lions

Smart cats

Before we even got to Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park last October, for some reason, Lola and Frank had convinced their Spanish friends that we were good at spotting lions! Although my wife is good at spotting any game -including lions if they are around- I was somehow taken aback by being attributed such a fame that generated baseless expectations… maybe I oversold myself…

So, when we arrived at Twee Rivieren there were anticipations and I was overwhelmed by the responsibility that had landed on my shoulders…

Luckily for me, it was the visitors themselves that found the lions. Well, at least they overheard the whereabouts of the lions! So, all we needed to do was to follow our visitors’ advice to find them and in this way avoid a sure embarrassment!

The lions in question (two males) were, of all places, about one hundred metres outside the camp gates and, according to our night safari guide, these pair come to this area every few weeks so we were fortunate to see them.

The predators were near the camp’s waterhole where they had killed a gemsbok a few days back so we set off to find them as soon as we had an opportunity.

It was not hard to find them as, in addition to the gemsbok that we did not see, the night before they had also killed a wildebeest and the latest kill was rather obvious!

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The kill happened very near the camp. Behind is Twin rivers staff accommodation on the Botswana side of the park.

Apparently, the cunning cats have learnt to use the strong camp fence in their favour by cornering their prey against it. Clearly this had happened in this instance as the victim was still somehow entangled in the fence where first one and soon both were seen feeding.

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First blood

To witness a lion kill is, despite its perceived cruelty, a highlight for the safari lover. We have been lucky to witness several kills and many more attempted kills during the many years that we have visited the bush. But the first one is the one that remains most vividly imprinted in your mind, particularly if it happens in full view and you witness it from a few metres away.

It happened in the Maasai Mara in the early 80’s, during one of my first camping experiences with Paul. We happened to be driving along monitoring the wildebeest movements when we saw a zebra limping badly. At close quarters it was clear that the animal had -somehow- damaged a front leg. Aware that wounded animals did not last long because of the large predator population in the area, we decided to wait for a few hours to see what happened.

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We knew that a large pride lived in the area.

At some point the zebra -a group of 8 to 10- stopped grazing and started to move. We followed. I was at the time sitting on the roof rack to have a better view of the plains so it was me that spotted the reason for the zebra nervousness. They had spotted a lioness watching them from a distance. The intentions of the predator were clear as she was walking in a general direction that would -eventually- get to the group of zebras. Excited, I prepared my camera and waited.

After a while we realized that in fact there were several lionesses and that, somehow, we were in fact used as part of a pincer movement from the huntresses! After about thirty minutes slowly following the zebras, we saw them break into a trot and, before we could see much more, they were galloping so we moved faster while trying to anticipate the event.

Suddenly we saw that the hunted were trying to avoid a second lioness that, after moving for quite a distance through a donga [1], was cutting diagonally and at full speed towards them. Things were now accelerating and so did the car and my heart while I held on to the roof rack while trying not to lose my camera or falling off myself!

The zebra were now at full gallop when, suddenly, they scattered in all directions, I am sure that this had something to do with confusing the chasers. However, as expected, the injured zebra was the target, being slower than the rest so the lioness -now joined by two more some distance behind her- was closing in. So were we, despite the irregularity of the terrain that was no obstacle for our excitment!

Soon it was clear that, despite the zebra’s final spirited effort, the chase outcome was a foregone conclusion as soon as the lioness reached the zebra and managed to place one paw on its rump, the zebra lost its equilibrium and crashed down to the ground while the lioness immediately reached for its throat. Luckily there was lots of grass and no dust so we could observe the action clearly. After a few seconds another lioness arrived and helped the first one to anchored the zebra down.

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My first picture from the moving car shows the moment the second lioness joins the kill. A third one is seen coming in the background.

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A better photo once we stopped.

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A better take once we stopped.

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Mesmerized by what I was watching and photographing, I was still on the roof rack by the time we stopped to watch them only a few metres from them! Although they were clearly not interested in me, somehow I managed to dive into the car through the open window (not easily done with the sliding window of a Series II Land Rover but clearly possible under duress!). Once inside, I continue to watch the action and take more picturees. We were both speechless while more lions kept coming from various places to join the kill.

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The arrival of the male. The white foggy marks are the windscreen wipers.

My romantic view that a lion kill was a clinical affair where the victim dies fast and in shock was shattered. The zebra took several minutes to die, while the whole lion pride arrived and some of them started to lick it while the animal was clearly alive although in deep shock by now. Eventually it expired and we were fortunate to have enough time to observe the interaction of the various members of the pride, including the arrival of the male that came “straight to the kill” and scattered all others while positioning himself near the hindquarters, ready to enjoy the best cuts!

We only left the scene at nightfall as -luckily- we knew the area well. The lions -mainly the younger- were still feeding while most of the adults were now doing nothing but washing themselves and then resting belly-up. We heard the jackals and the hyenas starting to call and soon they were approaching to the carcass that, by now, was more than half eaten. Thinking on seeing how it would be the following morning, we memorized a few features to be able to come back to the area that happened to be outside the reserve.

The following morning, we arrived to the spot but had difficulties to find the kill. Only after a careful search we stumbled upon the zebra’s clean skull and a couple of bones. That was all that remained from what yesterday had been a living zebra! Luckily, about 500,000 migrated every year intermingled with the wildebeest so one less was not going to make too much of a difference!

 

[1] In Africa, a narrow steep-sided ravine formed by water erosion but usually dry except in the rainy season.

Bad lions

Sometimes, because of the amount of work I had, we could not travel far during weekends and even when going to a place relatively near, our arrival would get delayed. Short safaris of this kind included lakes Naivasha, Nakuru and Bogoria, Amboseli and the Aberdares. We had visited the Aberdares National Park on day trips earlier but these had only given us a very superficial view of the park. This time we planned to spend one night camping and to explore the park a bit more. Unfortunately I had work to do and we could not leave before lunchtime.

