An Update on the Lion Dynamics
By Ryan Hillier

The evolution of the lion prides on Kwandwe, and how the dynamics now stand, has been very interesting to watch unfold over the last 6 months! Cubs have been born, territories have shifted, and the Boschgift Males have solidified their dominance.

The main influence on the dynamics in recent months has been the power struggle over territory and control of lion prides. It was all there for the taking following the disappearance of the South Male, and the back and forth between the Blonde and Boschgift males was a lengthy process. At different times it seemed that the battle was going either way, and during this period the sight of lions mating was a very regular occurrence.

Lionesses from both prides were seen mating at times with the Blonde Male and at others with the Boschgift brothers. Gradually though, the Boschgift males have forced the Blonde male out of the south and sightings of him have been solely in the north, although that part of the reserve remains contested.

With so much back and forth, times were uncertain, and this perhaps explains why despite so much mating we didn’t see any cubs born until April. Lionesses are believed to be capable of going into a false oestrus, a mechanism to entice males to mate to create bonds and attract their protection while not conceiving in the process. The creation of these bonds and ensuring protection helps to reduce the chances of infanticide in the future. We can’t say for certain that this took place, but if it did it would explain the timeline in terms of when some of the initial mating took place and when cubs were born.

The South Pride, currently consisting of four adult females, have benefitted from the much-needed security provided by the Boschgift Males and the first cub sired by the Boschgift males was born in April. There is no way of telling if it was a bigger litter initially, but we have only ever seen one lion cub, a little male who is doing very well.

The oldest lioness in the pride is currently VERY heavily pregnant, guesses are that within just a few short weeks there will be another litter born, and if the size of her belly is anything to go by it could be quite a large litter too! Her two daughters from her previous litter are now both 3 years old and have both been mating recently. Lionesses usually have their first litters when they are between 3 and 3 and a half years old, so the timing makes a lot of sense to see them mating now. With three impending litters, within the next few months, we will likely see this pride grow considerably in numbers!

The stability that the males have provided for the pride has also allowed them to expand their territory massively! They have laid claim to practically the entire southern side of the Great Fish River, taking over areas that historically have belonged to the North Pride. Territorial boundaries are always constantly shifting here and there, but this expansion has been considerable. Perhaps the best illustration of this was shown by where the newest cub was born and denned for the first few weeks of its life. Lionesses select very specific and secluded areas as den sites, usually in the heart of their territory, to prevent rival prides from discovering her offspring. This most recent cub was denned near Heatherton Towers, real estate which traditionally belonged firmly to the North Pride, and the fact that this South lioness was comfortable enough to den there shows just how much further north the actual boundary is now.

The North Pride have lost some territory, but rest assured they still have plenty! The northern side of the river constitutes roughly 40% of Kwandwe, and this is where they are spending their time. The ebb and flow of a pride is ongoing, and the decline and subsequent loss of the stalwart lioness of the pride (at the ripe old age of 19!) in June was always going to be a factor.

The pride now consists of 4, an older female, a lioness who is just under 3 years old, and a 2-year-old brother and sister. The age of these 3 younger members has been part of why there have been very limited interactions between the pride and any of the males, another factor in their territory equation.

As the battle between the males played out the pride actively avoided them, pulling back into the core part of their range to protect these younger members, and this has been a success. They are older now, safer, and have turned the corner from vulnerable youngsters to capable young adults.

The oldest lioness has mated with both the Blonde and Boschgift males, but as yet no cubs have been born. Assuming then that she didn’t conceive, she should then be ready to mate again soon, and the younger female at almost 3 should be too. The youngest lioness is just 6 months younger, so the future looks very bright!

Saying which of the males would be involved should this happen is pure guesswork at this stage, but either way it would help provide some much-needed stability for the pride. As with the South Pride, if these two females both have a litter of cubs in the next few months, the pride can also grow quickly!

There will still be challenges however, raising cubs is not a simple task out here, especially for first-time mothers. Those challenges will be faced in equal measure by both prides, but all of that is in the future, and we will have to wait until then to see how it all plays out.