An African Lion's Unsuccessful Search for Her Cubs on the S90 Close to Satara Camp.
We had seen a lone lioness on the way to Satara on Monday. It was on the main road and we were able to follow her for 500 metres or so. I guessed without knowing for sure that this African Lioness was in the latter stages of pregnancy and was looking for a safe place to give birth to her lion cubs. On the next day we saw a second lioness and this one had already given birth and was looking for her cubs.
The African lion is the king of predators and is also the largest. The male lion in the Kruger weighs close to 200 kg on average. While the African Lioness is significantly smaller at around 125 kgs it is still a very large animal capable of hunting and bringing down large prey animals even including African Buffalo, Kudu and Giraffe.
This Lioness, Distressed was Looking for Her Cubs
Satara region on S90 ... click the thumbnail images to enlarge. The series of images are shown in the order taken to give a more accurate sense of the anguish this mother seemed to communicate to us ...
|We had stopped at a low level crossing of the Mavumbye River about 7 kms off the main H1-4 road on the S90. We were watching a couple of small birds and trying to work out what they were when a lioness appeared just up the rise on the other side of the stream. She crossed the road from right to left and in quite a hurry although walking. We crossed the stream ourselves and over the next 10 minutes or so along with only one other vehicle we witnessed some remarkable behaviour that prior to this encounter I'd only seen on BBC wildlife documentaries. But first a bit of a footnote on Lion mating and cub rearing activities ...|
|African Lions are social animals living in groups called Prides. These lion prides can range up to as many as 20 or more animals of different ages. In the Kruger I believe the average family size is around 10 of which about 4 or 5 would be adult females or lionesses. Females born within these groups tend to stay until death. Male lions are forced to leave. The pride size is also a function of birth rate success and food availability. Males are either one or two in the group normally. They act as guardians or custodians and also as sires. The dominant male in a group tends to father most of the cubs and often there are male rivals trying to break into established prides. There is a turnover of males in all prides normally with few males living within the same pride until death. Herein lies the problem with newly born cubs.|
|If lion cubs were born into the pride in a casual way they would run the real risk of being killed by resident male lions and certainly potential intruder males. The reason is that the lioness if she loses her cubs becomes amenable to breeding again very soon after the loss. The male, in a desire to become the father, of future generations of lions therefore kills the newly born cubs that he has not sired. Female lions normally give birth for the first time at an age of around 4 years and leave the safety of the pride to actually give birth in order to increase the survival rate of the small cubs.|
|She will introduce the cubs back into the pride at about 4 to 8 weeks of age (unless other cubs within the pride are more than 3 months old ... lactating lionesses allow any cub to suckle and if there were older cubs then the young newly introduced ones would suffer).|
|The average number of cubs per litter is around 3. Female lions rarely leave the established pride territory which in Kruger can be between about 50 sq kms in the Thornveld and grazing regions to over 200 sq kms in the Mopane scrub areas where prey numbers are lower.|
|The mother of newly born cubs needs to feed to be able to continue looking after her offspring and while hunting she "hides" the cubs. This is where this story continues ...|
|The lioness we saw was looking for her cubs which she had hidden somewhere. This conclusion is based upon observing her behavior at close quarters in an environment without too much vehicle activity or other interruptions (as I said there were only 2 vehicles and we had no other disturbances at all). The series of pictures below will leave you in little doubt that this lioness mother was a little desperate and concerned to say the least.|
|She would sit on relatively high ground and look around. She would call in a quiet low voice and continuously look around for signs of movement or response. If such response didn't come she would move to another spot and repeat the low calling. I have placed the photos in the order I took them ... notice the lactating teats and the loss of bodyweight in one of the shots.|
|She reached the high point and looked around. At this stage we didn't fully appreciate what was happening but shortly after we heard the first of the many low beckoning calls ... it was like a "gruff, gruff" sound.|
|Made a move and looked again. Nothing to be seen, no movement anywhere, no returning sounds of joy to be heard. Once more she called ...|
|The tail has dropped as she senses "no luck here". Does the mother lioness really remember exactly where she left her cubs? I presume so and hence the look of desperation. The grass in the area had recently been burned.|
|Still looking though ... I think she would have expected to have seen some response by now if the cubs were close by.|
|And she calls again with that low beckoning sound. As much as the sound is low (to keep away unwanted males no doubt) it travelled.|
|Nobody heard, look how thin she is and how sad she looks. Deep concern is showing ... as she heads towards the road to continue her search. This lioness is worried and in a hurry too. Her long gait gives it away. She pays no attention to our vehicle nor to the other car and its occupants and we're only metres away from her.|
|The veld has recently been burned here ... I wonder, could they have been trapped in a fire? Lion cub mortality is extremely high for many reasons but this must be one of the worst reasons ... you've lost your babies. Still no luck ... this mother would have been at least 4 years old. She called again and again without any reward or consolation. And still she called and no doubt was wondering what next? Will I ever find ...|
|By this time she must having been getting greatly concerned. 10 minutes of intense searching and calling had taken place.|
Looking very unhappy and a bit the worse for wear resulting form the
rigours of looking after cubs in isolation from the pride.
One last look before moving off to search elsewhere ... She moved out of site and we have no happy ending to report ... and this is much regretted.
|And we never did really identify that little bird we'd stopped to admire (Chestnutbacked Sparrowlark) and without which we would have missed a truly wonderful sighting of the African Lion. Let's hope she didn't need to search much longer ...|