Reading our Kenya guide [1] had prepared us for what we would face and I quote: “Steeper, starker and with denser rainforest, the Aberdares (save for the South and North Kinangop) were less settled and farmed than Mount Kenya. For this reason too, they sheltered Mau Mau strongholds, kept flora and fauna intact… and so warranted preclusion as a 228 square-mile National Park in 1950.” Hoping that all the Mau Mau had gone by the time we arrived, we got some charcoal and fresh plums from the roadside vendors near Limuru and went on.

We drove on tarmac towards lake Naivasha and turned eastwards just in front of the Longonot volcano. More from our guide: “Rainfall -80 inches p.a.- makes the steep tracks often impassable… if rain or mist waylays you en route, do not despair: the ‘black cotton’ may spin your car uncontrollably but is seldom deep. So rather than dodge the wheelruts… grit your teeth and stay in them, hard in second gear. They will keep you moving roughly frontwards and, even when waterlogged, should not bog you down.” I enjoyed the author’s sense of humour and thought on the power of our kombi’s engine!

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The Aberdares mountains from afar.

By the time we reached South Kinangop it began to rain and things started to get tricky. All the guide had said was true to the point that turning around would have been a risky manoeuvre! So, as usual, aware that our kombi had a good clearance, we decided to continue and skidded along for the remaining distance until, rather late, we managed to arrive at the gate. I think it was the Matubio gate but I am not sure. Despite our tardy arrival, the ranger let us entered. He probably saw the car’s mud and our look of desperation and thought that we could do with a altruistic welcome!

He mentioned that there was a campsite nearby that we could occupy so we paid and went on, following his directions, hoping to find the campsite soon. We were still driving in the dark after 20 minutes so we realized that we had missed the recommended campsite. Luckily, the rain had stopped but the way was still slippery and slow. We pushed on looking for a suitable spot where to pitch our small tent (at that time we had purchased a second hand mountain tent that although suitable for this occasion, it left us rather “exposed” to the potential night visitors!).

Eventually we found a flat moor and decided that it would do. I started to manoeuvre the kombi careful, avoiding getting into the mud as much as possible until I considered it to be on level ground. I was about to leave the car when I heard a loud “Stop!” coming from my wife. I looked up and, in the headlights of the car, there were about 8 adult lions watching us. They looked rather huge and very white considering the heavy rain we had experienced. As they were also dry, it was clear that they had come out from their rainproof shelter very recently. They started to walk towards us, not the usual behaviour from lions, we thought!

There were four adults and four almost full-grown individuals. The latter were the ones showing the greater interest on us! “We better move off”, my wife said firmly and, almost before she finished her sentence, I was reversing the car, hoping that we were not on soggy ground. We managed to put some distance from the lions and they stopped coming so I turned around and we departed. We drove a few more km until we considered that we were sufficiently far from the lions and then we held a short discussion regarding our camping options. It went something like this: do you want to sleep in a tent?” I said. “No” was my wife reply. Another short family discussion leading to an immediate agreement!

I removed the back seat of the kombi and put it outside while my wife was heating up some pre-prepared food we had brought as we normally did to make our camping lives easier. We dined sitting at the floor of the car and, when we were ready to sleep, we placed our mattresses on the floor. The place looked almost comfortable! While the rain started again we got into our sleeping bags and dozed off almost immediately. I briefly thought about being bogged down the following morning but I was too tired to care and convinced myself -easily- that that would be tomorrow’s problem, and I was gone.

The cold woke me up after midnight! It was a chill that was coming from my back so I started to assess the situation when realized that my wife was also awake. “Did you hear the lions?” she asked. “I would have done if my teeth would not shatter so much” I replied. Then they roared again so near that I was amazed with myself at not having heard them earlier! I felt well as we were better better sheltered than we would have been inside our small tent! But our metal cage was incredibly cold! Eventually, we managed to stick some carton and newspapers between the metal floor and our backs and this, plus putting on all suitable clothes made the trick and soon the roaring faded and I woke up well after dawn, unusually without the need of a night visit to the toilet!

The rain not only had stopped but the sun was shining. A good look at the surrounding grassland did not reveal any lions so we could perform our postponed bodily functions, re-assembled the car seat and have a much needed breakfast under the sun. We felt well and decided to look for the lions now that there was good lighting. We drove backwards and forwards for a while but failed to see anything. Disappointed we decided to explore the park further and enjoyed its beautiful vistas and amazing waterfalls and rivers.

Soon it was time to start our return and, as usual, wishing that we could remain longer, we started our return. We had driven a few km when, as usual, my wife spotted something walking in the same direction we were driving. The animal was about 100m in front of us. We checked it with the binoculars and it was a black cat, smaller than a leopard! We drove slowly on and got a good view before it veered into the bush and disappeared. Its size and shape gave it away as a black caracal, an unusual sight.

We knew that melanistic animals did occur in the Kenya highlands and we had seen black Augurd buzzards earlier during the day.

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A melanistic Augurd buzzard in the Aberdares.

We had also heard about black leopards that were sometimes spotted there but the caracal was special!

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The only snapshot possible of the Black serval just before it disappeared.

Our Kenya guide, however, added some light to the find: “Besides golden cat, bongo and Giant forest hog, the Aberdares’ rarities are Black leopard, Black serval and Black genet… Spotted lions remain unquestionably a legend”. The guide did not mention whether “huge white lions” were also mythical as we were sure that the ones we found the night before were unspotted and real!

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A normal serval cat at Nairobi National Park.

Our trip back was dominated by the conversation about the lions and the Black serval. We enjoyed the good weather and we got to our house in Tigoni in good time. Days later, consulting other wildlife enthusiasts, we learnt that a number of “problem lions” that killed livestock had been relocated to the Aberdares and that this had sparked quite a degree of controversy as it made walking in the park a dangerous activity now. To make matters worse, it was believed that these lions were less wary of people than their “wild” relatives and were not afraid of approaching humans!

