It seems as though we are about to enter a carnivore baby boom, and we are waiting with much excitement! Stellar, the alpha female of the Wild Dog pack looks as though she will go to ground and produce her second litter of pups on Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve sometime either over the weekend or at the beginning of next week. The Wild Dogs have had a hard time over the past couple of years and we are hoping that a successful breeding season will see them bounce back to their former strength. Despite the pressure from lions taking their numbers down to only a few individuals, they are wonderfully resilient and look set to make a comeback. We cant wait!
A little later on, we are expecting cubs from Joan, our female cheetah who we reported fitting with a radio-collar by the end of August. We are not sure where she will hide her cubs, but photographic records show that she has been on the reserve since she was a youngster herself, and so we are confident she knows the lay of the land well enough to pick a safe refuge for her babies.
Our final expected arrival is to Pikkanin, one of the Lionesses, who is also due within the next couple of weeks, according to the dates she was seen mating with Blade, the dominant male lion on the reserve.
It is extremely exciting to wait for these new arrivals, and we hope that they will contribute to the continued persistence of these charasmatic species in this area around the Greater-Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. I will post news as soon as I have it!
I am so pleased to be able to report that the male lion we collared in January has become a father! We have yet to see the cubs ourselves, but there have been reports from the game scouts of 2 small cubs moving with their mother, and sometimes with their father. Lions were previously extirpated from the area, and in recent years the Lions in Mapungubwe have been largely transient. This is the first time we have evidence of them settling in the area, and it is a really good sign for the Lion population in the Limpopo-Shashe TFCA as a whole.
The population of lions in the Limpopo-Shashe TFCA is coming under pressure from an unsustainable level of “disappearances” on the fringes. Snaring along the Shashe River is a problem, along with the ever present threat from livestock farmers on the western and southern boundaries. We need to know exactly what is happening to these lions in order to be able to effectively protect them and safeguard their future. We have a radio-collar on one male lion, and we know he is still within the safety of Mapungubwe National Park, but we desperately need to fit GPS collars onto him, and other lions, so that we can prove exactly where they go and what happens if and when they move out. Unless we can take unequivocal proof to the powers that be, we struggle make our voices heard. This is Kipling’s world of “the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees,” where lions used to roam in safety. If we don’t do something now, in a very short time, there will be no lions left.
As part of the work to assess the movement of carnivores across the borders of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area, we were able to fit a readio-collar onto a young male Lion in Mapungubwe National Park. We thought at first he had come over from Botswana, but closer inspection of his whisker pattern showed that he is unknown to the Lion researcher there.
We have been trying to find an opportunity to fit a radio-collar to a Lion in this area for some time, but struggling to find a suitable animal. While doing spoor counts in the National Park, we were lucky enough to stumble across a beautiful young male who seemed very relaxed. As luck would have it, a vet from South African National Parks was on his way to us, so we sat tight with the lion. When the vet arrived, he was amazed at how relaxed the lion was, and how easy it was to dart him. Once he was immobilized, we were able to have a good look at him, and found the Lion to be in absolutely fantastic condition, verging on fat, and without a scar on his face.
The unexplained disappearance of young male lions has been a concern in the area for some time and so we are hopeful that the information gained from this collared lion may go some way towards solving the mystery.
We are experiencing very cold weather at the moment so sitting on the front of the vehicle in the tracking seat is proving to be quite a test of endurance. The spoor counts on Mapungubwe National Park are proving to be very interesting and showing marked differences in predator densities compared with on Venetia, which is just across the road. With the fences due to come down in early 2009, it will be interesting to repeat our surveys over the next few years and see what changes occur.
Towards the end of July we will be repeating the call-ups on Mapungubwe National Park in conjunction with Northern Tuli Predator Project, our neighbours from just over the border in Botswana. It seems that there is some movement of lions between our study areas and we are hoping to track down what is going on. Our lions on the South African side are fairly stable, but they are in decline on the northern side of the Limpopo, in large part as a result of snaring along the Shashe River, which forms the border with Zimbabwe. There is also hunting of lions in Zimbabwe and due to the current political situation there is currently little control over the wildlife and hunting sector, potentially opening doors for abuse of the system. By fitting some radio-collars, we hope to be able to gather the information and proof that we need to address the issues and protect the lion population.
Our work on Mapungubwe National Park is well underway and we are already seeing great differences in predator densities when compared with Venetia. Mapungubwe has a lot of leopards! We expected this from camera-trapping work we carried out a few years ago, but the difference between the two reserves is startling. Mapungubwe is wonderful leopard habitat, as it stretches along the Limpopo River which provides dense cover, and has many rocky outcrops in the area behind.
We have also picked up a number of lions in the area; up to 10 individuals on a section of the park that is only 10000ha. At least one group is thought to have crossed the river from Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana and been caught on this side when the rains caused the normally dry Limpopo to flow. As we head into the dry winter, and the sand resurfaces in the Limpopo, it is possible these lions will head back across the border. The fantastic thing is that with the fences coming down, these beautiful animals now have the freedom to move like this in a way that has been almost impossible for much of the last century.
