Still though, our hats go off to the little cubs!





Ribs for mini-Milo

4 02 2012

Thanks to a fairly cool and damp night tracking the Ngamo pride the following morning was a doddle on the 31st. Our researcher and volunteers soon spotted fresh tracks, of all sizes, heading north towards water hole 1 and followed in pursuit. To no surprise we found the whole pride resting next to the lush water hole.

We’ve begun to notice that although crucial to cub development there appears to be some unfair suckling occurring within the little Ngamo crèche. On a daily basis we are observing Ashanti suckling all four cubs, often simultaneously and showing no signs of rebuffing Kenge’s cubs. Kenge on the other hand often puts little AS4 and 5 in their place when attempting to suckle her, and gives priority to her own cubs.

Allo-suckling is just one of the advantages cubs benefit from when within a crèche, however these incidents are more down to cheeky cubs stealing a free meal than a lioness feeling maternal towards the cubs of other mothers. As a result of her willingness to suckle all four cubs often Ashanti has begun to lose weight quite quickly. If she were to lose a drastic amount she would soon stop producing milk leaving her own two younger cubs in quite a predicament.   However, after contemplating this Ashanti and the pride put our researcher’s concerns to rest (yet again) as all were found on a demolished zebra kill on the 1st.  Only Milo, Ashanti, Kenge and cubs were still feeding whilst the others were presumed to have left to go and drink. Whilst Milo huffed and puffed over his meal mini-Milo (AS5) was fully enjoying having ribs for breakfast!

Eventually the pride regrouped by water hole 2 and we were very pleased to see KE3 and 4 have their fill from their own mother.








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