Sunday, 15 November 2009

11th November & 12th November – Good-Bye Sohebele Pride

The last two days had been good until Thursday evening when we received more bad news about the Sohebele pride; news that all but spells the end for this pride that has suffered immensely over the last several months.

Wednesday morning started off partly cloudy, but it cleared and the warm summer sun was beating down on us by the mid afternoon. The drive in the morning was a relatively quiet one, but still included some different sightings. We found a lone hyena drinking at Trade Entrance Dam right at the beginning of the drive, and she soon wandered towards the camp so we left her on her own. A bit further down the road we found another scavenger; this time it was the largest of our stork species called a Marabou stork that was perched on a dead tree near Sean’s Clearing. While watching the stork, a side-striped jackal came trotting down the road from some distance off, but at about 80m from us realised we were there and promptly turned around and dashed off into the bush.

I was looking for some zebras, so I tried the eastern section past Karan’s Big Dam and Kudu Pan Clearing, but found little of note besides a few impala, warthog and some steenbok. I checked Scholtz trough but found nothing, so headed towards Hide Dam where we found some giraffe en route, and eventually a herd of eight zebras just north of the dam.

We had a cup of coffee at Hide Dam while the matriarch hyena of the Rockfig clan lay asleep on the opposite side of the waterhole. Heading back north, we found some more giraffe, including a female and a calf, some warthog, and then a bit of a quiet spell with only some impala and steenbok being found. There were four buffalo bulls on just as we were approaching the camp for breakfast, but overall it was a bit quiet for me.

Godfrey had a brief sighting of two leopards east of Tamboti Pan, but he was not sure of the identity of the female leopard; he thought perhaps it may have been Nthombi, and while she was relaxed, she kept trying to run after the nervous male leopard, and both leopards were eventually lost. Elliot also had a brief visual of the Vyboom Dam young male leopard north of Vyboom dam, but it was a distant visual, and by the time Elliot got closer, he had crossed our northern boundary into Ingwelala. Elliot had spent part of the morning tracking the three Mahlathini male lions that had come walking past Motswari camp in the early hours of the morning, but their tracks also crossed our boundary to the north. Johannes had found those two male rhinos north-east of Sweetwater pan, and Godfrey did manage to find them later on in the morning, along with two large groups of buffalo bulls, one of about thirty individuals, another of about ten!

The afternoon was also not an overly productive one, the hot weather no doubt lulling some of the animal activity. Still, as I headed out towards Vyboom dam I managed to tick off some kudu near camp, a fair number of impala, some waterbuck below the dam wall, and also many dead fishes along the bank of th dam.

At Concrete crossing there was a huge crocodile lying on the rocks below Peru dam wall, as well as a lone bull elephant feeding in the water below the dam, and a small water monitor on the bridge itself. We carried on and my tracker and I smelt the unmistakeable smell of rotting flesh, so we jumped off the vehicle and followed our noses to find what had died, but had no luck. Then the smell got stronger, so we tried again, and to our amusement we found the source of the horrid smell; a pile of over two-hundred dead fish removed from Vyboom Dam! To avoid the smell affecting the private camps along the dam, the dead fish had been removed and dropped in the bush for the scavengers to finish off.

At the southern end of Peru dam we saw an unusual gathering of about 80 Open-billed storks fishing for molluscs in the slowly drying water; it is the largest gathering I have ever seen of these storks. In the same area of Mvubu crossing there was a large herd of impala, kudu and waterbuck. Further south along the Nhlarulumi riverbed was a breeding herd of elephants that we spent some nice time with as the fed along its course to the north.
After drinks we went to check an area near Leopard Rock Hide where Godfrey had seen tracks from those two leopards from this morning, and it appeared that they had killed something, only to have it stolen by a group of hyenas, but sadly neither Godfrey nor I had any luck finding the leopards, so I headed for camp.

At Sean’s clearing we spotted a nice African Civet that tried to catch a bird that it disturbed, but I left him after a short while in favour of a reasonably relaxed Serval that Godfrey had found drinking at Trade Entrance Dam. I arrived and found the beautiful cat walking to the east past not far from our reception and he calmly came and crossed the road in front of us before carrying on into the bush; we must have spent about four or five minutes with the Serval which doesn’t ofen happen, as they normally move off quite quickly! Back at the camp waterhole, there was a very small breeding herd of four elephants having a drink, so it was a nice way to end off the day.
Other sightings for the afternoon included Palence going to Sweetwater pan to see those two male rhinos that were found grazing around the area, and there were also two elephant bulls seen, but no large cats.

Thursday morning was a pleasant one, both in terms of game viewing and weather! I found tracks for a young male leopard near Moeniejag crossing, but after checking the immediate area I decided to rather spend time looking for one of our more relaxed leopards so I carried on south. Palence then found a leopard kill near Java old airstrip, but didn’t find the leopard in attendance. The female leopard had killed a duiker and stored it under a bush, and based on the location, we assume that it was Java Dam females kill as she is the territorial leopard in that area, but sadly she is almost impossible to see when she has a kill, so nobody really spent time looking for her.

