Life and Death

Monday, September 21, 2009

Posted by Sara Blackburn at 6:45 PM

Both from our diaries and observing their swelling tummies, we’ve known that two, if not three of the females from Elephant Pepper were pregnant. A few days ago we were indeed blessed with three tiny babies, born to Siti.
The birth was rather unusual, as Siti had her cubs in the open. Some guests were very lucky to witness the event. Normally, lions give birth in dense bush or in a secluded lugga, hidden away from the rest of the pride and any potential predators. The fact that Siti had the cubs in the company of not Silver and Lilly, but also Caesar, is highly unusual.

Mum snuggles with her babies

The next morning after hearing about the event I went to check out the new arrivals. It’s such a treat to see such tiny babies, and I was quite surprised to see that she hadn’t moved them to a more secluded place. She nursed the little ones, licking and cleaning them and encouraging them to suckle. At barely a day old, they were very wobbly and still had their eyes closed. That didn’t stop them squabbling over mum’s milk though!

At barely two days old, the cubs are blind and helpless, with no teeth.

Because of her location, we decided to give her some privacy – it’s important that young cubs and the mother do not experience stress during these delicate hours. The next morning I took post at the site, as again, Siti had not moved her cubs. The area sees a lot of action from passing cattle herders to hyena and leopard, and also offered little protection from the sun, and we were a little concerned. However, the most pressing matter was the presence of Caesar. He joined this group only six weeks ago, previously being attached to Marley’s pride. He seemed relaxed, but had he indeed mated with Siti three months ago? Were these cubs his, and did he himself know of his relation to the cubs?

a00Hey! Watch where you’re treading!

Occasionally, Caesar got up to check out the babies. Mum seemed tense, and shooed him away when she had the opportunity. He tested the scent of the cubs often, possibly trying to ascertain their relation to him. Lions practice infanticide, whereby a male new to a pride will kill the offspring of previous pride holders. This encourages the female to come into oestrus, allowing him to mate with her and produce his own cubs.

a2 Caesar tested the cubs’ scent to see if they were his

Things took a turn for the worst when one of the cubs wandered over to Caesar, climbing over his paws. Initially the huge male did not react, but mum was worried. She came over to collect the little one, but unfortunately her intrusion in the delicate situation seemed to topple the balance and Caesar snatched the cub.

fightMum tried her best to defend her cubs

Mum was quick to defend, and a full-on fight broke out. The other lionesses stayed out of harms was whist Siti fought tooth and claw for the survival of her babies. Male lions are not only stronger but larger than females, and unfortunately Caesar won the battle. He ran off with one of the cubs whilst Mum desperately looked for the two remaining babies. I wasn’t sure how severely these had been injured in the fight. I knew though that eventually Caesar would kill these too.
Caesar had obviously concluded that he had not fathered the litter. It was very sad to watch, but a part of life. Females will fight hard to protect their babies, but following such an event will remain with the new male. Males as strong as Caesar will offer this little group invaluable protection from predators and other males, and in the future will be sure to safeguard his own offspring. Siti will soon be ready to mate again, and in around 100 days will have Caesar’s cubs.

a7 Caesar with one of the cubs

The next morning there was no trace of the cubs, but the little pride seemed comfortable together. I’ll keep you posted on their activities. In more good news, Caesar mated with Silver almost 7 weeks ago now, and so in two months or so we should have some babies, hopefully with a better start in life.

Red-hot Adventures in the Dark

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Posted by Sara Blackburn at 5:49 PM

