Cyberdiary – 29 May 2012

Eyrefield Lioness and Cubs, by Matt Meyer

Eyrefield Lioness and Cubs, by Matt Meyer

What an unexpected week with a very rare sighting. The king’s share of this diary belongs to the lions – not just one, but two prides mind you. We were treated, once again, to some memorable cub action, and are glad to report that our two orphaned Eyrefield pride cubs are alive and well.

We also have some very exciting news about the Cape Hunting Dogs.

Here are the numbers….

*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. These will be updated tomorrow, 30 May 2012.

So grab yourself a cuppa, and read on dear friends. We have no doubt you will enjoy the virtual drive.

The Lions Feast

It all started on the morning of the 20th May. We came across the carcass of a dead hippopotamus in the Sand River, opposite Maxim’s Lookout. The animal must have died in the night. Our initial thoughts were that it was killed by another hippo. Male animals of this species will clash when competing for territory, and the outcome for one is often fatal. Our suspicions were confirmed when we noticed the massive scarring on the hippo’s torso; a clear indication of a vicious battle, and the obvious cause of death. A single hippopotamus bull was seen further upstream. He was no doubt the victor, and proudly relishing in his hard earned pool of water. He had succeeded in his aim to establish an inviting territory into which females might be lured. The irony is that this channel in the river, although deep enough for the time-being, is likely to dry up in the coming months and will no longer be suitable for hippo habitation.

What remained was a banquet of a meal waiting to be scavenged. A few vultures had begun to line the trees, but for now they would have to wait. Some large crocodiles had already fed on the softer portions of the corpse.  But the action that was to unfold would have us all captivated over the coming days.

It takes a while before predators sense a dead animal. The carcass must begin to rot so that the smell attracts them. Descending vultures are always a reliable indication, and a sure way of attracting attention. However the smell of decaying meat is masked by running water. Hyenas have actually been known to intentionally stash carcasses in running water to prevent detection.

Airstrip Male Leopard, by Robin Hester

Airstrip Male Leopard, by Robin Hester

We are not sure who was first to find the remains, but when we arrived at the scene on the second day, there were two potential benefactors waiting to be rewarded for their keen senses. The Airstrip male leopard was resting on the riverbank, gazing toward where the hippo lay. We continued scanning the bank and found a lioness in much the same mindset. The cats were, at most, twenty meters apart and we could not tell if they were aware of one other’s presence. On closer inspection, we identified the lioness as a member of the Eyrefield pride – the mother of the three youngest cubs. And lo and behold, it was not long before three tiny heads popped up from behind the cover of the reeds.


Eyrefield Lioness, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Lioness, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Lioness and Cubs, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Lioness and Cubs, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Lioness and Cubs, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Lioness and Cubs, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Lioness with Cubs, including two orphans, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Lioness with Cubs, including two orphans, by Robin Hester

By crossing the watercourse eastwards, the lioness ventured closer to the dead animal. Her young cubs were now left at the mercy of the Airstrip male lurking nearby. It was a dreadful scene. He would only have to move a few meters downstream to come upon the helpless cubs. The situation was temporarily alleviated when a huge herd of elephants opportunistically decided to cross the river at the exact point where the leopard lay. The elephant cows sensed the leopard’s presence, and chased him around the bank. Adding to the action was an even bigger herd of elephants in the river a little further downstream. Once the elephants had dispersed, the leopard reclaimed his position on the bank. And this time he was even closer to the cubs!

In the meantime, the lioness had started attempting to open the carcass. The hippo was extremely bloated – the result of a massive build up of gas and other fluids. As is customary, the lioness started prying at the stomach and under parts. This is the softest portion of an animal’s body, and is the easiest approach to get inside.  It was not long before the telltale whine of escaping gas signaled the lioness’s victory in making headway into the carcass. This made her nervous, and she proceeded with trepidation. The drone of gas would come-and-go, and the lioness would leap back-and-forth each time. The culmination was a massive blast which none of us could have anticipated – let alone the hapless cat! The intestine had taken enough strain and had now popped. A stream of hippo feces exploded in a jet-like fashion, lasted for the better part of a minute, and ejected as far as seven meters. We still thank our lucky stars that we were parked at a safe distance!

Once the explosion had subsided, the lioness continued with her task. One has to give her ten out of ten for determination! Headway was difficult as the skin of the hippo must have been as tough as leather. When we eventually left the sighting the situation had not changed, and we could only hope that the Airstrip male leopard kept his distance from the cubs.

When we returned in the afternoon, we were delighted to find the three cubs playing about on the sand. It would seem that the Airstrip male had moved off. The cubs were up to their usual antics – being plenty playful, and a pest to their mother. One notable observation though was that they were taking turns at attempting a nibble on the carcass! This would almost certainly be one of their first samples of meat, and it was clear that they were very pleased with themselves. The babies were running about the fallen beast, summiting the heap and descending again. One of the cubs was licking the carcass repeatedly, almost expecting it to magically open. It made for excellent viewing, and there is no doubt that there are some incredible photographs as a result.

