Friday 3 December 2010

Xakubasa Pride (White Pride)

Name: The Xakubasa Pride is the name of the most special pride of lions in the Timbavati, and the name says it all. ‘Basa’ means ‘white’ in Shangaan, and as such Xakubasa is a reference to the two extremely rare and special white lions that are part of this pride.

Current Pride Composition: The Xakubasa pride currently consists of:

-2 large, tawny-coloured, adult females (born April 2004)

- three sub-adult lions; 1 young, tawny males (born April 2009) and 2 young, white lionesses (born May 2009). There are currently no pride males.

Territory: The Xakubasa pride are probably the most wide ranging pride in the reserve, and the full extent of the area they move in is not known. The lack of stable pride males means that the lionesses and sub-adults move around continuously trying to avoid contact with other lions, and this wandering often brings them into contact with a diverse number of other prides. The two lionesses broke off from the Timbavati pride that was territorial to the north of the reserve, and concentrated their activities on Ntsiri, Rietvlei and Ingwelala, only occasionally coming into the northern section of the reserve, including the properties of Motswari, Argyle and Peru. The first half of 2010 saw the lionesses moving into the reserve with their white cubs, and making Vielmetter, Java, Jaydee and Karans the core are of their movements. However, the latter half of 2010 (with the return of the Mahlathini males into the reserve) saw the Xakubasa pride moving far and wide. They were seen as far south as Tanda Tula (in the heart of the Machaton Pride’s territory); in the east they would sometimes disappear into the Kruger National Park; in the west they regularly went into the Klaserie, and have been seen as far away as the Olifants River, west of Diepkloof – some 20km north-west of the Timbavati; and in the north, they also range into the Kruger north of Buffelsbed (Ingwelala), and have been reported at Buchner, in the north-eastern corner of the Umbabat. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the area they have covered in the last 12-months is over 40,000ha – three times the size of the area driven by Motswari!

Male(s): There are no pride males. The father of the white cubs is believed to be Kuvaviseka, one of the two Klaserie males – the coalition that used to be in control of the Timbavati Pride. In May this year, the pride was found together with a large male lion, but the exact identity of this male remains unknown. The Mahlathini males occupy the southern region that is utilised by the Xakubasa Pride, and could potentially be future males of this pride, but this is unlikely to occur while the white lions are still so young, or still alive.

(click on map for larger view)
Females: Only 2 adult lionesses form part of this pride, although when they were first located on the reserve on 2nd December 2009, they were in the company of a third lioness (from the Jacaranda Pride). The 2 lionesses were born into the Jacaranda Pride in April 2004.

Cubs: The pride has got 3 sub-adult lions; 1 tawny males born in April 2009, and 2 white females born in May 2009. There were at least another two tawny cubs born to the litters of the females, but they died before they got to 6-months old. On the 22nd November 2010, one of the sub-adult tawny male lions died at Nkombi Pan; the cause of his death appears to be that of a snake bite – we are awaiting the results of the blood samples taken from him.

Neighbouring Prides: Due to the extent that this pride travels, they are bound to come in contact with numerous lions beyond our knowledge of the area. In the reserve and the neighbouring properties, the Xakubasa Pride do however encounter a number of lions. In the south, they venture into the Machaton Pride’s territory (they even fatally wounded one of the lionesses of that pride), and regularly encounter the Timbavati male’s which are dominant over that area. To the central and eastern regions, they encounter the Sohebele young males (having too killed the last of the Sohebele females) as well as the Mahlathini males. To the north, they overlap their range with their natal pride’s (the Jacaranda Pride) territory, as well as the Timbavati Pride’s territory (their sisters). Further west, it is likely that they encounter the Voel Dam Pride, as well as any number of lions deeper into the Klaserie.

