Food chain

Kaizer and Loderick tracked down a pride of 10 lions that were enjoying a post-meal snooze. They perked up when we arrived.

That’s a subadult male in front. His mane is still growing in, he’s about 3 or 4 years old. One of the females was prowling around while everyone else lounged. 

The reason? A couple of spotted hyena were circling the lions’ kill. The lioness eventually settled down for a nap, which meant the hyenas could grab a snack. 

When I was hanging out with the hyena specialist at Phinda, I asked if hyenas are predators or scavengers. He very pointedly said they are hunters who are willing to scavenge. These two were definitely up for scavenging. While keeping an eye out for lions. 

And then the jackals showed up to finish the carcass. I’m always surprised at how small and cute jackals are. I couldn’t get a good pic on my phone but here’s one from the interwebs, with a lion for scale:

Pretty cool to see the food chain in action!

Mane event

We’ve been trying to see some lions in Makalali but they had proven elusive. Thankfully we’ve had some awesome rhino and elephant sightings in the meantime. 

But the lions made it worth the wait (and an awesome first lion sighting for Grimbil). It’s only the second time I’ve seen a full adult male. Check out the mane:

He was with a female from another pride (very Romeo and Juliet), and our guide said they are a breeding pair. 

They make a lovely couple. 

After a while they seemed to get bored/annoyed with our paparazzi act. They definitely looked like they were over the attention:

Eventually they got up and looked for some privacy. Still, an awesome sighting!

New arrivals

Break out the cigars, there has been a birth at Phinda! 

We’ve been closely monitoring the lions of Mountain pride in order to gather data for a lion researcher who is coming to visit. So we knew one of the 2 adult females was pregnant. We also learned that the yearling cubs like to climb trees. 

Then one day nobody could find the pride. The rangers and our team spent 2 days trying to find them. Finally one morning tracks were found leading up a hillside. We drove to the other side of the hill to see if tracks came back down, leaving a ranger and tracker on foot to follow the tracks up. 

We couldn’t find tracks leading down, so we went back to see how the other group got on. We met them back at their vehicle and noticed they looked rather flushed and sweaty. Turns out they found a lioness in the rocks at the top of the hill. She “revved” them, i.e. rumbled at them in a very clear “get the heck out of here” way, so they beat a quick retreat. This is her sister but still, imagine getting “revved” by this:

She has split off from the rest of the pride, which is typical when a lioness gives birth. So between that and her aggressive reaction, the theory is she is denning in the rocks at the top of the hill, and gave birth sometime in the last 2 days. She’ll keep the cubs in the den for a month. The area will be off limits to all humans until she brings the cubs out. Exciting news!

Staying at the deep end of the gene pool

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Phinda sometimes sends animals to other reserves, but never really said why. 

It’s mostly to help with genetic diversity. Since Phinda is fenced in, new animals can only arrive with human intervention (except leopard, hyenas and wild dogs, they just ignore the fences). So in order to prevent inbreeding, it’s common for managed reserves to swap out their breeding males. They prefer to keep the females since that means they get to keep the offspring, like these super cute lion cubs hiding in the grass:

So for example, Phinda is sending those 2 male cheetahs that we darted and collared to another reserve. After they have left, a third reserve is sending 2 male cheetahs to Phinda to take their place. 

Population control is another reason to send animals elsewhere. For example, Phinda can support no more than 3 prides of lions. So those 2 males that we darted on my first day won’t be back filled. 

Another reason is to increase the range of a species. This is especially true for rhino. Phinda is part of a couple of programs that reintroduce rhino to other areas of Africa where they were previously hunted out. It’s pretty exciting to help (hopefully) bring a species back to where it used to be! Check out this baby rhino, just 4 months old. 

Pride dynamics 

Remember those two lions we darted back in the beginning? We’ve been keeping an eye out for their brother who was left behind. We finally found him. 

He’s trying to move back in with his parents. 

It’s a bit hard to see in the pic below, but he’s sitting at the top of the hill, a bit right of center. The lionesses and cubs below are watching him. 

(We couldn’t get any closer because there was a bull elephant in the way). 

He’s two years old and big for his age, so the pride probably sees him as more of a hindrance than a help. He’s another mouth to feed and a big one at that. He’s old enough to fend for himself. 

Since this pic was taken, there have been 2 instances of rangers hearing what they think is lions fighting, so it seems that they are still working  things out. We’ll see what happens!

Calling in a favour

Remember that ranger we helped when he had a flat tire? He has returned the favour. 

We were recording 5 lionesses at Imagine Dam (2 adults, 3 sub adults). When the animal are stationary and you’re moving in close, it’s typical to turn off the engine so as not to disturb the animals.

It’s also typical for the engine to turn back on when you decide to move. But ours didn’t. These vehicles can be jumpstarted with a rolling start but it’s not like we could get out and push with such an attentive audience. 

Fortunately our friend was also watching the lions and was able to give us a push. 

His guests also got a great view of the animals in the meantime:

Things that made this even more exciting:

  • We had just fed a hunk of antelope to a cheetah so we probably smelled tasty. In fact, we realised later there was still a tiny scrap of antelope on the vehicle. 
  • One of the adults was clearly cranky, based on how she was grumbling at one of the subadults and how her ears were flattened 

But Meg was calm throughout and explained that as long as we sat still and quiet in our vehicle we should be fine. It was morning, heading towards nap time for the lions, and they were pretty stationary. If our friendly ranger hadn’t been there we could have radioed for a vehicle to come to our aid. Still, makes for a good story!

Eau de lioness

We saw these 2 sub-adult males at ones of the dams. They are just starting to get a bit of peach fuzz for their manes. 

I asked Meg if the one in front was snarling at us. Turns out he’s scenting the air using a scent gland in the roof of his mouth, probably looking for the 2 females we saw here the day before. 

Sleepy kitty

Lions never get old. Lions 3 meters from your jeep are even more exciting. This guy was close enough that Meg asked us to please move slowly. 

But it’s also easy to just want to get out of the jeep and pet them, especially when their eyes start drooping and you know they are just a few minutes from rolling over and going to sleep. 

Cat hat trick

We scored a cat hat trick on a recent drive: cheetah, lion, and leopard!

First, we spent some time with a couple of cheetahs.

Then on to lions. These lions were gazing at a herd of wildebeests, which were staring right back. It felt kinda like a standoff in a western. In the end, the lions went back to sunbathing near the water (stopping to hiss at a crocodile along the way).

And the grand finale: leopard! Leopards are harder to spot than lions since they tend to prefer to move in the shadows. They keep to the forest and are generally seen in the evening. See if you can find the leopard in this pic:

We only caught glimpses of him but he was beautiful. And huge. Leopards are stealthy and opportunistic hunters — they’ll eat anything from birds and baboons to zebras.  This leopard had just killed a zebra and was out for a stroll to mark his territory when we saw him.