In the north, Johannes had found the Vyboom Dam male leopard resting on the rocks north of the dam wall, but he got mobile to the north after a few minutes, and was seen crossing into Ingwelala again. Not too long after this, Nkateko female leopard was found just north of Hide Dam, and I was in the area, so I went to see her. She was sleeping in the lowest fork of a marula tree scanning her surroundings for a meal, and just posing for the camera as usual.
It didn’t take her long to spot a steenbok, so she jumped down and ran in the direction of the steenbok until she got to about 20m from it, then she switched to a slightly more cautious stalk, but still did it with speed as the steenbok walked away with its back turned on the leopard; totally unaware of the lurking danger. Despite the relative lack of cover, Nkateko got quite close without the steenbok spotting her, and I thought she was in with a chance, but at the final moment the steenbok looked behind and saw the leopard, so dashed off.

Unperturbed, Nkateko simply turned her attention to the male steenbok and started stalking closer, but with the same enthusiasm that had given away her presence a minute before. The male steenbok was far more aware and stopped the steenbok early on in the stalk before the leopard could get too close, and he soon ran off (if only 20m!) and Nkateko realised the game was over so flopped to the ground and rolled around in the sand.

She proceeded to walk about and scent mark, but soon went static again, so I left her and she was seen by most the vehicles during the course of the morning as she slept in a tree along the drainage line.
There were a couple of giraffe and kudu near Vielmeter trough, good impala activity around the south, and then I had a short sighting of a small breeding herd of half a dozen elephants, but they were not highly mobile, and looked a bit uneasy, so I didn’t pursue them. Instead I had a cup of coffee with some impala and a giraffe at Elephant dam.

From there I decided to try my luck at finding some rhino near Sweetwater like everyone else seemed to be doing lately. We found tracks for those two rhinos criss-crossing the roads in the area, and followed up for a while, coming across more impala and another couple of giraffes in the process. A little bit further along the road, just south of Nkombi Pan, we found the two rhinos next to the road, but as they ran off. We found them again and kept a distance with which they were comfortable, and that allowed us to spend about 20 minutes with them. I tried to get closer several times, slowly building up their confidence with the vehicles, but it will take a couple more months before they are very habituated with our presence.
I headed back to camp, and saw three elephant bulls south of Motswari Airstrip, and four buffalo bulls near camp. Johannes went far south to see one of the Timbavati male lions with a small buffalo kill near Impala dam, and Elliot saw some of the Sohebele pride of lions near Giraffe Kill Lookout, but I am not sure how many lions were present.

I received a new lot of guests on what was now a boiling hot afternoon; the temperature was just shy of 38°C. My guest had an interest in birds, so we drove slowly and ticked off the bird species as we went, spending some time near the water points along the northern Nhlarulumi. Some mammal species were seen too including steenbok, impala, a herd of kudu and a herd of waterbuck at Mvubu crossing, and then while sitting watching these, a breeding herd of elephants made themselves visible at the southern end of Peru dam. We went to the western bank and climbed out of the vehicle and walked a bit closer to the waters edge and watched as the herd fed in the green belt along the eastern side. The herd then slowly moved south, so we headed down into the nearby crossing and waited for them to come walking past us, either side of the vehicle. A troop of baboons also came wandering down to the crossing while we were watching this to complete a great scene.
The Vyboom Dam male leopard had been found moving away from a duiker kill near Buffalo Pan, and while Andrew had tried to see him earlier in the afternoon, the young leopard was not very co-operative and it was not a great sighting. I waited until it was getting dark before I headed to the area, and passed a second troop of baboons, some impala, waterbuck, and a living duiker along the way, and pulled into the area where the duiker was ‘sleeping’ up the tree, but there was no sign of the leopard, so I went and had a drink before trying again after dark.

