War at Military

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Posted by Sara Blackburn at 4:09 PM

All is not well with the Maternity lions. Last night on the rounds, the three young males from across the Mara River had joined Asali, Mandisa and Caesar in Military Bush. When I first arrived on the scene, none of the lions looked particularly uncomfortable with the situation, until I took a closer look and counted not three cubs, but only two.

The true extent of the matter between the Maternity lions and these three punks became apparent as one of the boys, Marley, stood up, stretched and then limped closer to our gang. He'd obviously been in a fight. Caesar responded immediately and approached the young male, closely followed by Asali in defence of her cubs. Marley adopted a submissive posture and only warning swipes were exchanged, but judging by the lions' reactions, the tension between both parties and Marley's cuts and bruises, it was clear that this meeting had been far from friendly.

Below: Asali and Caesar tell Marley who's boss

Above: Caesar stands proud over his pride, whilst Ziggy looks on in the background.
The story doesn't end there: Romeo was seen the previous day with Asali and her three cubs, and he appeared far from friendly. We don't know much about this encounter, but perhaps Romeo's short visit has something to do with the missing cub?

Above: Asali gets defensive

So, what happened? We can't know for sure, but it is possible that Romeo killed the cub. However, I have my doubts - five months ago, Romeo was seen mating with Asali, and so it is possible that he is the father to the little ones. It is unlikely that he would kill his own offspring - then again, Asali did mate with Junior, Romeo's brother, and Clawed.

What about the three river boys? These three young males may have attempted to challenge Caesar's position as top dog. Even though at around 2 1/2 years old, these adolescents would usually be too young to hold a pride, there is strength in numbers. Young males often adopt this strategy when they are kicked out of their natal pride, as it gives them an advantage in hunting, scavengning, and looking for their own pride. Unfortunately for Asali, males are quick to practice infanticide and kill any offspring under 1 year of age which are not fathered by themselves. This quickly brings the female into season so that they can mate, and ensure that any cubs they invest in supporting are carrying their genes.

Whilst this appears harsh, lions breed quickly, and receptive females can produce a litter of between 2 and 6 cubs within 3 months. With the support of other pride females, older lionesses especially successful.

However, all is not lost. Asali is a good mother and still has two little ones, and this morning she was content with a full belly after bringing down a small zebra. As she left the remains and began making her way to Mulima Maui, my heart skipped a beat as I noticed the three males prowling around close by, but they seemed interested only in picking the carcass clean. Phew! Just as well, as Caesar was nowhere to be seen, and Asali would have had little chance of defending her cubs alone.

Below: The cubs have started showing an interest in meat

I'm still not sure how much of a threat Marley, Ziggy and Thani are to Asali, or if Romeo is friend or foe. But I'll certainly keep an eye on the situation. Watch this space...


Meet the locals

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Posted by Sara Blackburn at 8:12 PM

Time to introduce you to some of our lions. Around Serian Camp is a small group of lions that are part of the River Pride. The core individuals in this group are three sisters - Asali, Mandisa and Tailend, who I call the Maternity girls, as they spend most of their time around the lugga of the same name. All three are around 4 to 5 years of age, and have been seen with a host of different males over the past few months.

Asali and Mandisa are most likely direct sisters and are very similar in appearance. You need to look closely at the whisker spots and the shape of the face to tell them apart. Mandisa has a rounder face and a richer coloured coat, plus a rear whisker spot on the left side.

Above: Mandisa and Asali (background) scan the plains

Tailend is one of our easier lions to identify - not only does she have the end of her tail missing (hence the name) but she has a large scar on the right of her nose. Her coat is lighter than most lions, and her eyes are small and slanted.
Below: Tailend has a scar on the right side of her nose.

Above: The Maternity girls from left to right: Tailend (background), Asali and Mandisa

I certainly have a soft spot for Asali- she was the first lion I saw whe I arrived at Serian. At this time in July and August she mated with a number of males, including Clawde and Romeo of Big Cat Diary fame, and now has three tiny cubs. Six weeks ago the trio were no more than little bundles of fluff hidden in Maternity lugga - now, two months later, they have been introduced to the pride and can be seen playing and exploring their new surroundings near to camp. She certianly is a great mother and a formidable lioness despite her age. Unfortunately Mandisa wasn't so successful in raising her cubs - she lost them after two weeks, most likely to hyena.

Above: One of Asali's cubs aged 8 weeks checks out the Suzuki!