We were of course unaware of this bit of rather important information at the time of our visit and lucky we saw them before they found us! During late visits we spotted the lions again and they did not look as white and huge as the first time.

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Later we saw the warning signs.

[1] Tomkinson, M. (1981). Kenya, a holiday guide. Ernest Benn Ltd, London. 144p.

Camping in Kenya. Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

We “learnt” lots of the secrets of camping in Africa from our friend Paul, another veterinarian working at Muguga, Kenya. Soon we had broken the barrier of “camping among the beasts” as most campsites in Kenya were unfenced. We often visited Paul during his long spells residing in the bush while working in the various national parks and/or in the fringes of parks and game reserves.

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One of Paul’s camp sites in the Maasai Mara. His camp hand Tobias is on the left.

It was great fun and we soon started to go at it alone. Preparations included the procurement of a few second hand camping items that, apart from a small tent, a couple of chairs and a foldable table, included a large frying pan with an extremely long handle, as my wife did not and still does not enjoy cooking at the fire. For working purposes, I could use a large ICIPE tent that added great comfort to our outdoor lives.

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While in Kenya we practiced “basic” camping!

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Working camping was still basic but we had the advantage of a large tent.

Our most frequent camping destination was the Maasai Mara where not only Paul often worked but it was an area I needed to drive through on my way to Intona ranch in the Transmara where I was working with ticks and tick-borne diseases as explained earlier[1]. Luckily my work took us there regularly as I needed to supervise the on-going observations as as well as to bring new personnel to be stationed at the ranch.

Camping in the Maasai Mara very often involved close encounters with different animals and you needed to be alert at all times as elephants and buffalo were present in large numbers, in addition to the normal and harmless savanna dwellers such as giraffe and the various antelopes. Although leopards were quite rare, the place was a predators’ playground.

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Near Kichwa Tembo Camp, Maasai Mara.

The Mara-Serengeti area is world famous for the annual migration of wildebeest and zebra and luckily we witnessed this unique event several years (in fact we watched it every year while in Kenya!). The richness of easy prey is matched by an equal abundance of predators. Lions were a common find and spotted hyenas were really plentiful. So, our camping regularly had some exciting moments, particularly after dark!

From the start we learnt that we were safe (well, as safe as we could be) while inside our tents and we were always extremely careful when moving around camp, particularly when light started to fade. Although some friends preferred to keep fires burning all night, we did not but whether this has an effect on nocturnal visitors I do not know. All I know is that rhinos are believed to stamp out campfires, a fact I could not corroborate as rhinos were already few in the 80’s[2].

Helen was the daughter of a well-known veterinarian from the UK that had come to spend some time in Kenya[3]. We met her at a social event and, as she was looking for opportunities to travel around, I invited her to join my wife and I on one of our regular trips to the Transmara. She immediately accepted the offer.

So, as arranged, we picked Helen up one early morning as the journey was a long one over rough roads and we wanted to arrive to the shores of the Mara River, adjacent to the Maasai Mara, early as this would enable us to go for a short game drive with Helen.

I had an agreement with the Mara Buffalo Camp to stay close to them and I was also kindly allowed to use their facilities. Usually we would arrive at our Mara margin campsite with just enough light left to set-up camp, dine and go to bed. Sometimes our departure from Muguga would get delayed and we would arrive after dark and needed to set up our tent with the car lights!

We would then spend the following day driving to Intona where we would usually camp in the ranch for two or three nights while the work was done and return without stopping all the way back to Nairobi because I had another on-going trial in Muguga and time was quite short.

The journey with Helen went as planned and we arrived in good time. After setting up camp, by mid afternoon we went for a game drive to show some of the beautiful Maasai Mara and its animals to her. We saw most of the usual plains game but failed to find any predators, apart from the ubiquitous spotted hyenas that were extremely common in the area.

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A spotted hyena dealing with a wildebeest carcass.

Tired from the long journey and the additional game drive, our dinner was a quick affair and we were in our tents rather early as we had another journey the following day whose duration was difficult to predict as we needed to negotiate some bad roads that were often muddy and slippery.

While laying on our camp beds, as usual, the lions started to roar far away and we called Helen’s attention towards them. She was very excited to hear them but soon our exchanges got interrupted by sleep.

I am not sure at what time the lions’ roars woke us up but probably it was midnight or perhaps later. We could hear several lions getting closer as their growls gradually got louder. We estimated that they were probably coming along the river although we could not be sure. I did not wish to open the tent door to have a look for fear of attracting unwanted attention so we could only imagine the lions approaching our camp!

After a few more minutes of stillness during which my wife and I waited with bated breath, the visitors arrived, preceded by loud roaring a few seconds earlier and followed by the noise of “flying hooves”. The rumpus did not last more than a couple of minutes as, apparently, the lions were -we also assumed- going for a herd of zebra and/or wildebeest although we did not hear them calling. We did hear a few items being knocked over in the process and then the animals left, luckily.

Only then we remembered Helen! We shouted at her telling her not to move from her tent but, although we tried to get an answer from her, we failed. Concerned, I shone the torch in the direction of her tent and I was relieved to see that it was still intact although I could confirm that some of our belongings had indeed suffered the consequences of the tresspasers!

As the animals moved off, we gradually relaxed and decided to leave things for the morrow as Helen was surely fine and tidying up the camp could wait. I only hoped that she would not decide to go to the toilet before daylight. So it was back to a rather fitful sleep but nothing else disturbed us that night.

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The Oloololo escarpment as a spectacular backdrop for a zebra herd, Maasai Mara.