Story: Where to begin?!? The story of the Xakubasa Pride is a rather interesting one, and illustrates the beauty of having a large, open-system, unobstructed by fences that allows for the movement of animals into and out of the area. To begin with, one has to rewind to 2004, when the 5 Jacaranda lionesses gave birth to a total of 9 cubs between 3 females (8 of which belonged to 2 lionesses). At their peak in that period, the pride numbered 15 lions; 5 adult females, 2 males and 8 sub-adults nearing independence. Such a large pride required a lot of food, and as a result they specialised in the larger prey species, namely buffalo and their speciality, giraffes. But with the males both dying of tuberculosis, and the sub-adults now over 2 years old and quite self-sufficient, the pride split, with the old lionesses staying in their territory, and the 7 remaining sub-adults breaking off to become the nomadic ‘Timbavati Pride’. They wandered widely over the area and after a year or so of this lifestyle; the 3 males broke off, leaving the 4 sisters to live on their own. The males moved south, and the females moved back to the north-west, into a portion of their natal territory, centring their activities on the property of Ntsiri, but popping back into the Timbavati every couple of months before returning to the north-west. In 2009, the magical news broke that these lionesses had had their first litter of cubs, and amongst the 7 cubs were two rather special individuals; two of the world-famous Timbavati white lions!

White lions are not albinos, but rather they contain a rare recessive gene that is most prevalent in the lions of the Timbavati, the area that made them famous through the book written about them in the 1970’s by Chris McBride, after he made the first scientifically documented account of some white lion cubs born into the Machaton Pride. The white lions are believed to be very vulnerable, as without the natural camouflage normally afforded to them with the tawny coat that blends in so well to the natural environment, they become quite conspicuous, and the white coat sticks out like a sore thumb. Even if they make it beyond the critical first few months of life, other challenges await them, especially when it comes to hunting, as they are believed to be far easier for the prey to spot than the tawny lions. Sadly though, most white lions never make it to that age, so upon hearing of the two white lions born into the Timbavati Pride, there was always a lot of doubt that we would ever see them on our reserve, as their chances of survival were not good. The fact that they had been born was in actual fact far less surprising than one might think. We knew that the lionesses carried the recessive gene; if it wasn’t evident enough from their slightly lighter colouration, then the fact that their mother (from the Jacaranda Pride) gave birth to 2 white cubs of her own in 2006 on Ingwelala was proof that they carried the gene – they just needed to find a male carrying the same gene. After some time spent with the Machaton male lion in 2008, it appears that the 2 Klaserie males (Kuchava and Kuvaviseka) took control of the Timbavati lionesses and successfully mated with them, eventually culminating in the birth if these special white lions.

Unfortunately the fact that the pride were confined to an area some distance away from where we traversed, the goings on of the pride remained a bit of a mystery to us. Just as mysterious was the way that the Sohebele lionesses were being killed one by one by the Mahlathini male lions in our area, to such a point that the pride was all but over by the end of 2009, with only the three skinny males and one young lioness still remaining. Without any females to now mate with in the area, the Mahlathini males forced themselves out of the area, and they ended up moving to the north-west, to the area where the white lion cubs were. Based on their behaviour over the last few months, we assumed that they would no doubt attempt to kill the white cubs if they came across them, and suddenly things weren’t looking too promising for the white lions, or indeed for the northern Timbavati – we had no lions left in the north, besides the measly, now-nomadic Sohebele’s.

On the 1st of December, the most amazing thing happened; the rains caused the Sohebele River to flow for the first time in over 5 years and brought water to the northern Timbavati like it hadn’t seen for half a decade. The same day the 4 remaining Sohebele’s were found eating a dead giraffe, and we knew the Mahlathini males were feeding on a buffalo on Ntsiri, so far away we knew our lions would be safe for the time being. What we didn’t expect to find was another dead giraffe the next day, one being fed on by some ‘unknown’ lions right on our far south-eastern boundary with Ceylon. What made this unique was the fact that amongst the 7 lions were two white lion cubs of about 8-months old. As there had been rumours of a pride of lions with white cubs in the area of Ceylon/Mananga for some time (seemingly from the long lost Mayumbuya Pride), it seemed plausible that these white lions originated from there; the only puzzling aspect was that they were relaxed with the vehicles? How could that be if no one ever drove in Mananga? A week we found them again on Java (although the one lioness was no longer with them) and they killed a warthog before moving back to Mananga, again adding substance to our theory. A few days later we again found them on Vielmetter with another giraffe kill, and once finishing that, they once more moved back to Mananaga. It was only after a couple of weeks of their being no sign of the Timbavati Pride’s white lions that the penny dropped, and photo’s confirmed that our ‘new’ white lions were not new, but rather they had just moved into the area almost 20km away from their own territory as a way of escaping the Mahlathini males!

