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Wildlife  |  8 April 2019
By Ryan Hillier

Lion Dynamics

A lot has changed since our last blog on lion dynamics this time last year!

The Dark Male appears to have taken over the Boschgift Pride, although it remains to be seen just how firmly. Overall dominance still certainly rests with the South Male but trying to control all three prides was a lot of work for one lion, he simply couldn’t be everywhere at once. It was a matter of time before the Dark Male took over one of them, and he is seen regularly with the Boschgift Pride now.

The South Male is spending his time between the North and South Prides, with new cubs of his in both prides it is exactly what we expected. Providing protection is his most important job, and this is when the cubs are at their most vulnerable. The biggest threat for young cubs is rival males, who will kill cubs that are not their own, so his protection is vital. He has not been seen with the Boschgift Pride in ages, but is that due to the Dark Male’s presence there or simply that it is just a step too far given his current responsibilities elsewhere? Time will tell but it might only be when the Boschgift lioness is ready to mate again that we will see who truly controls that pride.

Lion Dynamics - 1
Lion Dynamics - 2

The Boschgift Pride lioness has done a fantastic job of raising her latest litter, two young males who are now just over a year old. Sadly, her adult daughter from her previous litter, who disappeared this time last year, has never been seen since and has been presumed dead for some time now. What happened to her will forever be a mystery, but a possible explanation is that while she was alone due to her mother denning her new litter, she had an encounter with the North Pride and was killed but there are plenty of other possibilities. The addition of the Dark Male to their ranks certainly adds to their security, but the North Pride especially when in the company of the South Male still regularly trespass into their territory, and the pride has no option but to keep a low profile when this happens. It’s a far cry from when I arrived here in 2009 through until 2012 when the Boschgift Pride were the most powerful force on Kwandwe, but that’s the ebb and flow of life and dominance out here. As the two young males continue to grow perhaps the balance will begin to swing in their favour.

In October last year, the South Pride lioness was heavily pregnant and moved into the core part of their territory around Galpin Dam. The three surviving cubs (two males and a female) from her previous litter are still with her are now almost 3 years old. She gave birth in late October and kept her cubs very well hidden in the valleys south of Galpin Dam. The two young males ventured off and spent time on their own and only periodically re-joined their mother and sister, while the young lioness spent most of her time with her mother. In late December, Monde and Jay found the cubs for the first time just before dark one evening. A litter of two cubs, in the company of the whole pride. We have viewed the regularly since, and already they have delighted us with their curiosity and play and on a few occasions, we have actually watched them suckling which is always a special sight! The South Male has been spending more time with the pride since the new cubs were born, a noticeable change and his presence directly influences the survival of these young cubs. Prior to this litter, he spent most of his time with the North Pride when he was not patrolling territory on his own. The young lioness is nearing the age when she will be ready to have her first litter, so the future of this pride is looking bright.

Lion Dynamics - 3
Lion Dynamics - 4

It’s pretty much a direct opposite in fate from the Boschgift Pride. For last few months of 2011 and most of 2012, the Old South Lioness was the only surviving member of the South Pride. Now their numbers are growing.

The North Pride continue to have the largest territory on Kwandwe, more than both the other prides combined! They have had some mixed fortunes however, despite their territorial superiority. The younger lioness gave birth in late September last year, and although we never saw the cubs we knew exactly where she was keeping them in their den. We saw her regularly coming and going, and on one occasion Nick Hindson actually heard the cubs mewling softly from in the depths of their drainage line den. But for reasons unknown, the cubs didn’t survive. Other predators such as leopard or brown hyena are possible culprits but some things we will just never know.

She was mating again with the South Male in October, and in early February we knew she was denning again. She moved den sites at least once, something that lionesses usually do as the smells build up around the den site to prevent the cubs being discovered by other predators, and then Doc and Rassie found her with three tiny cubs for the first time last week. It’s uncanny how it works out sometimes, her last litter was also three cubs (pictured below), and Siya and I found them for the first time within about 100 metres of where Doc and Rassie found the latest litter! They were spoilt with the most amazing view of these tiny cubs as they followed their mother right past the game drive vehicle! They have been seen only fleetingly since, but we are hopeful that soon they will begin moving with the rest of the pride and we will have more opportunities to spend some time with them.

Lion Dynamics - 5
Lion Dynamics - 6

The older lioness has been moving with the two young males while her daughter has been looking after their newest pride members. With such a vast territory, they have been moving big distances to keep their hold on it secure. She has not been seen mating at all during both periods when her daughter was. Both of her previous litters were born before her daughters’ litters, and we anticipated the same again or at least very close together. Lionesses in prides usually sync up their oestrus cycles, so that they have cubs at much the same time which helps level the playing field especially at feeding time. If one litter of cubs is much older than another the younger ones lose out tremendously when trying to feed on a kill and survival rates become very low for them. 

But it just hasn’t happened so far. She is an old lioness now nearing 15 years of age, so is that the reason? Was her previous litter her last? Perhaps…but I have made this mistake before with the Old South Lioness and I won’t be fooled again!

I will simply wait and see!


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