The following morning, while water was on the fire, we gathered table, chairs, towels and a few other minor items while we checked the abundant footprints in an attempt to unravel the events of the night. The conclusion was that several lions had been there chasing zebras through our camp as we failed to find wildebeest prints. The kill, if any, had taken place somewhere else and we decided to look for it afterwards on our way to Intona.

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One of the prides resident near our camping area in the Maasai Mara.

While we were busy around camp, we heard “Good morning” and we saw Helen emerging from her small tent. Only at that point I paid attention to her tent and felt relieved that it was still intact. It was one of these mountaineering jobs, low on the ground and of a bright blue colour! Helen looked well rested and asked us what we were doing. “We are looking at the spoor, trying to understand what happened last night” I replied. Helen gave me a look of confusion and said: “why, what happened? I slept all night and even did not go to the toilet!”

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A male lion feeding on a topi kill at the Maasai Mara.

I was quite relieved by her ignorance of the facts and felt tempted not to say anything but I thought the truth should be voiced so I told her the whole story. Her eyes got larger as I talked and at first she had doubts about my story so I had to show her the footprints of the various animals and, eventually, she believed me and she was both concerned but also disappointed to have missed the action!

Although we took a detour looking for a possible kill nearby, we failed to find any traces of neither prey nor predators, although we knew they were watching us!

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A zebra kill at the Maasai Mara.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/life-and-work-in-kenya-intona-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] I leave the research about whether this is true or not to you as Google does not seem to give a straight answer.

[3] Years later, her father was the External examiner of my PhD Thesis.

Predators’ Eden

Having stressed the negative consequences of a drought like the one the Kruger National Park is going through in the previous post (3/10/16) it is now the time to mention one of the positive aspects of this situation for the game-spotter.

The lack of grass transformed the thicket into a very dry wooded savannah. In addition, the riverine areas that usually offer some cover to herbivores were now denuded from a lot of the vegetation so there was a lot of visibility. Most animals were near the river as most need to drink regularly so most of the “action” took place there.

Even without the assistance of the existing apps[1] we were able to find lions and leopards in numbers that are usually unthinkable, even for my wife.  11 September 2016 will go down in our bush lore as the day of the cats! In the morning, during a 20 km drive we spotted three different groups of lions, two separate leopards on trees and two walking by the river! We almost did not stop when we found a hyena walking by the road! As if this would not have been enough, after (my) siesta time, we revisited the nearby causeway over the Lower Sabie River to see if anything remained of the zebra being fed on by crocodiles of the day before.[2]

We crossed the bridge but found no trace of the zebra. As usual, there were a few cars on the bridge so we decided to turn around and, after re-crossing the bridge, to do a short drive following the river to enjoy the evening. By the time I had turned the car around all other vehicles had gone and we were on the bridge on our own, a rare occurrence.

As the bridge is narrow, I was paying attention to my driving when, just before ending our crossing, I heard my wife saying, “Look!” A leopard had just appeared out of nowhere on the shore of the river. I switched off the engine and we both grabbed cameras and took the pictures we could as the animal did not stop much and never took notice of our presence while it crossed the bridge just in front of us!

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The first picture of the leopard.

It was a large male and its right hind leg was apparently painful as it was limping.

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The sighting did not last more than three minutes and, by the time a few vehicles arrived to the bridge (that we were totally blocking), the leopard had moved off and it was hardly visible, although it had been spotted by others! I decided to move on and “share” our find only to realize that the car was dead! Suspecting a disconnected battery terminal I got out of the car to fix it. Although it did not take much time to get the car running again, by the time we moved off, the leopard had already disappeared and I was probably the least popular driver in the park!

Although the 11th was our most productive day, over the next couple of days we continued to find predators. We also continued to have problems with our battery! So, when I needed to get out of the car to fix it next to a group of lions, we decided that it was time to take the car to Skukuza for a long-lasting solution! This we got from one the very helpful camp mechanics that, with the right spanner, tightened the nuts and ended the problem for good.

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Luckily the lions were more interested in their romance than in the bushsnob fixing the battery!

Feeling now safer, on the way back to Lower Sabie Camp my wife (who else?), continued to excel and spotted more cats! The first sighting took place after we both noticed a few vultures on the ground by the Lower Sabie River. While I was watching them my wife noted that the cause was a buffalo kill where two magnificent male lions were feeding! Frankly, I would not have seen them.

 

As road speed limits and gate closing times in the park are very strict, we decided that we needed to start our journey back to arrive to our camp in time. Our planned timely arrival only lasted a few kilometres, until my wife spotted yet another leopard!

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This time it was a female sunning itself on a rocky outcrop overlooking the river. A beautiful sight worth risking a fine from the park as we both agreed. It was beautiful to watch the animal with the evening light and we stayed there until it decided to move off and we lost it.

Aware that we were late, we prepared our usual excuse of engine malfunction (this time it was quite close to the truth!) and returned. Luckily we just managed to squeeze through as the gates were being shut!

That night, staying at one of Lower Sabie’s tents paid off. Despite the rather sad absence of hippo grunts, the elephants were noisily feeding nearby and they were very vocal. Later, several lions started roaring up and down river, their loud calls amplified at night and the chorus continued well into the night. At some stage, a leopard joined in with its own regular grunts ending in an amazing ensemble that we do not recall having heard before. We were late sleeping as did not wish to miss the wild concert!

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See the earlier post: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/09/30/animal-go/

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/hungry-crocodiles/

Lions first

Although we agreed that we were in no hurry to leave for Mana Pools National Park, somehow we found ourselves getting up early and soon enough we were on our way before what we had planned. Fortunately the road from Harare to Chirundu in the border with Zambia was rather quiet. We were able to travel fast and well until we found ourselves snaking our way up and down Marongora or the Zambezi escarpment.

This is the worse part of the journey as long lorry lines coming and going between Zambia and Zimbabwe are formed here and the pace can be very slow if not nil as frequently we find serious accidents that cause long delays. The road is littered with lorry remains to the point that we call it the “lorry cemetery”. This time, even this infamous place offered us no difficulties.