Things suddenly turned around for our lion viewing because the white lions (then renamed the Xakubasa Pride) had stumbled upon a ‘free’ piece of land following the demise of the Sohebele Pride. They stayed as there were no lions to chase them out, and there were lots of giraffe to catch; the skill the two lionesses learnt as youngsters with the Jacaranda Pride that served them very well as they killed 8 giraffes in their first 2 months in the area! Giraffes weren’t the only thing the two extremely large and protective mothers killed; they also killed two other lions! The first was one of the old Machaton lionesses after a run in with them down south, and a couple of months later they killed the last Sohebele lioness after she arrived to scavenge off a giraffe kill of the Xakubasa lions. However, when the Timbavati males (brothers of the Xakubasa lionesses) arrived at the kill, the lionesses made sure they got their cubs to safety and moved out the area for a while. They then returned, but over the course of the year they started moving more and more into the Klaserie in the west, or the Kruger in the east! They would basically go where other lions were not. One lion the y didn’t run away from though was a large male that was found with them one afternoon, and no one is quite sure who he is; but he is not the scar-eyed Klaserie male that was believed to be the father of the cubs. He moved off west, and the Xakubasa Pride followed suite, and their trips into that area became more frequent and longer. The still returned every couple of weeks, and the mother’s ability to provide regular meals for the growing cubs never failed to impress, neither did the way they would stand up to their adversaries, even if they happened to be the Timbavati males weighing a great deal more than them!

Sadly though, there was one run in too many that nearly cost the pride dearly. Firstly they got chased off their zebra kill by the three Mahlathini males, and as they ran south, they ran into the three Timbavati males that were also closing in on their kill! After almost losing one of the cubs to these males, the pride regrouped, but the lionesses proceeded to march the cubs straight out of the area, back to the north, not returning for nearly a month. After a brief visit, they moved out again, and upon hearing reports of them with a giraffe kill 25km away in the Klaserie, we really doubted that they would ever return. Surprisingly they did at the beginning of November 2010, and again had a kill that kept them in the area. But with the Mahlathini males being so prevalent in the area again, it is unlikely that they will feel comfortable enough to hang around for too long.

The life the pride is living is not an easy one, it’s not a brave one, but it is an extremely clever one! Although it is just a mother’s natural instinct to protect her cubs, the way that these two lionesses are guarding their special young is almost as if they know just how special they are! Any number of potential scenarios could play out, so it would be foolish to try and predict the outcome of this saga, but our biggest hope is that the lionesses can keep the white lions safe and out of danger for at least another year until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Ideally we hope that they can make it to maturity and remain in the Xakubasa Pride with their mother and aunt, and hope that a strong coalition of males (potentially the Mahlahthini males) ends up in charge of the pride when the white lions are old enough not to be killed, but instead to be mated with. It seems likely that it will only be the presence of some strong males in the area that will allow the pride to settle down and live a less nomadic existence. Whatever happens, 2011 is bound to be another interesting year in the lives of the lions of Motswari.

Interesting News:

20th February - Tracks for the White Lions were followed out of the area, and it appears that they had been chased out of the area by two of the Mahlathini male lions which is not a good sign.  We shall see how long it takes before they return this time; but it could be a while!

10th February - The White lions return to the Timbavati!  Grant picked up tracks on Motswari airstrip, and after a couple hours of tracking, the trackers located them all looking healthy.

17th December - The White lions returned after a weeks absence from the reserve, but they looked a bit lacking in food.  After a few days in the area, they were found feasting on a large kudu kill - just what they needed to return to tip-top shape.

22nd November – one of the young tawny male lions died during the morning drive. After appearing somewhat strange the night before, he looked lifeless in the morning, and was coaxed up by the pride, but after recovering from one fit, it was after the second fit that he didn’t get up again and died at Nkombi Pan.

17th November – the Xakubasa Pride continued to show their hunting prowess when they were found with a large female giraffe kill at Steep Nhlaralumi Crossing, and they fed on it for three days.

15th November – the pride stumbled upon a dead buffalo carcass and fed on that; the local hyena clan (Nkombi Pan Clan) arrived and the four young lions of the pride went off on their own to chase off over 20 hyenas!

13th November – the pride killed a zebra and fed for a couple of days.

12th November – the White Lions returned to the Timbavati for the first time in over 2 months and they were found with 2 young buffalo kills!

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