Some exciting news on the lion front! We have some newcomers in the area and they are looking in fabulous condition. Mungojerrie was found on our northern fenceline late in the afternoon, pacing up and down and obviously extremely agitated. Wendy was out tracking the Wild Dogs at the time and left him, only to cross over into Mapungubwe National Park later on opposite where Mungojerrie had been. The park lies directly to the north of Venetia with a tar road in between. Not far inside the park and close to the fence, Wendy found a wildebeest kill with a very large lioness on it, accompanied by two sub-adult lions. The lions were all in great condition and were very relaxed. A visit later on that night showed up a total of four sub-adult lions with the lioness. This is great news for the lion population in Venetia as well as the park, as the fences between the two are due to be removed in early 2009. This will allow free movement of animals and effectively double the size of the conservation area. Healthy breeding lions in Mapungubwe National Park will add very welcome new blood to the Venetia lions, and will allow all of them to disperse in a more natural fashion. The removal of the fences will be fantastic news for all the species and is definitely a move in the right direction. I am off to Zimbabwe for a few days for the annual meeting of the Shashe Limpopo Predator Research Group, a group of scientists and land managers in the area of the new Transfrontier Conservation Area. It promises to be a very productive meeting so I will keep you posted on my return.
Here is the beautiful Rumpleteaser. What a cat!
This Caracal was photographed walking down a fence late last year. It is the angle and perspective of the photo that makes it look so out of proportion.
There is a pair of young lions that have been wandering around Venetia for some time now that have proved extremely elusive when it comes to managing to put a collar on them, so we are all extremely excited at having finally succeeded. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser are brother and sister and, in my opinion, are two of the most beautiful lions on the reserve. We bump into them from time to time, and the volunteer group were even lucky enough to see them hunting a kudu in front of their camp recently, but every time there is a vet on hand they disappear. We finally did it! Mungojerrie is now proudly sporting a radio-collar and so we will start to get to know the habits of this pair of youngsters.
In the photo Mungojerrie is the young lion on the right, and his father, Thunzi, is on the left.
They have been independent of their mother for over a year, but are sticking together for rather a long time for opposite sex siblings. We know they use the fence lines a lot as we often see them there. My husband has had a few encounters with them while checking our fence on his quad bike (ATV). Rumpleteaser definitely views him as prey and wastes not time in dropping down to stalk him. Being young and subordinate, it may be that they are looking to expand their territory or are simply avoiding the older, more established lions in the centre of the reserve. Now that we have a collar on Mungojerrie, we can begin to answer some of our questions.
The battery life on radio-collars is limited and so from time to time we need to change the collars on long-term study animals to make sure they don’t expire. The size of the battery determines the length of its life, so we have to find the best trade off between the weight of the collar and the frequency with which we need to dart the animal. A very large battery may last for a long time, but could be cumbersome to the collared animal, whereas a very small one may mean having to use anaesthetics more than we would like. The collars we use on lions last about 18-24 months and are small enough that we are confident they do not bother the cats, but this is a long time period during which no further interference is necessary.
Just recently we had Dr Peter Brothers, a wildlife vet, on the reserve and so took the opportunity to change some of the collars that were approaching the end of their lives. Two male lions, Blade and Subipe, had their collars changed, along with one of the subordinate female wild dogs. We maximise the opportunity of having the lions and wild dogs under anaesthetic and take blood samples and check on the general condition of the animals. There has been an outbreak of suspected rabies in the area, so we took the precaution of vaccinating the wild dog pack. Due to their highly social nature, wild dogs are susceptible to infectious diseases and whole packs can be wiped out. There is another pack of wild dogs just over the border in Northern Tuli Game Reserve, Botswana, where some of the suspected cases of rabies have been reported, which has also been vaccinated against the disease.
In order to anaesthetise the lions to allow us to change their collars, we need to approach them in a vehicle to a distance of about 20m, then a dart filled with the drug is shot from a specially designed air-gun into the rump of the animal. There is quite a skill in shooting the dart hard enough to be accurate, and softly enough not to have more of an impact than is necessary. The rump is the target as it is the biggest muscle mass with the least chance of hitting bone. After the dart has found its mark, we wait until we can see the lion has gone to sleep (then wait a little more just to be sure), and approach carefully from behind it to check it is fully out. The heart-rate is monitored, and the eyes covered for protection while the necessary work is carried out. On hot days such as we have been having recently, we spray water over the sleeping animal in order to prevent them from overheating. When everything is completed, an anti-dote to the anaesthetic is injected and we wait from the safety of our vehicles to see that the lion comes round and walks off. They usually look a little dazed and confused to begin with but are back to their normal selves very quickly. Darting of animals should only be carried out by skilled vets and so we offer our sincere thanks to Dr Peter Brothers for his help.