We turned into the Mana Pools turn off in good time. As usual, the first 30 km are as rough and corrugated as ever and we decided to break the journey over half way entering the track leading to the Rukomechi Research station where groundbreaking research on tsetse fly control was carried out in the 70s and 80s. The idea was to see the place and to find a place to have our lunch away from the main road.

The station was rather quiet and, after a quick drive through, we returned towards the main road, stopping at a dry river bed that we had identified early as a “lunch spot” to enjoy our sandwiches. The halt did not last long as the stingless Mopani bees (also known as Mopani flies) Plebeina hildebrandti kept getting into our eyes, a very uncivilized behaviour!

Worse still were the stinging honeybees that started coming the moment we opened our lunch boxes and kept landing on our food and drinks. Soon we were fed up with both bee types and decided to abandon our lunch break and continue our trip.

We were greatly relieved when we reached the gate into the park with the car apparently in one piece. A quick check confirmed that this was so, at least all the expected parts were there! The road corrugations were such that the usual trick of driving fast to “skim” over them did not really work and to drive slowly was even worse so we tried both hoping to get an improvement that we did not achieve! Satisfied with the toughness of our car, we continued for the final 40 km on a much smoother track.

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The first lioness.

We aimed for the park’s office to check in our lodge called Nyati[1]. As it happened, a couple of kilometres before, my wife spotted a tawny shape that turned out to be a resting lioness. We stopped and for sometime forgot our immediate plans. After scanning the area with our binoculars, another two females were found. We stayed with them for some time but, as they did not seem to move, we decided to go back to our plan and to sort out our lodge. The latter was very nice, on the Zambezi River shore, clean and ready for us.

After organizing our belongings and food supplies, we decided that it was time to get back to the lions. As these are our number one interest in the bush we were happy to go and try to find them again!

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A long distance shot.

Luckily they were still there. Other visitors had also found them and two cars were watching them but, as it often happens, they soon left. I always question myself about what could be better than staying with a pride of lions waiting for action! However, more often than not, most people have other ideas and, after a few minutes, they invariably move on. I find this conduct surprising but they probably have other bush tastes such as elephants or perhaps sundowners by the river? We, the wiser, stayed with the lions.

A few minutes of observation later and we had seven individuals: six females -in excellent condition- and one young cub. We found this a bit strange as we expected more youngsters but we did not see another one. Typically, for about an hour nothing much happened. As the afternoon became evening all of a sudden they were off. It happened very fast and they entered the tall grass towards our left, leaving the cub behind.

Trying to stay ahead of the game, we moved forward looking for the reason of their exploit while trying to position ourselves at a place from where we could see what would happen next. About one hundred metres ahead we found a clearing with some male impalas grazing and, apparently, oblivious to the lions.

“Could the lionesses be after the impalas?” we asked ourselves, as these antelope are not the number one choice in a lion’s diet. We had seen lions in past years at Mana feeding on buffalos and even elephants so these rather small antelope did not qualify even as a snack for such a group! However, in the absence of other possible candidates we stopped and waited.

I immediately switched on the camera and soon I was looking at the impalas through the camera’s viewfinder when first I heard the noise of animals running to my right and immediately caught a glimpse of the lionesses through the corner of my eye. Three of them came out of the bushes at full speed towards the impalas that reacted immediately and started running away. The lionesses picked one as their target and got closer and closer.

The impala, aware of the mortal danger it was in, quickly recovered from the surprise of the attack and ran for its life leaping and zigzagging with great skill as the terrain was uneven and bushy. Despite this, the lionesses were getting desperately close and, when all seemed lost for the antelope, it jumped and turned sharply to its right. This final feat of nimbleness put the lionesses off balance and the impala managed to escape snorting loudly as it realized that it was still alive! What I described took place over a few seconds and well before I could move my finger to take a picture!

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When I could press the shutter, the chase had ended…

The impala snorting was answered, to our surprise, from somewhere in the midst of the lionesses! At first we thought that the huntresses had got another impala and what we were hearing were its last throes. Soon, however, the truth revealed itself as another impala came running flat out from the “lionesses-hot area” and soon joined its colleagues at a prudent distance. We had clearly missed this impala that had turned towards the opposite side from the others and probably saved its life because of it!

The short chase over, the huntresses relaxed and one by one they broke their cover and we saw seven female lions. Realizing that the chase was over, they returned to the place where the cub was. After a while we saw another rather large head emerging from the tall grass: a large male lion could not be bothered to lose its royal status chasing impalas and wished to have a look around!

Soon the light started fading and we left them, convinced that they would hunt later on. We agreed to return and look for them the following morning but, as they can move long distances, we did not hope for another sighting.

Back at the camp the donkey boiler[2] supplied ample hot water for a good bush shower to wash off the thick dust from the already very dry Mana Pools roads. As for the various aches from the journey, I appealed to a few sips of a South African Cabernet Sauvignon, with therapeutic meticulousness! The latter also greatly helped with the writing of this post!

 

[1] Nyati in Shona language means buffalo.

[2] Known as Tanganyika boiler in East Africa. It is basically a metal drum over a wood fire.

Manes

The mane of the lion is one of the indisputable dogmas with which we grow and, together with a giraffe and an elephant, a male lion with its mane is one of the first animals we learn to recognize as young children. Further, as we grow Panthera leo, it is one of the first creatures of which we understand sexual dimorphism when we learn that the lionesses do not have hair!

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An heterosexual lion couple.

Well, my lion world has been shattered from now as the above is no longer true, well, at least it is not always true!

On 22 April 2016 I saw a photo posted on Instagram by @INSTA_BOTSWANA of two male lions mating. Although surprised, I am aware of the existence of homosexual behaviour in some animals and have observed it in giraffes where, apparently, it is quite frequent. However, I had no knowledge of this behaviour taking place among lions.

