Ruaha: lion and elephant

This is the second last post from my first trip to Ruaha National park in the centre of Tanzania. According to the Ruaha Carnivore Project, which is part of the Wildlife Conservation Research unit at Oxford University, Ruaha is home to an estimated 10% of the world’s remaining wild lions.

“Nature is just enough; but men and women must comprehend and accept her suggestions.” ~Antoinette Brown Blackwell

According to Panthera, a hundred years ago, there were more than 200,000 lions in Africa. Currently, the total count of lions in Africa is approximated to be 20,000 lions in only 26 African countries. However, according to the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN) Red List, the total number of lions in the wild is approximated to be between 20,000 to 39,000.

Manes are unique to lions, no other cat species has a mane. Three features are thought to shape most views about a male lion’s mane. Firstly, the mane is dimorphic as only the males have manes. Secondly, the mane normally starts growing from puberty and really starts to show around when three years old. Thirdly, the shape and colour of male lion manes are highly variable. Some of the male lions we saw had ‘mohawk’ type manes. The length of the mane is thought to be influenced by climatic habitats. In extremely hot areas, male lions are seen to have shorter manes, though this is not a general rule. It is though clearly evident in Tsavo in Kenya. The infamous Tsavo man-eaters had almost no manes even when fully mature.

A male lion’s mane is a signal to other males and females of his strength and vigour. The mane is also thought to signal sex-selective traits and protect the male’s neck when fighting. An interesting article in American Scientist by Peyton M.West, indicates that the mane is a signal of quality to mates and rivals but one which comes with consequences.

This male lion is displaying the ‘flehmen grimace’. This is when an animal draws air in through its open mouth and curls back its upper lip to pull air over his Jacobson’s organ. This is a special olfactory organ in the roof of the mouth just behind the teeth with a patch of sensory cells that detects heavy moisture-borne odour particles and is able to scent an odour or pheromone. Chemicals and hormones contained in the urine elicit the flehmen response. Males and females display the flehmen response.

To complicate the discussion on lions’ manes, several female lions in Botswana have been recorded with full manes. Geoffrey D. Gilfillan at the University of Sussex in Falmer, UK, and colleagues reported that five lionesses sporting a mane were identified in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana’s Okavango delta. In lions, testosterone directly affects the development of manes. A likely explanation for a female lion growing a mane is an increased level of testosterone as these lionesses mature, says Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer at the global wild cat conservation organisation Panthera.

“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.”~Linda Hogan

In the middle of our trip we found four lionesses down next to the Great Ruaha river. They looked very lean and hungry and although their nipples showed they had been suckling their young. They must have left them in a safe thicket to venture out to hunt.

Lionesses affirm their bonds with neck and head rubbing and licking each other. These lionesses were in a gully adjacent to the river out of sight of impala wandering on the wide sand bank above. The impala never came close enough for the lioness to spring an attack. It was impressive to see the lionesses continue to boost each other during the lean times.

A lone male lying alongside the road. He was probably not more than a kilometre away from the ‘mohawk’ male. Although he was resting, he was alert. It could have been that he was part of a coalition with the ‘mohawk’ and was just giving him some space while he was with his female. A lion’s tail gives a sense how he is feeling. By flicking its tail, a lion can warn others to stay away because he is uncomfortable with their proximity.

After four days, the four lionesses eventually took down a zebra next to little Serengeti. It was relief to see them finally get a meal. To add a silver lining to the story, the cubs were with the females. It was clear the lionesses were very hungry and were making short work of the zebra carcass. There were a number of Hooded vultures close by but none dared to wander close to the kill.

The intent in this lioness’s eyes sends a primal shiver down your spine. It is also remarkable to see how quickly hungry lionesses in poor condition bounce back after one or two good meals.

Most male lion’s faces have scars and they etch a story of the trials he has been through to get to this point. Males are much larger and heavier than their females. The heaviest male lion recorded was spotted in Kenya and was 272 kilograms. Much smaller in comparison, the heaviest female, found in South Africa, was 152 kilograms. Lions have good sense of hearing. They turn their ears in different directions to assess the direction of the incoming sounds and are able to hear from many hundreds of metres away.

“There is nothing more energizing than inhaling the tang of wilderness, loamy after rain, pungent with the richness of earth shuddering with life, or taking in the brisk dry cleanness of winter.” ~ Lawrence Anthony

The park consists of four main ecological zones, each with its own animal and plant life. The Ruaha and its tributaries are banked by green woodland, namely fig, acacia, tamarind, baobab and doum palm.

One evening as the sun was setting in the west painting the sky as a warm apricot backdrop and clouds pregnant with rain turned a powder blue colour, we watched a breeding herd of elephants come towards the Mwagusi river. It was hot and dead quiet, but for the odd spurfowl and the Long tailed starlings calling.

“Communication is not the preserve of humans; it is the one thing that is truly universal.” ~ Lawrence Anthony

For a while they looked to be coming down for a drink. The herd closed ranks probably because of a perceived threat from perhaps a lingering scent in the area.

For some inexplicable reason, the matriarch led the herd into a horseshoe formation. It might have been that she suddenly got wind of a smell of predators. The herd was dead quiet and milled around for a while before heading off upstream along the Mwagusi dry sand river bed. It was a perfect end to a superb day in Ruaha.

According to the International Elephant Organisation, the Rungwa-Ruaha ecosystem contains the largest elephant population in East Africa, despite ongoing threats that have reduced its numbers by 77% since 2009. Consistently throughout Africa, human elephant conflict is on the rise, as humans increasingly convert existing elephant habitat into cropland and the elephants find themselves competing for resources with people. Parks like Ruaha provide a much needed sanctuary for elephants.

“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.” ~ Jacques Yves Cousteau

Elephants are now seen as sentient beings meaning they are able to feel and be aware of feelings. They are known to have spacial awareness, excellent memories, are able to recognise individual humans. Elephants are known to exhibit concern for deceased individuals and offer assistance to other elephant or other animals in distress. Perhaps the best example of this are the herds of elephant which arrived at Lawrence Anthony’s house at Thula Thula to pay their respects after he had died.

“But perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.” ~ Lawrence Anthony

There are two elephant herds at Thula Thula. According to Lawrence’s son, Dylan, both herds arrived at the Anthony family compound two days after Anthony’s death. They had not visited the house for a year and a half and it must have taken them about 12 hours to make the journey. The first herd arrived on Sunday and the second herd, a day later. They all hung around for about two days before making their way back into the bush. Nobody could understand how they knew that Lawrence had died. Perhaps there is sentience and inter-connectedness which we are still trying to fathom.

“All sentient beings should have at least one right—the right not to be treated as property” ~ Gary L Francione

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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