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.

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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…





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!





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!








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