Still thinking about the picture I was about to move to the next image when its caption called my attention. The mating animals were in fact members of the opposite sex! Thinking that this was even more interesting, I followed up the issue and learnt that a few days earlier a similar picture had become “viral” in the social media and was extensively discussed.

I confess that I am skeptical about these kind of news and my first thought was that the original picture had been modified. To my surprise, lionesses with long hair have been observed both in captivity and in the wild. A well-known example is Mmamoriri that is part of a pride that resides somewhere in the Northern part of Chief’s Island in the Moremi Game Reserve.[1]

Scientists believe that the quality and abundance of the mane reflects the health of the animal: a thick, dark one shows a vigorous and healthy animal. In addition, females prefer these strong males to perpetuate their genetic material in future generations.

So, what is the reason for a female to grow a mane? Geneticists believe that the emergence of these “tomlions” is due to a disruption of the embryo at conception or during more advanced stages of the pregnancy when the foetus gets exposed to higher than normal levels of male hormone. Whatever their genetic origin, the maned females survive very well. Further, their deceiving appearance is advantageous in keeping intruder males away from the pride and hyenas away from kills!

Fortunately, an investigation is underway to address this phenomenon and it is likely that we will have interesting findings in the near future.[2]

This story would not be complete without mentioning that the opposite phenomenon -maneless lions- also occurs albeit more frequently and better known and studied. Such males are known from Benin (Pendjari National Park), Senegal, Sudan (Dinder National Park) and the first white lion of Timbavati in South Africa had no mane.

Without much doubt the most famous maneless lions were also man-eating ones. Two of them stopped the construction of the railway in the Tsavo River in Kenya for nine months and killed more than a hundred workers since March 1898. “The Man-eaters of Tsavo” written by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who was in charge of the work and shot them, is a fascinating read! The book is also the subject of a 1996 movie “The Ghost and the Darkness” (Paramount) with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas as the main protagonists, a poor substitute for a good read!

The area where these true human carnage took place is today part of the Tsavo National Park and, luckily, during one of our safaris to Tsavo East National Park in the 80’s, we were fortunate to find one of the possible descendants of these lions and attest that their manes are very scarce!

lions maneless male and fem T East

A “maneless” lion with a normal female at Tsavo East National Park.

The “baldness” in these lions is attributed to an adaptation to the thorny vegetation in the park as their hair could interfere with their hunting. As their colleagues in Tsavo West that live in a similar environment have normal manes, I personally believe that their baldness, as in humans, is due to high levels of testosterone that may also explain its aggressive reputation.

 

[1] http://africageographic.com/blog/unravelling-the-mystery-of-mmamoriri-the-maned-lioness/

[2] http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2012/10/09/weird-wild-rare-maned-lionesses-explained/

 

Note: A similar article in Spanish was published in the “Muy Interesante” web page and it can be found here: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/hay-leonas-con-melena-521461839096

Lions suckling

A letter about unusual lion behaviour in the Serengeti National Park[1], brought back memories of our own observations in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya, in the 1980’s.

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A picture of the letter to Getaway.

As it can be seen above, the letter describes that, a couple of tourists on a photographic safari, witnessed a lioness kill a wildebeest cow and her calf. Afterwards the lioness suckled the cow, then consumed the calf and returned again to suckle and lick the milk from the now dead female.

While in the Maasai Mara one evening we witnessed a lioness kill a topi[2]. While the lioness was busy strangling the animal, two cubs appeared on the scene and, without hesitation, went directly to the Topi’s udder and suckled the animal for a few minutes.

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A Topi in their typical “watching” stance.

Eventually the animal died and the cubs stopped suckling and joined the mother at eating it. We did not see he lioness suckling.

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The cubs we saw suckling were larger than this one.

The explanatory reply from Brian Jones, a very knowledgeable person on raising lions at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (South Africa) among other activities, confirmed that lions do lick carcasses, a fact that I can also corroborate through personal observations. As he made no mention of the suckling of prey by lions, I decided to write to Brian to let him know of our own observations and somehow reinforce the tourists’ observations. The following is a record of our exchange:


16/11/2015

From:              Julio de Castro <juliojdecastro@gmail.com>

To:                  Moholoholo <moholorehab@wol.co.za>

Dear Mr. Jones,

Reviewing old magazines I saw your comment of a couple of years ago (Getaway, May 2013, p.13) to a sighting of a lioness suckling and licking a wildebeest female in the Serengeti National Park.

In the 1980’s, while working in Kenya, one evening in the Maasai Mara we witnessed a lioness kill a Topi. While the lioness was busy strangling the animal, two cubs appeared on the scene and, without much hesitation, went directly to the Topi’s udder and suckled the animal for a few minutes. Eventually the animal died and the cubs stopped suckling and joined the mother at eating it. I do not recall if the death of the female Topi coincided with the cubs stopping to suckle. The cubs were about 6 months old or older (not suckling babies).

I have also witnessed lions licking wildebeest and zebra prey (mainly in the abdominal area) but I believe that there are two different phenomena, one is the deliberate suckling of a female prey and another is the licking of a dying/dead animal, including males.

I hope you find this interesting and look forward to your comments.

Kind regards.

Julio de Castro

http://www.bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com


19 November 2015

From:              Moholoholo <moholorehab@wol.co.za>

To:                  Julio de Castro <juliojdecastro@gmail.com>

Good morning Julio,

Thank you very much for your e–mail.

So interesting to hear of your experience witnessing the cubs trying to suckle from the Topi – really amazing!!!

Probably the smell of milk and I’d say the Topi must have had a youngster!!

Yes the licking of a dead animal is normal. I  have often seen even cheetah licking their pray before eating!! I have a few tame Cheetah and they lick my friends on their arm, I tease them by saying “they always lick their prey before they eat them” (ha, ha).