The male of the moment with the Maternity girls is Caesar. He's a really impressive male with an enormous chestnut mane and noble face. Mandisa quickly came into heat after the loss of her cubs, and Caesar was there to father the next bundles of joy. Let's hope that she has more success in raising a family in three months!

The Maternity girls are certainly ones to watch out for, and you'll be hearing a lot more of them in the months to come.

How to I.D. a lion

Posted by Sara Blackburn at 12:31 PM

In order for us to learn about the lions in our area, we first need to identify them so that we can track individuals. From this we can learn about pride ranges and identify key areas for lions. We can also try and establish what causes the lions to move around.

Lions change greatly in appearance over time - males especially can become unrecognizable in a matter of weeks throuhg changes in condition and encounters with other lions. Injuries and scars heal remarkable quickly, and lions often gain new ear tears.

Each lion has its own character, and some features can certainly be useful in identifying individuals. Prominent ear tears, face shape, age, and major infuries such as missing tail tips and scarred noses can all be used with recent photographs. However, only the whisker spot pattern remains the same throughout a lion's life.

So what is this pattern? On each side of a lions muzzle, whisker spots lie in rows. Not all of these have virbrissae (whiskers), and the pattern differs on both sides on the face.

We look at a certain area of this pattern to identify our lion. The uppermost complete whisker spots is referred to as row B, or the reference row. Above this row are often found several randomly spaced spots - usually from 1 to 4. These form what we call row A. We are interested in the position of row A spots in relation to the position of row B spots. This remains the same from birth to death, and acts the same as a human fingerprint.

Click here to visit the MPP Database page on I.D.ing lions, and study the image below to help you.

Unfortunately, as a lion ages and the fur on the muzzle becomes patchy and worn, its whisker spots become increasingly hard to distinguish. At this age, however, the lion has usually collected enough permanent battle scars to aid with its identification.

More soon on how to age lions - another essential to working out who's who.


Welcome to the Mara Predator Project Blog!

Posted by Sara Blackburn at 2:31 AM

Welcome to the new blog for the Mara Predator Project! Here you can follow the day to day life of some of the lions in Koiyaki on the north-east border of the Masai Mara Reserve. This aim of this blog is to keep past visitors and interested readers up to date on the day-to-day lives of our known lions, many of which may have been stars of their safari. Feel free to add us to your favourites, and please visit our project website here.

Firstly, a quick introduction to the project and myself. My name is Sara Blackburn, and I work as the Project Biologist of the Mara Predator Project (MPP). The Mara Predator Project is a new project run by Living with Lions (LWL) - a organization that works to protect lions in conflict with humans. You can read all about Living With Lions here, and visit the MPP project page here. LWL projects include the Laikipia Predator Project, the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project, and the Lion Guardians Program, all of which are successfully reducing threats to lions in Kenya. This work would not be possible without the fantastic LWL team, who you can visit here.

The Mara Predator Project was started in mid-2008, and has several main aims. Our first is to assess and monitor the lion population. We can do this by finding out how many lions there are and where, working out pride ranges and associations, and looking at the sex, age and breeding status of each lion. All this information helps us work out the health and status of Kioyaki's lion population, and gives us a base for monitoring changes. Secondly, we aim to include visitors and tourists to the area in lion conservation. This is where you come in - I'll explain later.

In order to achieve the above, we need to be able to identify our lions. You can read all about how we do this on the MPP Lion I.D. Database here, or in the following informative posts. When a new lion is identified, we create an ID sheet, calculate its age and build a collection of images that can be used for future identification. Essentially, we also note where the lion was seen and which lions, if any, it was seen with. This helps us build a picture of pride ranges and associations. All our lions are given a name and I.D. number, and put onto our lion IDENTIFICATION DATABASE.

The project is currently based at Serian Camp - one of the MPP's sponsors. From Serian and the surrounding camps, safari-goers can work with the camp guides to identify the lions they see on game drives, using Lion I.D. booklets. I.D.ing not only allows guests to learn more about the life and history of each lion, but aids us in our data collection. By reporting lion sightings and submitting photographs to allow us to confirm the I.D. and update our records, we gain essential information on each lion's whereabouts, helping us monitor the population.

So, how can you help? If you have recently visited a camp in the area and have some prize lion photographs, why not go onto our database and see if you can identify your lion? If you would like to report your sighting, please go here. Alternatively, if you would like us to identify your lion for you, you can email us at maralions@gmail.com.

This blog will be updated regularly, allowing you to read all about your favourite lions. I will also post useful information to help you participate in our work and enjoy following our project.

Watch this space!