Ask anyone coming on safari for the first time what they are waiting with baited breath to see … and almost without exception they will respond “Lions”!! Always a highlight of any safari adventure, what is extra special is the opportunity to view new born lion cubs in the wild. There is nothing more cute, and at times it seems absolutely impossible that something so small and defenceless can grow into the largest carnivore in Africa, with the temperament and ferocity to match.
The latest and most exciting news coming out of the Blue Canyon Conservancy is the birth and growing health of our long awaited lion cubs. We believe they are now at an age of about 14 weeks and all 3 individuals are reported by our field teams as doing fine. Sightings are, at this stage, only occasional, with the lioness still keeping an ever protective and watchful eye on her new charges. Most of our evidence to date is what we are gleaming from tracks (spoor) and from details taken from the kills the pride is making across the reserve.
As we have sought to establish the Conservancy with a wide ranging and strong population of general “plains game” (zebra, wildebeest, impala, nyala, kudu, giraffe etc), it has been necessary for us to “interfere” temporarily with the breeding insticts of our lion population using contraceptive techniques. Lions are prolific hunters and left to their own devices in the early stages of the conservancy would severely prohibit the proliferation of other species.
Lions are by nature highly social mammals. This very “closed family” structure is core to them being one of the most successful mammals in Africa and over a period of time, every lion within the pride develops into a core member of pride society. Lionesses have no real “breeding season” but females within the pride are able to syncronise their estrus (cycle) and thus be ready for mating and birthing at the same time. When females give birth to their cubs, the cubs themselves are able to suckle communally from the pride lionesses who have also given birth around the same time.Once the females reach the age of 4 years and enter estrus, which typically lasts around 4 days, the male will begin to copulate with the female approximately every 20 minutes for the entire period of estrus in order to induce ovulation. Once ovulation occurs the success rate for fertilisation is as high as 95% (one male was recorded as copulating 157 times in 55 hours!! … Quite a formidable task in anyone’s book!!)
Our core pride consists of a single male and 4 females. So now seems a good time to introduce you to our proud new parents …….
Our new litter of lion cubs is of a standard and typical size, most females give birth 3 cubs and the interval between births is generally 20-30 months at which time the preceding cubs will be fully independent within the pride. Sadly, statistics show is that the survival rate of cubs is very poor, as more than 50% will die in the first year. Cubs are kept well hidden by the female during infancy whilst she goes off to hunt. They are unable to move independently with the pride until they are about 7 weeks old and are not weaned until they are approximately 7 months old.
This over reliance upon the parent for food and protection, whilst it generates strong bonds between adults and infants, exposes the cubs to the attention of predators such as hyaena and indeed other intruding male lions. Once they have established control of a pride by defeating the incumbent male, the new male will kill all the cubs less than a year old in order to bring the females within the pride back into estrus and thus produce his own cubs and secure his bloodline.
Only a few weeks ago I was treated to something very special indeed. I was able to take my leave from Nyumbani for a few days and visit neighbouring Kruger National Park. After all, It’s just a 20 minute journey away. Here, I was able to witness something so unique it is unlikely to be seen by most safari goers even once in a lifetime. Seeing a wounded lioness hobble across the road, it became evident from her wounds that she had been gored by a wildebeest whilst making a kill. But she was clearly lactating and producing milk for cubs which she was likely to have hidden nearby. Within seconds there was the excited “yapping” of youngsters hidden under a nearby bush. Just moments later, 4 young cubs appeared and I rubbed my eyes in amazement. All 4 cubs were different colours and one was a pure white lion cub, something that is so infrequent in the wild that recorded cases are confined to only one area in the world, the Timbavati Region of South Africa. The rarity of seeing such a cub at this age (4 to 5 weeks old) is such that the last recorded infant of this age was in 1968. Indeed only a few adults are even known to exist in the region as many people believe that their coloration makes then particularly prone to predation and even if they manage to reach sub-adulthood, stealth hunting may cause them come problems due to lack of camoflague.
What a treat!!
Whilst lions are top of everyone’s list of “must see” animals on a visit to Africa, they do very little except rest and sleep for up to 20 hours per day. Sometimes this can lead to a somewhat serene sighting, not a lot happening, but if you really immerse yourself in studying these amazing animals you will be rewarded with an understanding of one of the closest bonded social structures in the animal kingdom. You will have an insight into a world in which to survive to just 1 year old is a battle in itself, and to advance beyond that, particularly for male cubs, is an even greater challenge. No wonder then, when you have sight of your first proud fully grown male lion, you gaze in awe at his majestic appearance. The reach that point in his life he has survived the killing fields of his youth; been ejected from the pride by the age of 3 years; found comfort by bonding with other journeying males of the same age; hunted and provided for himself for years whilst building up the strength to challenge and oust a dominant pride male. That is a journey in itself ….. and one for a blog another day perhaps!! Watch this space for more updates on our new arrivals in the months to come.