Thank you so much for sharing your experience, it always a story I can tell to other folk.

All the Best

Brian


I thank Brian for his time to reply and his valuable contribution. Please visit http://www.moholoholo.co.za/ to see the valuable work that the Centre performs.

 

[1] Koetze, R. Unusual sighting. Getaway (Letters), May 2013, p.12.

[2] The Topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela) and the Tsessebe (D. lunatus lunatus) are sub-species of D. lunatus.

An antisocial lion!

Bush lions are normally tolerant of vehicles, even the open tourist ones. The only aggression we have seen was related to times when mating was taking place and the male normally leaves no doubt about how close you should be! The situation can be different on foot when the utmost care is needed where these cats are concerned to avoid accidents.

While checking in at Main Camp in Hwange National Park, we were warned of the existence of a new lion: Mopani[1]. The lion, explained a sign placed at the booking desk by the “Lion Project”, came from an area devoid of tourists and it was aggressive, charging vehicles! Siduli, another male, and two females accompanied it. We were also shown a video taken from a tourist vehicle being chased by Mopani and learnt that one of the females was in heat and mating with one of the males. We thought that Mopani’s progeny was assured and planned to keep our distance from him!DSCN9991 9.04.30 PM copy

The lions had taken residence around the Main Camp area so we were delighted at our luck, as we were sure not to miss them! “Cecil may have gone but in comes Mopani!” was our thought!

Although recently arrived from a longish trip, the possibility of spotting one of our all time favourite animals made us drop our luggage at the lodge and drive off in search of lions. We found the two females at Dom pan. They were clearly different: a paler one and a darker one. The latter appeared to be the older of the two.

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After watching them for a while, a male came out of the bushes and greeted the darker one while the other moved away a short distance. Were we about to witness some mating? Not so as Mopani, who we assumed was the dominant male, only rubbed heads with the female and then moved off in the direction it came from, leaving the female pair alone until the day ended and it was time to get back to our lodge before the mandatory return time of 18:30hs.

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We did not need to plan our next day activities as finding the lions again and spending time watching them was the only option! As a friend of mine says, “we slept in a hurry” and we were up before 06.00hs. No need for alarm clocks! We drove straight to Dom pan, as we believed that they would not have gone very far from there. On our way we realized that several migratory bird species were present at Hwange at the time. These were Crowned Cranes, Abdim and Woolly-Necked Storks, African Kites and Amur Falcons to name but a few!

We had little time for bird watching as the lions had killed a young elephant at Dom pan during the night and the two lionesses were feeding on it! After this find, most of our activities during the visit centred round Dom pan where we spent a lot of our time. We watched the lionesses feeding and interacting for several hours and I present you with a number of pictures and a video, as these are better than words. We only left them to return to the lodge for lunch and a rest.

When we came back during mid-afternoon, only the paler lioness was by the carcass. A search of the surrounding area revealed two lions laying together a few hundred metres from Dom. They were the mating pair: the darker female and a male that, to our surprise carried a radio collar. As we doubted that Mopani had one, it could only be Siduli. Clearly the lion that acts most ferociously towards cars is not necessarily the dominant when it comes to affairs of the heart! It was then clear that the male we had seen the day before was Siduli and that Mopani was hidden from view somewhere! But where?

Luckily my wife was with us as, if there was someone that could spot it, it would be her. And spot it she did, to our amazement, again! The wild-looking Mopani had been lying low under some bushes, unseen by anyone (except my wife) until then. It remained unobserved by our fellow game-spotters with the exception of another lady that clearly shared my wife’s eyesight. We thought it better that it remained unseen and got used to cars if it is to remain in a tourist area so we did not reveal its whereabouts.

As Mopani was still not willing to socialize and remained sulking under a bush, we focussed on the others. Mating in lions is a long-lasting affair as the pair remains together and mating takes place often for a few days, while the female is still receptive to the male[2]. This was clearly the case, as they remained “occupied” for the rest of the time we were at Hwange. That left the other lioness guarding the elephant carcass and Mopani hidden from view! After a while it was time to move off.

We drove to the Nyamandlovu pan as our daughter is very partial to elephants. Despite the abundance of drinking water all over the area, we were extremely lucky to witness the visit of a herd of about fifty animals that, as usual, appeared suddenly as if the product of a magic tree-to-elephant metamorphosis. The result was about one hour of one of the greatest shows on earth: elephants enjoying life at a water hole! There were about five family groups, each led by a matriarch and composed of its progeny, including some really young and tiny babies that were the centre of our attention.

The elephants not only drank but also entered the water where many were seen frolicking about and playing as only elephants are able to do among wild animals! It seemed to us that the latter were at risk of drowning while entering the water with their huge siblings and that they were under even more danger while swimming among them! Somehow they managed to keep their tiny trunks above the water and their mothers were extremely protective and they were always in close contact and ready to assist them!

The three resident hippos felt very uncomfortable at this sudden disturbance and two moved to the very centre of the pan while the third moved to the shore where it put up brave stance against the elephants, only to return to join the others as it was not at all respected by the excited pachyderms! Again, a picture gallery and videos are better than my limited power of description to let you know what took place.

The elephants’ joyfulness in the water delayed our return so we only drove past Dom pan, catching a glimpse of the lions who unwittingly startled a herd of 30 odd elephants intent on drinking from the pan, who retreated in a cloud of dust as soon as they caught sight of the lionesses. We arrived late at the gate where we were told off by a rather grumpy lady game ranger! The justification for our tardiness did not go far with her, clearly used to all sorts of excuses from people arriving late to camp!

The following morning, as expected, the lion pair continued their courtship, the pale female was still guarding the carcass and about fifty vultures (white-backed, white-headed, hooded and lapped-faced) were waiting on the side-lines for her to leave it. While in waiting, the Lappet-faced vulture was seen having a snack by pulling and cutting the dry tendons and sinews from an older dry elephant carcass that other vultures also shared once it opened up the hard bits!

