Confusing times

7 10 2011

There has been unrest in the release site over the last few days.  After Phyre relocated her litter on Monday (3 October) to a new den, the cubs were seen suckling their mother on Wednesday and Thursday.  However, only two cubs were counted during these time periods. Upon moving her first cub to the new den some 500 metres away, the rest of the litter were left unattended and Phyre was later seen moving another cub to the new den.  AT1 was observed on Monday carrying a cub around and playing with it quite some distance away from either the original or new den.  Is it possible that AT1 stumbled across the den whilst Phyre was away, and the playful AT1 thought that this new cub would be a great friend to play with?  However, her actions may have dire consequences; as AT1 becomes distracted with some other interesting stimulus and leaves the cub to fend for itself without a mother around to know of its location – blind, helpless and only a day or so old, the cub stands no chance to survive on its own, especially with the relentless rain and wind.   This third cub could also have been abandoned by Phyre because some instinctual awareness told her that this particular cub is unhealthy or unfit in some way – we will never know for sure, however Phyre has made no attempt to look or call for her third and missing cub.  Mothers of many species will abandon sick offspring if they do not think that it would be worth the precious time and resources to raise it only for it to die within a few days or weeks.  All we know at this point is that Phyre has two cubs with her, and seemingly AT1 has the third as a play thing.

We have not been able to confirm the location of Kenge’s den site yet as much of the release site is inaccessible by vehicle, especially when the roads become muddy.  It is likely that Kenge is busy preparing herself for her probable motherhood with the aid of her sister Kwali, who also was absent from the rest of the pride on Thursday.

Most of the lions have been spending their time on Wednesday and Thursday feeding intermittently on the carcass.  After the incident on Tuesday when Kenge attacked a vulture mid-air, the rest of the vultures seemed to have learnt their lesson and have stayed away whilst the lions are in residence.   However, the usually intelligent crows do not appear to have been deterred, leaving Athena no choice but to chase after them when they get too close to the food.

By Thursday, most of the scavengers had finally given up, leaving Athena in peace and quiet to attend to her lunch.  As she tried to drag the carcass around to access a yummy portion of ribs, she appeared to not realise her own strength and with one pull managed to haul the entire chest over herself, falling into the huge cavern of ribcage!  This did not seem to bother her one bit, as she continued on munching away as if nothing had ever happened.

As the sun was setting AT1 was seen with the cub again; and this time it suckled Athena alongside AT1.  Athena got up to move away from the area and called softly.  AT1 picked up the cub and started to follow but soon dropped it again.  After about 5 mins Phyre arrived, went to the calling cub and sniffed it then went straight to AT1 to biff her.  We thought she’d come to save the day but she started to walk off towards her den without the cub; but then stopped, turned around and walked back to the carcass, still paying little attention to the cub; further suggesting that Phyre may have abandoned this one.  The night closed in and we are not sure what further events took place as there was insufficient light to establish which lion was which or where the cub was.


The rain comes: moving day for the cubs

5 10 2011

The last few days have been very chaotic for both the pride and researchers.  With Phyre attending to her new cubs and Kenge currently off to den, the rest of the group appeared to be scattered and indecisive.  The researchers spotted individual and pairs of lions all across the release site on both Monday (3 October) and Tuesday (4 October), with many of the pride not staying long in any one location.  The weather has probably got a lot to do with this restless behaviour, as the rains arrived on Monday, causing the temperature to drop and bringing more energy to the usually sedentary lions during the middle of the day.

The rains have also possibly been the cause of Phyre moving her cubs from a dense thicket near Route 66 to a rocky thicket in Serengeti East, which, coincidentally enough, just happens to be exactly the same spot where AT1 spent much of the start of her life.  As the storms can be prolonged and heavy, it is a good decision for Phyre to transfer her precious offspring to an area that will not become thick with sticky mud.  The cubs were spotted again on Tuesday suckling from a very sleepy mother – it must sap a lot of energy looking after continually hungry kids!

By Tuesday afternoon the whole pride were found in Serengeti East close to the carcass of a giraffe that had recently died of natural causes.  It came as a bit of a surprise to the researchers to see both Phyre and Kenge present at the kill, the latter of whom looked like her tummy had shrunk somewhat from the last time she was spotted.  This indicates that she has probably given birth, but we are not sure of her den location nor of the number of cubs that have been born yet.  She appeared to be absolutely famished as she gulped down as much of the giraffe carcass as she possibly could with a surprisingly calm Milo next to her.  Does he know that she has recently given birth to his cubs and therefore allowed her to feed next to him so that she could have enough energy reserves to go back and attend to their offspring?