Eyrefield Cubs on Hippo Carcass, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Cubs on Hippo Carcass, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Cubs on Hippo Carcass, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Cubs on Hippo Carcass, by Robin Hester

The following day we expected to find the other members of the Eyrefield pride and a few of the Manyelethi males. The Styx lion pride was also in the vicinity; they had been hunting during the night in relatively close proximity. We breathed a sigh of relief when they headed further east toward the Matshipiri River. Their presence at the sighting was a potential disaster for the Eyrefield lioness and her young cubs.

On the morning of the 22nd May, we were initially shocked, then amazed and will forever be intrigued at how the situation had developed. We could see four lionesses, four sub-adults and a younger cub. The Styx pride had joined in at the carcass! We searched for the Eyrefield lioness and her cubs. They were all there, and not bothered in the slightest. The two orphaned cubs from the Eyrefield pride had also joined them. The lions had clearly called a truce and had decided to tolerate each other as they shared the hippo. This is very rare behavior indeed. The hippo presents a very large amount of meat that even a huge pride of lions would take many days to finish. Perhaps the amount of food available dictates the lions’ propensity for sharing. Furthermore, the prides are both under the protectorate of the coalition of Manyelethi male lions.

Eyrefield Lions on Hippo Carcass, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Lions on Hippo Carcass, by Robin Hester

Eyrefield Lioness and Vultures, by Matt Meyer

Eyrefield Lioness and Vultures, by Matt Meyer

Over the following days, the lions all lay together and fed as if they belonged to the same pride. The young cubs from the Eyrefield pride were inquisitive as ever, and were thrilled with the extra companions. The sub-adults from the Styx pride were especially tolerant of the cubs as the youngsters ran among them. The same can be said of the orphaned cubs. The orphans are almost the same age as the youngest cub from the Styx pride (8-9 months) and they too were happy for the company. To have the two oldest prides of lions on MalaMala interacting in this way was fascinating behavior, and something extraordinarily special to witness.

In 2011, there was an occasion when the Eyrefield lionesses had killed a young buffalo calf opposite the Main Camp. This was a totally different situation as the lionesses were all fiercely competing for the small portion of meat on offer. During the frenzy, the oldest of the Styx lionesses managed to sneak between them and feed alongside them. Once she had had her fill, she was able to slink away without being detected by the other lionesses. Brave lady!

By the following morning, three Manyelethi males had arrived on the scene. All except for the male with the missing canine were there. Now eighteen lions lay scattered on the sand and in the reed beds. Until this point, a moderate portion of the hippo had been eaten. The lions had struggled to open the carcass and make progress toward the fatty meat. The male lions made light work of the difficult flesh – with their immense strength they were better equipped to get past the tough skin.

Manyelethi Male Lion, by Robin Hester

Manyelethi Male Lion, by Robin Hester

We could not believe that the remaining members of the Eyrefield pride were still absent. They must have made a kill elsewhere. It was also interesting that the Manyelethi males did not hang around for long. They left the hippo after only one day. As this diary is penned, there is still plenty of meat left on the carcass and we expect that the lions will still be there for a few more days. They will most likely abandon the carcass once the quality of the meat begins to deteriorate. This will then pave the way for the hyenas and other scavengers. Even leopards will not pass up on the opportunity of the rotting meat. How the situation develops will certainly be interesting, and we will keep you posted.

Cape Hunting dogs choose a new home

When we viewed the Cape Hunting Dogs last week, we quickly noticed a heavily pregnant female with the pack. It was only a matter of days before she would give birth. We had high hopes that the dogs might hang about the property for a while, which would surely mean that the female would choose a den site nearby. These hopes were shattered when they began to venture south and west. We were not sure where they had decided to set up their den. Even our neighbors were watching their boundaries closely in the hopes that they would earn the privilege of having these rare animals den on their turf.

Reproduction of these Cape Hunting Dogs occurs year round. In the greater surrounds of the Kruger National Park, it has been documented that they have a peak birthing season around May. A possible explanation for this is that it coincides with the end of the impala rutting season. The exhausted impala rams present an easy target for the dogs, and it would make sense that they capitalize on this. The bush is also far drier at this time of year. This means increased concentrations of game at water sources, and improved visibility for hunting with the bush being far less dense. Sight is a key sense that Cape hunting dogs use when hunting. These ideal circumstances mean that the pups are well taken care of and that they develop quickly. The pups are weaned from as early as five weeks, after which they will depend on regurgitated meat from adult dogs returning to the den after a hunt. The pack will abandon the den when the pups are between eight and ten weeks old. At this stage they are able to trail after the adults while they hunt.

These animals have huge home ranges, in excess of 450 km2. The alpha female could chose to den anywhere within this range, although they can return year after year to a favoured site. It is an exciting occasion for rangers and guests, as an established den will provide consistent and excellent viewing.

We are thrilled to announce that these special animals have decided to den on MalaMala this year after all, as they have done so many times in the past. We have managed to pin down the general area, but the exact location of the den is yet to be discovered. They have selected an area that has a sparse road network, and is littered with deep gullies and drainage systems. This has made the search a little tricky, but in the coming days we will hopefully make good progress. Exciting news indeed, and we will keep close tabs on how their movements progress.

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.

*Scientific information adopted from:

ESTES, R.D. (1999). The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals. Russell Friedman Books CC, South Africa.

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