Mopani, the antisocial, still preferred to remain out of sight! We can only hope that he starts turning into a more car-tolerant lion by accepting their presence as part of his daily life. Who knows, maybe one day he could become Cecil’s successor.

 

[1] To name wild animals or not to name! This is the question… for which I have no clear answer!

[2] Both leopards and lions have the same mating procedure. They can mate as often as every fifteen minutes for up to five days. This is the consequence of weak sperm and mating-induced ovulation.

Chitake

Chitake Springs are located in the southern part of Mana Pools National Park, about 50 km from the Zambezi river. During the rain the Chitake river flows into the Rukomechi river and the latter feeds the Zambezi. From the end of the rains in April these rivers dry up leaving only the springs as the sole source of water for a large area around them. The springs flow intermittently and at least once every 24 hours for some geological reason deep inside the earth. This natural wonder, therefore, attracts many animals both, prey and predators, from many kilometres around.

As if this would not be a sufficient attraction, this general area has important deposits of dinosaur bones. In particular, fossils of Coelophysis rhodesiensis are present as well as mega-prints (90 cm in diametre!) of the herbivore Brachiosaurus aswell as Allosaurus‘s footprints. This is apparently important as it shows that the Chitake area was also an area of prey-predator interactions during the Jurassic period! As interesting as this may sound, we did not search for these but it may be the subject of another trip!

We first learnt of Chitake through sad news. In late 2010 Pete Evershead was killed by lions while having a shower in the evening. Other friends that visited a couple of ears ago talked of animals walking very close from their roof tent. This left a very strong impression in them and they were very excited when they told us that they survived Chitake!

We were fortunate to get a booking in Chitake 1 campsite, by the actual springs. As this is a wilderness area (not even the entry road to the springs is signposted!) to camp there means to be on your own as there are only two campsites for private users in addition to one for tour operators. You also need to be self-sufficient in all needs, including water.

There is only one track -the entry road- that extends to the baobab hill (where Chitake 2 campsite was before it was moved to a nearby place) so this is not a place for game drives but a true wild bush experience where you sit and wait for the animals to come to the water when it flows or you walk if you know what you do!

The place sounded In addition, being older has made us more cautious so, not having a roof tent, we decided that we could sleep inside the car. We rehersed the flattening of the seats to convert it, if not in a double bed, into a reasonable place for a couple to sleep. We organized our belongings so that they could be placed in a small tent, on the front seats and on the roofrack. We were satisfied with the arrangements and ready to go…

Almost at the last minute we invited another couple to join us. Tom and Chizuki had never visited Chitake despite having lived in Zimbabwe from the late 90s so they seized the opportunity. They agreed with our idea of sleeping inside their car and we arranged to meet a couple of days before our departure to finalize the details. At that meeting it transpired that they could not convert their car into a bed so we all agreed to camp in the normal way. I was relieved as we have always slept in tents, even in places where animals were in large numbers in Kenya, reserving the car for “in extremis” situations… I will cover these in future posts.

Our camp and occupants.

Our camp and occupants.

We arrived to Chitake in mid afternoon and set up camp early so we would be well prepared for the night, having the lions always in the back or our minds! After we were satisfied we explored our surroundings on foot and saw that the springs were about 100 metres from us and they were flowing.We sat in the dry river bed and waited. In one moment there was nothing at the water and then as if by a miracle, a group of elephants, buffalo or impala would be drinking! As night fell, the water was still flowing and the animals still coming down to drink.

The elephants suddenly appeared (and disappeared!).

The elephants suddenly appeared (and disappeared!).

After an early dinner we retired to our tents for a well deserved rest. Lions did roar as expected. They were far from us, probably following the buffalo some place else. We slept well, being careful when getting up for pit stops during the night. The morning after saw us all happy to see that the four of us survived our first night at Chitake and decided to celebrate this with a good -and healthy- breakfast!

The water had stopped flowing during the night so only baboons were walking in the dry river bed.

Sand and baboons.

Sand and baboons.

We decided that we would do a bit of exploring so we went to the actual springs where we could see a number of different footprints and a couple of carcasses (one buffalo and one elephant) that were responsible for the rotten smell that we could sometimes feel, depending on the wind direction. We then crossed the river and drove for a few km until reaching the baobab hill.

After spending some time with the baobabs we returned, crossed the river again and drove on towards the exit as we had seen an open area where we thought cheetah may be found. We saw the usual warthogs and the ubiquitous impala. Then our friend Tom amazed us by spotting a painted/wild dog lying down at about 100 metres from the car! An amazing sighting. In fact there were three of them.

Then he spotted a few more heads under another bush nearby! When the heads became full dogs, we realized that there were pups, six of them and half grown. At some point they all trotted towards the adults and the latter stood up for the usual greetings. We counted five adults and six pups. After their profuse greeting they all dashed off as if starting a hunt although we did not see any possible prey. We tried to follow them but lost them almost immediately. Giving up on the painted dogs we drove on to the junction with the main road and started going back to camp.

The dogs were again at the same spot! Surprised we stopped to watch and confirmed that there were the same! While watching, again, all pups dashed off as if on a hunt, followed by one or two adults and, after a while, got back to the starting point. This exercise was repeated three times. The observation was a topic of discussion for a while as some thought it was a kind of hunting rehearsal while others -including myself- thought that the pups were just being either hungry or hyperactive!

After that interesting encounter we got back to camp to face another night at Chitake, now more relaxed as we had survived the first!

A "Chitake special"! An Eastern Nicator looking for insects in the undergrowth.

A “Chitake special”! An Eastern Nicator looking for insects in the undergrowth.

A carmine bee-eater.

A carmine bee-eater.