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Christmas Cubs for a Happy New Year

News from the Field from Pride in Our Prides Lion Program in Botswana

by Florian J Weise – Pride in Our Prides, CLAWS Conservancy

It is still dark as our vehicle rattles down the dirt track.  Dust everywhere.  The smell of camphor and wild sage surrounds us.  We are on our way into the Okavango Delta of northern Botswana to find one of our study lionesses.  We know she mated several months ago and new locations from her GPS tracking collar indicate she has given birth, after raising 2 young successfully.  Collared in February, the local community named her “Maleherehere” or “The Sneaky One”.  She will soon remind us why.

Pride in Our Prides lions mating (photo by S. Calle & T. Frasier)
Pride in Our Prides lions mating (photo by S. Calle & T. Frasier)
Maleherehere’s grown cubs (photo by E. LeFlore)
Maleherehere’s grown cubs (photo by E. LeFlore)

As light breaks we enter the seasonal floodplains of the Delta.  Although the flood waters have largely receded by now, the vegetation remains lush, sporting magnificent shades of green.  Maleherehere’s last location takes us into a very remote area, far away from the buzz of the lodges.  The area teems with wildlife of all shapes and sizes, testament to the importance of preserving the Delta as a biodiversity hotspot.

Red lechwe and Sacred ibis in the Delta (Photo by F. Weise)
Red lechwe and Sacred ibis in the Delta (Photo by F. Weise)

We proceed slowly, dodging the last mud puddles and water-logged areas, and the occasional elephant herd too.  After several hours, the radio signal receiver starts beeping, telling us that Maleherehere is near.  The signals get louder as we approach carefully.  Again and again, we scan the landscape for possible den locations.  Where might she hide those cubs?  We stored the likely den location into our GPS, supposedly easing the search.

Following her radio signals, we quickly realize Maleherehere is leading us away from the den.  She is a weary lioness, having earned her name because people seldom see her.  The shotgun pellets lodged deeply in her shoulder explain this behavior.  Maleherehere lives at the boundary of tourism and pastoral lands.  It is a life full of risks.  She sometimes crosses into communal livestock areas causing conflict.  At one point, someone responded to her intrusions with rifle power.

A rare photo of Maleherehere – “The Sneaky One” (photo by E. LeFlore)
A rare photo of Maleherehere – “The Sneaky One” (photo by E. LeFlore)

We get as close as 20m, occasionally seeing movement in the long grass.  But Maleherehere evades us, always keeping just enough vegetation between us and herself.  She is smart, no doubt, having learned from her painful past.  Suddenly, there is a sloshing sound under the vehicle putting an abrupt end to our tracking.  We are stuck, and thoroughly so!  We spend the next 7 hours digging the heavy 4×4 truck out of the deep mud, an inch at a time, while Maleherehere watches us from about 200m distance – we keep the radio receiver on to check her signal regularly.  As we finally pull out, the day is done.  The cubs must still be very small and we decide not to approach the den directly as we do not want Maleherehere to abandon her newborn litter.

The truck in trouble (Photo by F. Weise)
The truck in trouble (Photo by F. Weise)

Weeks later we return.  Tracking Maleherehere produces the same results – she remains invisible, even at close quarters.  In the meantime, however, the cubs have grown and Maleherehere has been taking them to four different dens.  This time we dare a careful peek.  And there they are!  A fleeting glimpse only, but we spot two 6-week old lion cubs in a thicket of dense shrubs.  We wait at a distance and keep observing the den but detect no further activity.  Maleherehere has been teaching them well already.  At this tender age, the cubs depend on regular suckling, so we soon back off to allow Maleherehere to return to her young.

 Xakampa female in the Okavango Delta swamps. (Photo by F. Weise)
Xakampa female in the Okavango Delta swamps. (Photo by F. Weise)

Excited with the news of confirming Maleherehere’s new litter we go on about our work.  And the next morning we get really lucky.  As we continue tracking in the Delta we find the Xakampa females, a small pride consisting of only 2 adult females.  We had seen them earlier in the year when the older female appeared to be lactating.  The local tourist guides suspected cubs too, but no-one had seen the babies yet.  Now, only 30m from our vehicle they are out in the swamps, drinking from a pond.  Already 8 months old, the 2 cubs are all bouncy and playful, despite their full bellies.  The entire pride looks in great condition, they fed during the night.

Healthy cubs heading for cover. (Photo by F. Weise)
Healthy cubs heading for cover. (Photo by F. Weise)

We snap ID pictures as quickly as possible before they disappear into the reeds again.  The cubs stick close to the females at all times, often waiting for their command to move from thicket to thicket.  Eventually, the lions settle into the shade of a bush, yawning and ready to doze off after the morning drink.  We manage to observe them for an hour and learn that there is one female and one male cub.

Xakampa female with cubs. (Photo by F. Weise)
Xakampa female with cubs. (Photo by F. Weise)

With great support from National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative we work hard to minimize conflict between these lions and people along the edge of the Okavango Delta.  We combat persecution of lions and help people protect their livestock.  We believe that by engaging communities in conservation we can move forward together and work towards the coexistence recipe, so that we may continue to watch lions here in 50 years time.

Moving forward together. (Photo by F. Weise)
Moving forward together. (Photo by F. Weise)

The good news is that we have plenty more tracking trips ahead of us, as several monitored females are giving birth to Christmas Cubs, the next lion generation in the Delta. The local prides slowly recover from poisoning in 2013 and no lions were killed in 2016!

 Pregnant female – Kubu pride. (Photo by F. Weise)
Pregnant female – Kubu pride. (Photo by F. Weise)

From our field station in Botswana, we wish everyone a happy festive season! We thank all our supporters for the great assistance in 2016!

Comments

  1. Martin Stein
    December 9, 2016, 7:35 pm

    This is confirmation of the CLAWS CONSERVANCY valuable conservation research. Best of luck to you and Andrew in your collaring expedition next week. The addition of 2 NATGEO film crews will certainly add a new dynamic to the process.