Lion update from MalaMala, September 2013

Image by Matt Nolden

An eventful but dry September saw three prides of lions going about their usual business of roaring, killing and patrolling within their domains. It is interesting to note that the territories of the Marthly pride, Eyrefield pride and Styx pride all overlap around MalaMala Main Camp. The scarcity of water made for a fascinating few weeks of spring action in and around the Sand River.

September months usually bring small amounts of rain, filling the dry pools and scattered waterholes. However, not a drop of rain until the last day of the month left the grass extremely dry, and the few green leaves high in tannin. In such circumstances the game species are forced to frequent the Sand River. These animals are habitual and will return to their water source daily. A lion’s instinct is to learn the routines of their prey species. Therefore, such dry conditions are allowing them to strategise and ambush the antelope with ease.

Styx lion pride

On a still and very warm evening, a herd of nyala approached the Mlowathi River en route to Bicycle Crossing Hippo Pools for their final thirst quencher of the day. Little did they know that the two Styx lionesses were watching patiently as one of the nyala bulls jumped off the bank into the sand. Nyala can often out-run lions when alerted, but in the thick sand the Nyala had no chance, and quickly fell victim to the hungry lionesses.

Lionesses feed off the freshly killed Nyala Bull – 15/09/2013 – Image by Matt Nolden

Image by Matt Nolden

Over the last month the dynamics of the Styx lion pride have been particularly difficult to understand. The six members spent most of the month apart. The monthly sightings so far are as follows.

13 September 2 Adult Lionesses with no ID Male Wild Dog Rocks Open Area
15 September 2 Adult Lionesses Mlowathi River (Nyala Kill)
16 September 2 Adult Lionesses Piccadilly Triangle
19 September 4 Sub Adults Gowrie Boundary
21 September 4 Sub Adults Mlowathi Dam
23 September All Members Present Mlowathi River
24 September All Members Present Picadilly Triangle (Duiker Kill)
25 September 2 Sub Adults(1 Male:1 Female) Picadilly Triangle
26 September 2 Sub Adults(1 Male:1 Female) Campbell Koppies

Rangers have come up with a few reasons which may explain this inconsistency.

  1. The two sub-adult males (32 months) are attempting to mate with the sub-adult females and  lionesses. The lionesses may be intolerant of this behaviour, and as a result avoid them. This is, however, an unlikely reason.
  2. The sub-adult males are larger and stronger than the lionesses. When feeding on small kills, the lionesses are out powered by the young males. This could be why they choose to hunt on their own.
  3. As an instinctive mother, a lioness may separate herself from the sub-adult males as a form of protection from an intolerant father. When a sub-adult male lion matures, he becomes competition to his father and therefore is no longer welcome in his domain. In this case, the mother may anticipate the Manyelethi males coming their way. In response, she then moves away from the rest of the pride, working as a decoy to lure them from the sub-adults. This is the probable reasoning.
  4. Remember, dominant male lions will only protect lionesses that show their worth. This is usually in the form of reproduction or food supply. The sub-adult females produce neither, and because of this are better off apart from the adult lionesses of the pride. The Marthly sub-adult female (28 months) is a good example of how male lions disregard an immature female. The Manyelethi males regularly chase and injure her.  The poor condition of her coat is evidence of this type of relationship. We witnessed her being followed by three Manyelethi males as she tried to evade them only a few days ago.
  5. One would assume that the sub-adult females would find more comfort in following the lionesses and learning about pride ethics and routines. However, the young females may feel attached to their brothers as they have been together since birth.
  6. Lastly, the Manyelethi males could be interacting with the Styx pride more often than we know, chasing them into disarray on a nightly basis. It is unlikely that this is the case.

The four sub-adults from the Styx pride found on their own at Mlowathi Dam. Two of the lions looked intently in the direction of the Airstrip male leopard which had snuck past a couple of hundred meters east of them. 21/09/2013 – Image by Matt Nolden

Two sub-adult males initiate an early hunt on a very cold afternoon. 21/09/2013 – Image by Matt Nolden

A late afternoon snooze for the sub-adult male and female who were found on their own at Piccadilly Triangle. 25/09/2013 – Image by Matt Nolden

The pride re-unites. All six members found together close to the Mlowathi River. 23/09/2013 – Image by Greg Baldwin

Image by Matt Nolden

The six lions will drift apart over the next year. We hope the males move on successfully while the two young females learn to stick with the adults. They have the potential to be the strongest pride on MalaMala in years to come.

The Marthly lion pride

The sub-adult female and lioness without a tail from the Marthly Pride as they try to evade 3 of the Manyelethi males in front of MalaMala Main Camp – Image by Matt Nolden

The sub adult kept looking behind her nervously when one of the rangers back-tracked to find the three Manyelethi Males hot on their heels.

The scar-nosed Manyelethi male pursuing the lionesses – Image by Matt Nolden

The dark-maned Manyelethi male watching the Marthly lionesses march into the distance. He is the most dominant of the coalition of four brothers – Image by Matt Nolden

Image by Matt Nolden

The two lions eventually reach a suitable distance from the males and begin to relax on the sand bank. If you look closely, you can see the vehicles in the distance. The three Manyelethi males lay there for the rest of the day. Too much energy expended in one morning.

It seems that the pride members are utilising the Sand River opposite Main Camp as their hunting ground.  Over the last few weeks, we have found the pride around Main Camp regularly.

Two weeks ago, ranger Brett Ross witnessed a kill of a lifetime when the Marthly pride tackled an adult male kudu off a river bank down into the watercourse. ‘BAMBA STATIONS!!’

Image by Matt Nolden

The mother of the cubs feeds to her content before she heads back towards the area where she holds her four young cubs. She is yet to reveal the cubs to us.

The Fourways lion pride

We have had very few sightings of the Fourways pride this month. Rangers located tracks in Charleston, indicating three lionesses and three male lions, giving reason to believe they are present in the southern regions of the property.

Photo taken 7 months ago when all 6 lions united as the most dominant pride within MalaMala boundaries – Image by Matt Nolden

A pride of three lionesses and three young males have the freedom to walk wherever they like. It has come to rangers’ attention that the six lions may walk between the most north-western and south-eastern parts of the Sabi Sand Reserve.

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