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Thirteen is a lucky number for lion conservation in Africa

 

It might be unlucky for some, but 13 is definitely a winning number for the lions of the Dambwa release pride in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in southern Zambia. Part of the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust’s (ALERT) African Lion Rehabilitation and Release into the Wild Program, this pride is just one part of the program aimed at ensuring the survival of the King of the Beasts. 

Lioness Rusha and her cubs

Lioness Rusha and her cubs

The pride began as a group of six females in August 2011, shortly followed by pride male Zulu.  Since then, a litter of three cubs in July 2013 had swelled numbers to 10.  And researchers suspected that more new arrivals were to follow…

In mid-October 2013, Zulu was spotted mating over several days with one of the females, Leya.  Fast forward to January 29th this year, the lioness was most conspicuous by her absence at a zebra kill attended by all other pride members – exactly 104 days after mating; within the usual gestation period for this species.  The following afternoon, Leya was still keeping a low profile, but Zulu was acting strangely.

Zulu Proud Father of 6

Zulu Proud Father of 6

With large storm clouds and angry grey skies covering the release site – accompanied by distant rumbles of thunder – Zulu took up position close to the bushes where Leya was hiding and proceeded to roar constantly throughout the afternoon.  In hindsight, ALERT researchers now know that what they were witnessing was Zulu announcing the arrival of his latest offspring.  They weren’t to spot the suspected new mother again for almost two weeks and, when they did, there was no sign of any cubs accompanying her.  This is normal behaviour for a lioness; keeping her offspring hidden for around six weeks until they are old enough to follow the pride.  This didn’t stop other the pride females from visiting the newcomers in Leya’s den.  Throughout the next few weeks, sisters Loma and Kela were particularly regular callers.

Finally, on March 11th, the patient research team were rewarded with a first glimpse of the newest members of the pride.  Leya and her three cubs, approximately six-weeks-old by then, were found relaxing with dad Zulu and aunts Loma and Kela.  With the pride having spent so much time together in the den over the last few weeks, they were already familiar with the cubs, which were equally at ease in the company of the adults.  A little later in the afternoon, Rusha – mother to the pride’s first litter – and side-kick Temi turned up to join the family.  The only adult absentee was aunt Kwandi who was obviously on babysitting duty with Rusha’s eight-month olds, the RS cubs.  Although the researchers were confident that these cubs had visited the den with their mother on several occasions, they were still forced to wait a further five days until the whole 13-strong pride could be seen together for the first time.

Bonding with Aunt Kela

Bonding with Aunt Kela

On this occasion, the LE cubs – as they are now known – could just be seen suckling from Leya throughout the early morning, oblivious to what their older siblings had in store for them.  Mid-morning when the research team returned to the group, the peaceful scene had been shattered.  The RS cubs were enthusiastically inducting the younger cubs in the ways of biting, wrestling, pawing, ankle-tapping and general rough ‘play’.  For almost 40 minutes, the LE cubs displayed their mother’s feisty spirit by putting up a brave fight.  From time to time, the mothers would step in to separate the cubs when things got a bit too rough and on one occasion RS3 ended up on the receiving end of a lesson she won’t forget in a hurry from aunt Leya!

There are now 11 second-generation cubs born into ALERT’s two release prides in Zambia and Zimbabwe.  The RS and LE cubs, and their contemporaries, will eventually be released into Africa’s national parks and reserves, providing a viable framework for the successful reintroduction of captive-born lions.  A future for the African lion.

Africa needs lions.  Without lions Africa will be a continent that has lost its soul. We cannot be the generation that allows this to happen. Join our Pride and show your support for the King of Beasts.

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