This week I’ve been spending some time with cameraman Martin Dohrn, who has worked on Mara Nights and Big Cat Diary. He brought with him some pretty funky equipment – a state-of-the-art thermal camera and also a starlight camera to put through some rigorous testing for Ammonite ( These cameras allow us to witness some amazing footage of lion behaviour at night, revealing a world totally different to the one we are used to experiencing during daylight hours. The thermal camera reads the heat given off by animals (and rocks, we discovered!).
Lions are very active at night, using the cover of darkness to ambush their prey. During a full moon, lion have little advantage over the plains game, who also have generally good night vision. However, the nights after a full moon begin with a period of total darkness before the moon rises, during which lions have a significant advantage over their prey. We aimed to film during these hours to hopefully capture some cool lion action on film.
We had some fun-time with the Marsh cubs, hassling hippos and giving us the run around over luggas (dry river beds) and swamps. With only infra-red goggles to guide us, navigating the many holes and water tracks was a challenge! We spent several nights with the group, and watched the Marsh males Romeo Clawed scoffing a wildebeest kindly brought down by Lispy. This she caught just before sunset, calling in her family to share the goods. The moon was bright, and so we were able to get some excellent footage with the starlight camera, which operates in extreme low light conditions.
The following night we made our was into the Mara North Conservancy (MNC) with the hope of finding some active lions. It has been raining rather heavily, but that didn’t stop us tracking down Caesar and the three girls from Elephant Pepper in Military. As the sun went down, they slowly made their way onto the plains. We had two hours of total darkness before the moon rose and they looked pretty hungry, so we were feeling lucky.
At this point it’s worth noting how differently the animals behave at night. Wildebeest who are usually grazing or resting during the day migrate on to the hills, clustering together for protection through strength in numbers. Thompson’s Gazelles find a quiet spot and lie down silently, adopting the tactic of invisibility. Topi stumble awkwardly in the darkness, and Impala walk with their heads to the ground in the hope of picking out a cat-like silhouette. The lions on the other hand stroll out with confidence and a spring in their step, their incredible night vision obvious. It’s amazing watching a lion walk within yards of herds who are totally oblivious to their presence.
First, the lions tried their luck with an ostrich. It was a pretty casual hunt and an opportunistic one, more amusing than successful for the lions. Slowly they made their way to the panicked herds, which by now knew they were not alone and streamed across the thermal camera. The images are truly amazing – the heat of the animals shows them up like city lights in amazing clarity. For several hundred or even thousand meters you can pick out animals clear as day.
The lions repeatedly ran into the herds, scattering them as they attempted a kill. They came close, but failed to seal the deal. Caesar then peeled off from the girls, moving round the back of the herd. Spooked, they ran straight towards the awaiting lionesses, and sure enough, one of our girls chased down a sizeable youngster. The thermal camera captured the entire event in amazing clarity, and we were able to watch our lioness stretch out in full run and tumble with her kill to the ground.
After despatching the wildebeest, the girls had only a nibble before Caesar tucked in. This is usual behaviour with lions – the lionesses bring down a significant percentage of kills, but the male gets the lion’s share and first dibs. This might seem unfair, but without him there, hyenas would quickly overpower the lionesses. Indeed, we watched Caesar run full stretch at some cheeky hyenas that came a bit too close.

thermalCaesar and one of the girls with their kill, shown as a mega cool inverted image. You can see how the thermal works this way – the hot points such as the eyes show up as black areas, whilst the cool ground and Caesar’s mane show as white.

Together with a hyena kill and other incredible footage, we left the MNC to film another day. Martin will be coming back in October, and I hope to spend some more time observing the lions at night. It is fascinating observing their hunting behaviour, and witnessing just how different – and active – these cats are when then have the cover of darkness.
I might just forgive the next lion I find asleep in the middle of the day!!
More soon – I’ve just heard we have some visitors rather near our camp!

Finders Keepers!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Posted by Sara Blackburn at 1:14 PM

A couple of days ago, the Serian guides reported a group of 6 lions nearby camp, including Kioni, our older female. On the same drive, the guides found Marley close by in Military, separate to the group.
You may remember that Kioni has FOUR cubs of between 12 and 18 months of age – six lions in all including Marley. With Marley temporarily disconnected from the group, some simple maths shows that we’re one lion up. Who could this extra one be? Another female perhaps? A nomadic male come to try his luck? I had to go and investigate…
Later that day I followed my nose to Maternity, and happened across the gang. Kioni was there, relaxing and yawning to show off her missing right canine – a useful pointer for her identification. Marley had come back to his little pride, and was relaxing too nearby. I counted the four cubs, and sure enough saw another patch of fur in the crotons. Sure enough, it appears that Kioni had picked up a younger cub.

sophie tooth
Kioni has her right-upper canine broken. Also note that her teeth are yellow and worn – a clear sign of older age.

It’s a real puzzle where this little guy came from. I’m not aware of any mothers with cubs of this age in the area, apart from the group that reside across the river. Kioni and co. were seen crossing the river a fortnight ago, and this is the first time they have been seen since their trip. Could they have picked up a lost cub from the escarpment?

Who’s this little one then?

It’s something that I have never seen before, and is a very unusual occurrence in these animals. It is very common for females to nurse youngsters other than their own, as females often synchronize litters to crèche their young. Strength in numbers helps them protect their cubs from predators and intruding males, and allows for greater hunting success – the females can continue to hunt co-operatively or alone whilst one remains behind to babysit the kids.
The lions were entertaining as always, and continue to find my little Suzuki great fun to chase and play with. This is a great little pride to identify – Marley is an unusual lion, as he is a ‘grey morph’ with a small mane for his age. If you look closely at his nose, you will notice that it is not pink but grey. it will still however show the freckling that comes with age. His coat also has a grey tint.

You think this is edible, guys?

marley colourHere you can clearly see the grey tint of Marley’s coat

There are two female and two male cubs in the original group belonging to Kioni. One of the boys, Kahawa, is growing into a fine male, and it’s clear that he is getting the lion’s share of the kills (after Marley, of course!). His coat is a lovely rich terracotta red, and already he is developing muscle mass and is larger than his sisters. The second male, Maji, seems somewhat lagging in his development – there is a clear size difference and his mane is nowhere near as developed as Kahawa’s. At first glance he could even be mistaken for his sisters. He may have been a smaller cub, had an illness or been outcompeted for food by his stronger siblings. I’m sure that in time he will grow into a fine lion.

comparison2Maji (above) is a lot smaller and less developed than his brother Kahawa (below) – already Kahawa’s mane is developing on his head and he is showing the broader face and forelegs of a maturing male lion.

Marley’s pride certainly are a mixed bunch!