Just before the end of the research session, vultures started to descend onto one part of the carcass that was located in the shade of some trees about 70 m from the pride.  Ashanti scoured the sky and drew her gaze down to the location that the vultures appeared to be dropping into.  She then got up and started to walk towards the vultures, with Kenge and Milo quick to follow.  They broke out into a run and chased the scavengers away.  One of the poor vultures was a bit too slow to get off the ground, however, and was taken down by the surprisingly energetic Kenge!  She went over to sniff the dying bird and the researchers wondered whether she would eat it.  It appeared that giraffe tastes much better than vulture though as she left it on the ground for Milo and Kwali to take a closer look.  None of the lions took much interest in it and decided to go back to the tasty giraffe.  As the researchers approached, they noticed the vulture was still breathing as it lay on the ground and hoped that it would not be in pain for much longer.

As the sun began to set over the release site, Phyre decided to return to her cubs after getting her fill from the carcass.  It was nice to see that Kwali has not given up her role as maternity nurse, as she was spotted following closely behind Phyre.

When AT1 met her cousin

25 06 2011

We’ve had yet another 2 successful zebra kills in Ngamo in the past 4 days. We found most pride members by the first kill on 21st June in the Etosha area. As usual Milo was observed throwing his weight around chasing off the females whilst AT1 tumbled over the discarded zebra legs and ribs in glee.

Telemetry signal indicated both Ashanti and Kwali were still located in the Hwange area, presumably by Ashanti’s den and cubs. Later on in the day though we caught sight of Kwali feeding upon the days left over’s after the others had left. We had no visual of Ashanti but heard her calling softly to her pride members from the direction of water hole 1. Kwali’s ears pricked up and immediately she ran to her friend’s beck and call taking with her a zebra leg perhaps for the two to share! We presumed Ashanti to have fed at some point upon the carcass. With suckling a litter of 3 she will be rapidly losing energy and fat reserves so must make the most of the food she finds when leaving the den.

On the 23rd we found the 2nd zebra kill in the Valley area. It appeared once again we had just missed the action by minutes. It was a blood-splattered Athena who led us to the scene of 8 frenzied lions feeding. All pride members were accounted for and a visual of Ashanti showed her to be in fantastic condition and obviously suckling.

We returned to the kill site during our mid-morning research session for quite a shock. Whilst it appeared the other pride members had moved off to drink, Athena and Ashanti slept off their breakfast in the shade of the thicket the zebra had been dragged into. As usual AT1 was still wide-awake and full of energy but it seemed she finally had a playmate. A piercing squeal was heard from nearby to AT1’s position and a tiny little cub popped out from the grass. Our research team was stunned. We watched in awe as little AT1, 5-6kgs heavier than the cub gently play with her approximately 2-week-old cousin. We were initially concerned AT1’s size and energy may be too much for the newborn, even at just 5 months old AT1 could easily sustain serious injury to the cub. Occasionally the cub, which we suspect to be male and provisionally named ASM1, would cry out if his cousin played too rough and both Ashanti and Athena would sit-up to attention.

As the hours passed we observed the little cub begin to suckle from his aunt Athena alongside cousin AT1. This behaviour is typical of those cubs and females within a crèche. Females with cubs will pool their litters together to primarily increase cub defense, though other benefits include engaging in play with peers and increased suckling opportunities. Athena was observed occasionally grooming her nephew affectionately whilst mum slept close-by. We suspect the relation between Ashanti and Athena may be indicative of Athena’s acceptance of this cub.

As fantastic and stunning as this visual was we are concerned that the cub was very close to a recently made kill and any lions returning to feed may cause injury to the vulnerable new born. We are also aware that there was no sign of the other 2 cubs seen in a previous den. It seemed odd for Ashanti to only move one cub to potentially a new den.

We will be keeping a close eye out for the other 2 cubs and monitoring crèche development amongst these females and would remind readers that this is Ashanti’s first ever litter and is likely to have similar mortality as previously observed..

The milk run

22 06 2011

Cubs are persistent in their demand for nourishing milk, and AT1 is no exception.  We have observed 87 attempts to suckle since AT1 permanently joined the pride, although it must be noted that there will have been many more, but mother and daughter are often hidden away during such intimate moments.  Of these 87 attempts AT1 found that mum had closed the bar on 9 occasions and she had to go hungry.

Of the times when Athena was more agreeable to having some sharp teeth clamped to her nipple (cubs are vigourous when feeding), these were spread through the day as follows.  Bear in mind that we have not tried to observe suckling on a 24 hour basis, so time blocks only correspond with principle research sessions and cannot be seen as being the distribution of suckling throughout an entire day.  Studies of lions in the Serengeti showed that whilst suckling could take place at any time of day, this was more likely just after dawn and just before dusk.  In our observations the dawn session seems more popular.

The same Serengeti study showed that suckling bouts lasted 1 – 10 minutes, up to 20.  For AT1 she averages 5 minutes and 23 seconds, spread as shown.   However in June there has been a sharp decrease to an average of only 4 minutes and 28 seconds per suckle.

Females may start to stop producing milk when cubs are 5 – 6 months old, but most retain at least some milk for 7 to 8 months.  AT1 is now 5 months old and the weaning process is starting as meat becomes the more important element of her diet.  She will continue to suckle for some time, even if no milk is achieved as a means of social contact, until, at some point, mum firmly puts a stop to the milk run.

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