I’ve been wanting to write an update on our lions, especially since we believe there are cubs which would mean the start of a new lion pride, but my husband ended up doing it for me. He recently wrote this article for a local magazine and I wanted to share it here. Thank you Dorian for today’s Waterhole Wednesday, which clearly I am expanding to a wildlife series – whether or not we actually see the wildlife at our little waterhole!
I have walked into lions many times over the years. Some of these encounters have been memorable, but mostly you just catch a fleeting glimpse as they disappear into the bush to get away. Contrary to public belief, lions are very afraid of people. It is deceiving because they behave so nonchalantly around vehicles but as soon as you are walking, everything changes. Thousands of years of being hunted by humans acts as a blueprint of fear in their mind and for the most part they will run when they see us. I have only ever been stalked by a lion once and that was just a couple of weeks ago. I was on foot and the sensation was quite unique.
The three lions here have satellite and VHF collars so we can track them remotely and up close if we have to. The female, Shire was showing signs of pregnancy and we have been monitoring her closely to see when and if she goes into a lair. On April 19th, she separated from the males and went into the upper Nsepete River system. That section of the Nsepete is sandy and narrow with rock caves and overhanging trees. Lionesses often give birth in the same place that they were born but Shire was relocated here so she would have to look for somewhere that she might feel comfortable, away from danger or disturbance. The upper Nsepete would be just that.
For the next three weeks, Shire’s waypoints were erratic and irregular. Instead of daily readings, we would get a week’s worth coming in together and then the collar would not register for a few more days. When the waypoints came in, they were always in the same spot with the occasional sortie out and then back a few hours later. This sort of movement suggested to us that she had given birth and spent a great deal of time lying on her collar whilst the cubs fed. Occasionally she would have to go and hunt as she has no sisterhood to support her and this would give her collar a chance to send its stored waypoints before she returned to the same spot again.
So that’s how I ended up being stalked by Shire, we went to try and confirm if she indeed had cubs. There is no road so two scouts and myself walked into the upper Nsepete with the VHF telemetry set. The telemetry gives indications when the collar is close and we tracked her to a thicket next to a bend in the river bank but could not see her. We estimate that we got to within thirty metres but the vegetation was so thick that we deemed it unsafe to get any closer. We walked back along the top of the river bank and then down into the river bed to see if we could get a visual that way. I left the scouts with the telemetry and started walking down the river bed towards the place where the signals were strong. Visibility was poor because of the twisting river, high banks and overhanging vegetation so I slowly crept down, inching closer to the bend. When I heard the slight crack of a branch up on the bank to my left, I froze. I looked back at the scouts and they indicated with the telemetry that it was Shire. We all stopped and listened but there was silence. Then the footsteps started again and she seemed to be following the same path that we had taken minutes before.
At that point we decided that it was probably a good time to leave. I rejoined the two scouts and we slowly backed up the river bed with the telemetry pointing towards Shire. She followed us for a few minutes, stopping when we stopped and moving again when we moved though we never actually saw her. When the signals got a bit weaker, we picked up our pace and put a good distance between her and us. Since then we have been monitoring her remotely and still she has not been seen. The males have joined her in the lair periodically and she has continued to make brief sorties out of the area presumably to hunt.
Lion cubs typically lie up for 4 – 6 weeks so if they survive we can expect to see them soon. Cub mortality is high and Shire is a first time mother in a new home with no related females to assist her. The chances of her cubs surviving are not good but the fact that she has remained in the upper Nsepete all this time is an indication that she may well have young with her. We are eager to confirm our suspicions, but not eager enough to go back in there on foot.