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!





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!





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…





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!





Introducing…

17 01 2012

 

On 10th January Phyre, Kwali, Nala, Narnia, Ashanti, AT1, KE, KE3 and KE4 were all resting in Etosha.  Our researcher was disappointed to see Ashanti present again with the group as for the past few days she has been spending a lot of time with the pride, causing concern about the amount of time she is absent from her cubs in their den.  Hopefully she is returning to her den outside of our research hours, or during the night to feed her young.  Kenge, appearing to be a slightly more attentive mother, was resting nearby with KE3 and KE4 and the cubs suckled from Ashanti occasionally giving Kenge a bit of a break.

The pride spent the whole day lazing about except, that is, for KE3 and KE4 who were trying to get AT1 to join in with passing the time as the adults slept.  AT1 looked unsure of what to do as the cubs clambered over her and ran through her legs and she tried to pick up one of the pesky playmates in her mouth before they got away. Clearly uncomfortable with the whole situation, AT1 moved and sat a few metres away from them and let them continue making their own fun.  As the evening arrived the lions slowly started to wake.  Kenge stood up and began walking and slowly, one by one, the others followed.  Milo stayed behind for a few moments with his cubs but then shortly caught up with everyone.

The pride crossed the width of the site travelling though Serengeti East and Hwange before finally stopping in The Valley.  We were intrigued as to the reason for their long walk, perhaps they were hunting or looking for something, but when they finally came to rest it seemed that there was no obvious reason for the procession.  It could be that they were patrolling their territory or perhaps they just simply fancied a nice evening stroll but on this occasion it seems only the lions will know. 

The next day (11th January), following their long walk from the previous day, Phyre, Kwali, Nala, Narnia, AT1, Kenge, KE3&4 and Milo had all returned to Etosha.  At first sighting of the lions we were relieved to see that Ashanti was not present suggesting that she was at her den looking after her cubs but when we caught a glimpse of her in the long grass worry began to set in. But the worry was to be short-lived as right beside her were her two cubs; fit, healthy and suckling mum. 

AS4 and AS5 played alongside KE3 and KE4 even managing to hold their own when Kenge’s cubs, being that little bit bigger, threw their miniature weight around and forced the pride’s newest members into play fighting.  However it seems that Ashanti’s two cubs may not be the newest additions to the Ngamo pride for very long because, as suspected, Phyre is indeed pregnant, estimating that she may give birth in mid-February.  The Ngamo release site is soon to become the Ngamo crèche! 

As the day drew on and Ashanti had returned her cubs to their den, KE3 and KE4 moved on to AT1 for their entertainment.  Playing with AT1’s tail, much to her annoyance, she slapped at KE4….who bravely slapped her back! Meanwhile KE3 practiced her early hunting tactics by ‘stalking’ Kwali when she was not looking.  However KE3 was not as daring as KE4 and when she reached Kwali she merely gave her a friendly head rub. Not to worry, she has plenty of time yet.

By Thursday (12th January) the lions were beginning to get rather hungry, having last eaten 6 days ago.  After spending the majority of their day resting in Kruger on their favourite anthill, Phyre, Ashanti, Kwali, Kenge, Nala, Narnia, AT1 and Milo all made their way towards waterhole 1.  It wasn’t too long before they were running and we followed quickly behind them to find out the source of the excitement.  It was impala, grazing in Masai Mara.  Unfortunately before the lions could plan their attack something spooked the impala and they ran off in the direction of Serengeti West.  The pride, a bit perplexed at their chance of a meal escaping them continued to sit in Masai Mara which is where we left them for the day, hoping they may be more successful through the night. 








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