Cyberdiary – 10 April 2012

Eyrefield Lioness and Cub, by Matt Meyer

Eyrefield Lioness and Cub, by Matt Meyer

There has been a noticeable drop in temperature this week – a sure sign that winter is looming. Some of our feathered inhabitants have already departed in search of the sun further north, and the bush is taking on its first shades of brown.

We enjoyed 46 elephant sightings this week! This too is a sign that the pachyderms are realising that summer is over. Typical of their behavior, as the watering holes slowly dry up and become muddier, they head towards the perennial Sand River for cleaner and more plentiful drinking water.

The Big 5 was recorded a number of times over the course of the week. Throw in a few cheetah sightings, leopards AND lions mating, and a lactating Kikilezi female leopard around Stwise (which she could be using as her den site), and you have another great week at MalaMala.

One of the more memorable sightings of the week was of eight hyenas, including the clan’s newest little black fur ball. They were viewed at their den site in southern Charleston along with an impala kill that they were feeding on.

But the highlight of the week is what this week’s Cyberdiary is all about. Buckle in folks! It’s a good one.

For the number crunchers:

  • Number of lion sightings: 17
  • Number of leopard sightings: 22
  • Number of cheetah sightings: 3
  • Number of wild dog sightings: 1
  • Number of elephant sightings: 46
  • Number of buffalo sightings: 13

*Rhino sightings currently unavailable.

Don’t forget that you can always refer to the Wildlife Sightings Maps for a more detailed look at what was seen where.

Happy virtual safari folks!

Male Cheetah, by Matt Meyer

Male Cheetah, by Matt Meyer

Clear skies and a golden sunrise at 06:00 on a rejuvenate crisp Wednesday morning are usually the ideal signs of peaceful start to a day in the bush. But this morn’ was anything but! The clink and stir of early morning coffee and tea on the deck were literally drowned out by the reverberating guttural audio of lions roaring from at least four different locations. Mixed into this unique African medley were the rasping vocalisations of a leopard, as well as impala and guinea fowls sounding their alarm. I think I speak on behalf of all rangers when I say you couldn’t ask for a better way to kick start the day.

Rangers and guests raced for the landrovers. We all split up and headed in different directions, and it wasn’t long before the lads started calling in sightings. Lions were literally here, there and everywhere. And let’s not forget the leopard. All of these sightings are special in their own way, but unbeknown to us we’d soon find out that one sighting in particular would turn into a most exceptional occasion.

Fresh tracks belonging to a lioness AND a male leopard were spotted heading west to Petries Camp (just west of the New Airstrip). Both sets of spoor then turned south down Campbell Road. In the distance we could hear impalas and squirrels snorting and chattering in anxiety at something they clearly didn’t fancy being too close to.

Airstrip Male Leopard, by Matt Meyer

Airstrip Male Leopard, by Matt Meyer

Five more minutes, and we managed to locate the lioness. Our sense of excitement and accomplishment at having tracked and found the cat was almost immediately heightened when we noticed that not only was she lactating, but that she had clearly been suckled from as well! We identified her as one of the younger Eyrefield lionesses – the same one we’d seen in the Sand River around Flockfield Boma Crossing just north of Rattray’s Camp.

This particular stretch of the river has long been one of the Eyrefield pride’s favourite den sites with its almost impenetrable reed beds and thick riverine vegetation providing the ideal safe haven for young cubs. When the lioness started marching in a south easterly direction, all odds pointed towards her making a bee-line for that very spot. We followed her as she moved purposefully through open grassland. This view combined with the early morning light glimmering through the dew amounted to ‘A Photographer’s Dream’.

Shortly after passing Flockfield Tower, The Eyrefield Lioness noticed a herd of impala grazing about fifty meters off to her east, completely and blissfully unaware of the danger that prowled in the long grass not far away. The predator deftly positioned herself with a remarkable stealth, but whenever it looked as if she was about to make her move, the antelope would shift just enough to make her have to manoeuvre into a better position. This game of ‘cat and mouse’ would go on for about forty five minutes before a quick change in wind direction carried the scent of the lioness directly to the impalas. Their sense heightened, they eventually caught sight of her and the game was up.

The lioness immediately lost interest and continued making her way to the Sand River. She was now only a few hundred meters away from where we suspected her den site to be. The big question now was ‘on which side of the water course was she hiding her cubs?’ If she was to cross eastwards through the river, we would have to do a twenty minute loop around to a point where we could cross, and would run the risk of losing her.

Matshipiri Female Leopard, by Matt Meyer

Matshipiri Female Leopard, by Matt Meyer

She did elude us as she made her way into some thick bush on top of the western bank of the river, so we decided to make our descent into the river where the more open sand banks might make it easier to regain visual of her. We headed about thirty meters south into the Sand River, scanning every inch of the bank with our eyes peeled.

A familiar sound had us halting in our tracks and killing the engine of the Land Rover. Could it be? Then we heard it again – the soft resonant vocalisation that lions make to find each other. Shortly after we caught sight of her up on the bank, as she made her next contact call, we saw something that got our hearts racing in anticipation. The knee high grass at her feet was moving. And as she lay down a tiny ball of fur leaped out from the undergrowth and onto its’ mothers back before darting off into a dense bush a few meters to her north.

We’d heard reports that The Eyrefield Lioness had given birth, but up until now we had not been able to confirm it. For the first time we laid eyes on this newest addition to MalaMala’s lion population. Words cannot express how amazing it is to witness this. Moments likes these are rare and very special, and are the foundation of memories that we will cherish for ever.

The next question we would ask ourselves was ‘how many cubs?’ Over the course of the next half hour we watched as one cub would burst out from the bush, playfully attack its’ mother and then dart back into its’ den. Then two cubs emerged at the same time leading a ‘tag team’ assault. Their mother affectionately entertained their ‘shenanigans’ with a light slap of her paw, or a soft and gentle bite. The tally stopped at three when the third little terrorist came bounding through the grass and jumped with surprising agility, latching onto the proud lionesses’ head before it was shrugged right off. The playful bullishness then turned into affection as the cubs rubbed up against their mother while she groomed them with her tongue. Soon it was time for breakfast, and each honed in on a nipple and suckled away contentedly.

Daughter of the Kikilezi Female Leopard, by Matt Meyer

Daughter of the Kikilezi Female Leopard, by Matt Meyer

Their meal was briefly interrupted when the alarm calling of a number of different animals got the lioness’s attention. A leopard had been seen about fifteen minutes earlier heading south in the river towards this area, but after a few minutes of alertness the lionesses seemed satisfied that the potential threat was no longer, and continued to feed her offspring.

The three cubs look to be between 6 and 8 weeks old. The new additions to the Eyrefield Pride are made even more special in light of the tragic loss of three of their cubs in the January floods. Hopefully this young lioness will be able to keep her cubs safe from the many dangers with which they are faced in the unforgiving African wilderness.

Until next time,

The MalaMala Ranger Team.

Click here to download the CyberDiary in PDF format.

PLEASE NOTE: Animals on MalaMala are named after their territories. This means that a) only the predators have been given names and b) we only know the animals according to the names we have given them, as they are based on the territories within MalaMala’s boundaries.

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