Mashatu: Tawny paws

Summer is not the easiest time for predators in Southern Africa. Having good rains means that there is plenty of water all around and the animals which usually need to come down to the rivers to drink in the dry season, now disperse.

“Stop for a moment. Hold your breath and listen. The breeze carries a distant roar. Instinctively you know it is his place. The roar sends shivers down your spine – a reflex from some deep primal memory. The roar is far way but his message is clear to family and foe.” ~ Mike Haworth

Occasionally, as we are driving along a dry river bed densely lined with trees, we come across a predator either walking in the shade or lying on the cool sand.

The Mashatu logo on the door of a game vehicle. Mashatu is a land of large beings – trees, birds, reptiles and mammals – Mashatu trees, Martial eagles and Kori bustards, African pythons and elephants.

When the game vehicles go out first thing in the morning, the guides usually radio each other to communicate what they have seen either that morning or the evening before. It must have been around 7h30 when our guide, Justice, found the dominant male lion in Mashatu. Often when one group of visitors moves on after having seen the animal, the animal moves on, and the next vehicle needs to a little time searching and tracking to find where it had moved to.

The length of the shadows indicates it was still relatively early in the morning when we found this male lion. The shadow was to the right of the broken bush indicating that it was morning light and he was still lying in the open signalling that, although warm, it was not too hot for him. He was not with his pride so must have been resting while out patrolling his territory. He has had a relatively easy time without too much competition. He banished some of his sons a few years ago and they moved north and west. There has been surprisingly little competition and he has a handsome unscarred face to prove it. The status quo is always fluid so the time for a take over is coming.

The next day we found two females with cubs. Judging from their size they must have been around three to four months old and still sucking. The females, when they are in the mood, are remarkably gentle and attentive.

When your mother bares her teeth like this, even in a yawn, best you know your place. Judging from the condition of her canines she was a relatively young mother. We found her and her cubs around 17h00 in the evening and she was yawning as she was waking up and getting ready to get going. An adult lion’s clock is opposite to ours. They usually sleep during the day when it is hottest and do all their moving and hunting at night when it is cool and they can exploit their competitive advantage to its fullest, their night vision.

Cubs of the same sex often begin life long friendships when they are in the pride. The male cubs friendship group often grows into a coalition after they leave the pride, The females usually stay in the pride and bond for life.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”~ Plato

The cubs, of course, do not follow the adults’ pattern and can be very playful during daylight hours. They use each other as sparring partners where they build their coordination and learn to practice some of the moves that they have learnt from watching their mother.

Usually the lionesses are very patient with their cubs and even the other lionesses’ cubs. They can bite and pounce on their mother with little reaction. It is only when they have made their mother’s nipples raw with their sucking and biting do the mothers react firmly. The mother will often get up and walk away from the cubs to get a break.

“Two things define you. Your patience when you have nothing, and your attitude when you have everything.” ~ Unknown

When you spend a little time watching the cubs, it becomes very apparent that they have different personalities. Some are thugs, some are shy and retiring and others are more pensive and like to watch all the action from a distance.

Hide and seek, tripping, tackling sand stalking are all part of the games that cubs play at this age to build strength and coordination and begin to hone some of their hunting skills. Every lion has different skills and this is typically they time the differences start to show.

Lionesses usually have two to three cubs in a litter. She has only four nipples, so any more than four cubs is problematic. The cubs are introduced to meat around three months of age and are unusually weaned after about 10 months of age. Lactating females are prepared to feed any of the cubs in the pride and only chase them away when their nipples are getting too sore.

“Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”~ Heraclitus

Cubs grow quickly in their first year. They are able to walk under their mother’s stomach until about two months old and reach just below their mother’s shoulder height by one year old. When looking at these cute little characters, it is hard to accept that around half of them die in their first year and about 80% of youngsters do not make it to adulthood. In Mashatu, the survival rate is higher as there is not the same level of threat from wandering nomad male lions but there are plenty of hyaenas and leopards. It is also not beyond a Martial eagle or a baboon to steal a very small cub.

On our third afternoon in Mashatu, we were out on an afternoon game drive. Justice, our guide, found the two lionesses and their cubs in an open area between two croton groves. It was late afternoon and the light was a rich golden colour. The lion families were lying in the grass in the shade but eventually some of the cubs started wandering toward a small pool of rainwater which was close by. Cubs are always playful even when they are just walking together.

One lioness moved out of the shade of the large trees surrounding this open sand patch and walked down to the pond to drink. What was so impressive about our guide, Justice, was that as soon as the cubs started to move toward the pond he moved the vehicle. With excellent anticipation he moved the vehicle in the opposite direction to everyone else and got us into position with a clear view of the pond such that the direction of the sun illuminated the pond perfectly. We then just sat and waited. Eventually, after about ten minutes, the first lioness walked down to the pond for a drink with the rich golden light bathing her from the front.

There is just no substitute for accurate anticipation of animal behaviour and good light. The anticipation of animal behaviour comes from spending time watching them and slowly learning their ways .

Once the lionesses were drinking at the pond, the cubs inevitably followed. The one lioness on the right hand side objected to one of the cubs biting her haunches. It was a sublime few minutes when all the lions gathered alongside the water’s edge to drink in the rich saturated late afternoon light. These times last a few minutes then they are gone, but the memory lasts long after the light has faded.

We are fortunate to always see lions when we visit Mashatu and usually see cubs of various ages. I never take for granted the privilege of seeing these “tawny paws” given the drastic dwindling of their numbers in Africa. I also value that we see these magnificent predators in the wild, not in some form of human containment.

“Lions were once found on three continents but have since disappeared from 94 percent of their historic range. Now fewer than 25,000 wild lions are estimated to remain in Africa.” ~National Geographic

I am fortunate enough to visit Mashatu twice a year and it seems to me that the lion population is relatively stable. There is plenty of game which also sustains a large population of hyaenas in the game reserve. The dominant male lion has had a long run with his pride, with little competition. The time must be coming that younger males will eventually wander into his territory looking to take over. New males will most probably come from the Zimbabwean side on the east of Mashatu, as the north and west have villages and the south borders on South Africa which is mostly fenced.

“There will be three cats, kin of your kin, with the power of the stars in their paws. They will find a fourth, and the battle between light and dark will be won. A new leader will rise from the shadows of his death, and the clan will survive beyond the memories of his memories. This is how it has always been and always will be.”
~ Erin Hunter

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

Have fun, Mike

One thought on “Mashatu: Tawny paws

  1. And I feel fortunate that you are willing to share these marvellous experiences! These photographs are a pleasure to scroll through.

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