Growing with pride

Sabi Sand · November 2018
By Ross Couper
Field Guide, Content Provider

The lions have been extremely active this month. The Mhangene pride is growing in size and they are gaining numbers, as there is a constant change within the pride families.

Here is a quick recap of what has been happening, at least of what we can understand. Of the four original Mhangene lionesses, there are now only three adult lionesses within the pride. We are unsure as to the disappearance of the fourth lioness, but it is probable that she met an untimely fate early in the year. The three adult lionesses have accepted a single lioness, which was part of their second litter, often referred to as the ‘Mhangene sub-adults’. This has been one very fortunate lioness, as acceptance into a pride after gaining independence rarely occurs. It has been interesting to watch the changes in behaviour within the pride when the older lionesses interact with the sub-adult lioness. Even though the sub-adult has been accepted it is noted that she is often the last to move in to feed on a carcass and rarely shows much bonding with the older lionesses, which generally would involve head rubbing or mutual grooming, strengthening bonds with the pride. The one interesting observation has been that the sub-adult is very accepting of the new cubs and often shows a great deal of affection to the younger cubs, and her tolerance levels seem far higher than the mothers as the young cubs bite her tail or use her as an obstacle whilst playing amongst each other.

A very interesting change, has been the acceptance of the Othawa male by the three adult Mhangene lionesses. In normal circumstances another adult male being in the same vicinity of young cubs would be a direct threat as the male would instinctively kill the cubs, since they are not biologically related and he would not want to spend energy ensuring that other lions’ genes will be passed on. Lionesses also will not be receptive to mating with a new male lion while they are nursing, so killing the cubs enables the male lion to procreate, ensuring his genes are with the generation of cubs whilst he reigns over the territory.

Two weeks ago, after following a single lioness track into the Sand River, it turned out that I was walking on the very same path that the lioness was using to return to her well concealed den-site. After standing still and listening for a few minutes before proceeding with following the tracks, I could hear the grunting sounds of newborn cubs. With a quick retreat to the vehicle, I maneuvered into the Sand River to conclusively see what I was hearing. As I ventured down into the dry riverbed, I noticed two lionesses lying on the sand not too far from where I had been tracking. I stopped and within a short period of time, a third lioness appeared out of the reed thickets with three very small cubs following closely behind her. Finding the lionesses was rewarding alone, but being able to say that you had found a den-site for the first time in your guiding career was truly a gem of a reward that will not easily be forgotten. As the cubs are now approximately two months old, they can now be viewed with strict protocols. This is a highlight and a unique opportunity to watch these cubs interacting with the older cubs and exploring their new surroundings.

Even though the male has no direct involvement in parental care of the cubs, the security of a territory is vital to the safe-keeping of the cubs until they reach sub-adulthood. Another facet to watch has been the interactive behavior of the Othawa male lion with the lionesses and the cubs. The cubs have yet to be seen moving close to the male. The handsome male will often snarl and growl at the cubs as they venture over to him with curiosity and often the snarl is enough of a warning to suggest it may not be a good idea to interact at all.

Now this is where is gets really interesting. The Matimba male coalition of two aging males continues to remain west of Singita and on occasion they move slightly east due to following the Othawa pride. The Othawa pride consists of three lionesses, three young cubs with an approximate age of six months, and to add further exciting news a new litter of cubs has been reported with one of the Othawa lionesses. There have been no visual signs of the cubs yet, thus indicating that they are too small to be moved at present.

So with all this happening the Matimba males seemingly ignore the roars from the Othawa male at present, however as the Othawa male spends a great deal of his time with the Mhangene lionesses which are currently moving in a small spectrum around the south eastern areas of Singita, this results in his roars being heard by the neighbouring Birmingham male lions which could result in some serious trouble if they move across further west to investigate the roars.

Until now, there has been a quietness amongst the demographics of the lions, however it could change overnight. I guess that is the wild for you, it can be cruel and kind, however we continue to relish being a part of it every day.

Mhangene lioness (photographed above) successfully hunts a warthog on her own, soon to be overpowered by the Othawa male. The male capitalises on staying with the females, knowing their success rate will only benefit him greatly as he gains the most from their food source due to his strength and size.

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