I got mobile after my drink stop and heard from the radio chatter that the leopard was up the tree feeding, but also heard that some lions had been found nearby too. My excitement at this news soon turned into a state of disbelief when I heard what had been found; the Mahlathini male lions had killed yet another Sohebele lioness. I shook my heard as I listened to the debate about which lion it was that had been killed; was it the adult or was it Shingalana, the young lioness. I tried to put the thoughts out of my mind as I went to go and see the leopard that was now with the duiker kill and feeding on it high up in a leafy weeping boer-bean. The leopard however was not the owner of the kill; it was Argyle Jnr female leopard, the mother of the young male who was believed to have killed the duiker in the first place! She fed for a while, although she was partially obscured by branches, but after several minutes she decided she wanted to climb down the tree to fetch a small scrap of meat that she had dropped earlier. This large female leopard then slowly made her way down the tree and jumped to the ground about 7m from where we were parked and went to fetch the small piece of meat before walking 30m or so and lying down amongst some fallen branches to eat the scrap! It was great to see this leopard so seemingly relaxed with our presence and at such close quarters!
We could have stayed to watch the leopard for longer, but I was dying to know which of our lions had been killed, so I headed along Buffalo Pan Access until I found the lionesses body lying just off the road; the three murderous Mahlathini male lions had moved off (but only in the last few minutes, as they had been lying next to the lioness’s body 15 minutes earlier). My first impression was that it was the adult Sohebele lioness based on the fact that the elbows had the fatty growths on them, and that her ears were a bit tattered on the ends, but she did look a bit fluffy and we weren’t quite sure about the size as she did look a bit small so I left the sighting not very sure as to which lioness it was, but in a way hoping it was Shingalana. Photographic evidence quickly proved that this tragedy would all but spell the end for the Sohebele pride; it was the remaining adult Sohebele lioness that was dead. Not one month ago was she seen trying to mat with these male lions, now she became yet another one of their victims.
It was sad enough seeing her body lie there, but it was a site I was now getting used to, and of all three of the Sohebele lionesses that have been kill over the last five months, I felt least emotional about this one. Possibly it was because I had not seen the fighting like I had on the previous two occasions? Maybe I was just getting used to seeing my beloved lions lying dead? Or maybe it was just something I had been expecting for the last four months. The worst part of this whole scenario is that we are now left with only four inexperienced sub-adult lions; three males of three years and four months, and one young female lion that will be three years old next March. There are no longer any adult, sexually active lionesses in our northern traversing. This poses two problems. Firstly, the three sub-adult males now have little tying them to the area, and if the relentless pressure being exerted on them by the Mahlathini males persists, they might very well move out of the area and try to set about on a journey as three nomadic lions until they are strong enough to look for a pride themselves (if indeed they ever get to such a point in their lives; although I personally doubt it). The only thing that might make them stay is their familiarity with the area. The question also arises as to exactly what will happen to the young lioness? She now has no territory to inherit from her mother, and she is not yet sexually mature, so is no use to the Mahlathini males either. It would seem most likely that she will just continue to hang around with her “half-brothers” for as long as possible to make her life, and theirs, a bit easier.

Secondly, the problem now exists that with no female lions to “take over”, the Mahlathini males will have to go and look elsewhere for a pride of females if they are going to look to mate and spread their genes. They have killed all their potential pride females! They are still young, but growing quickly, and I can not see that they will want to stay in the area for more than several months to a year before moving on to look for some females; but who knows, perhaps they will move into another area and start killing the females there too! And if they do move out, perhaps there might still be a gap in the Timbavati for the ailing Sohebele sub-adults.

This development has created the beginning of another interesting chapter in the lives of the lions of the Timbavati, and yet again, only time will be able to tell how it all pans out, so until then, we shall just have to wait and see what highs and lows befall our beloved lions.

As for the other sightings of the afternoon, only five buffalo bulls and a sighting of Nkateko female leopard by Godfrey made their way into our sightings book. Nkateko was found at Hide Dam once again; she has really made that waterhole her home and has hardly strayed more than a kilometre or two from it in the last several weeks – not that we are complaining!

And that ended another eventful couple of days at Motswari…RIP Sohebele lioness


  1. Eish Chad, that's not good news about the lionesses. I'm still struggling to understand why they'd be killing ALL the females?

    Clearly this is the start of a new chapter in the Lions of The Timbavati epic saga Mother Nature is writing.

  2. Hi Chad.
    Its really sad and dont really inderstand why these males are killing them? Are the pride now totaly wiped out?
    Hope all is going well bud.
    Thanks and greetings

  3. thanks janet and wynand...

    wynand, the pride went from 8 lions (1 pride male, 2 adult females, 3 young males, 2 young females)at the start of the year, and are now down to only 4 (3 young males, 1 young female)! in addition, they lost a litter of new born cubs after the first of the lionesses was killed...

    the problem is that the three young males would naturally migrate out of the area that they were born into, and would not make up a stable component of the pride...the little female lion is not yet old enough to mate, and will probably be killed by the Mahlathini males if they get hold of her, so i suspect she sould leave the area with the three sohebele young males (if indeed they do move out) and thus would leave our resident pride as a distant memory...but this is all speculation; the outlook doesnt look good for the pride, but the final chapters of this prides live have not yet been written in stone, so who knows what could happen yet...we shall just have to wait and see....but it has bee very sad to watch this prides demise....the Sabi-Sands Private Reserve to our south esperienced the same problems a couple of years ago when a coalition of 6 male lions called the Mapogo males moved in and killed 47% of their exisitng lions, but things are now very stable with a stong coalition dominating the area; the same process might follow here in the northern Timbavati