Latest Lion News from Busanga Plains

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Life on the Busanga Plains is always exciting… A new season is especially so, as we are ready to meet our “family” again, having been away for six months during the wet season when our camps are closed. What’s most exciting is finding out if there have been any new wildlife visitors during our absence and what’s new on the Plains.

As usual, coming back to Busanga is very tricky. We have to contend with lots of mud for our Land Rovers and take the long ride into camp via a mokoro along with all our belongings for the season. But even so, we continue to smile and laugh as this is just the nature of living in such a wild and remote area. I take my hat off to my colleagues who look after our camps during the time that we are away – they welcome us back with big smiles and look forward to sharing their stories of the area and how the plains fill up with water…

We have had some serious rain this season which has meant that our mobility with vehicles has been limited but this has been compensated by taking serene boat rides where we have enjoyed viewing a variety of water birds, especially during June. Now as the water recedes, the area is becoming inundated with herbivores,the predators following closely behind. So far we have had many cheetah sightings, a leopard kill that took place in camp and have enjoyed viewing a pack of eleven wild dogs and of course the dominants of Busanga, the lions!

Nights and days are filled with a cacophony of animal sounds and we have in our eagerness often mistaken the call of the African ground hornbill for that of a lion’s roar! (This in anticipation of catching a glimpse of the two Busanga ‘giants’ – Mohawk and Slit, the Musanza male lions).

Mohawk and Slit

On the second day of our first safari in June I received a radio call from fellow Shumba guide, Newton. Before I could break the news to my guests, I could see from their expressions that they had read my face and could tell that something exciting had been spotted. I mentioned that lions had been spotted across the river and that while it would be difficult to drive to that area, we could try our best. This was an extra special day as this was the first sighting of the season. From afar we could see two male lions – these were Machine’s first litter that had now grown up! Among the lions we could see an older lioness, a cub and a sub-adult lioness. I identified the lions as Machine and her juvenile cubs, plus a new cub and Princess who was born in 2015.

We all wished that they would come closer for some photographs but our plan did not work out that day. The next morning we awoke to the sounds of faint roaring and a lot of commotion coming from the puku herd on the plains. We knew that something was happening. As I began to prepare the game vehicle I could see there were lion tracks around the camp and that they had crossed back to the other side of the river.

Over the years we have seen a lot of changes in the behaviour and dynamics of the prides. One question that remains unanswered is why the prides are not able to raise their cubs during the rainy season. We have left cubs at six months old, and when we return six months later, nothing remains of them. Is it the high water levels that limit hunting or maybe crocodiles that have killed them? Nobody knows. Over the years, three prides have been known to be the dominant lions of the Busanga territory with other prides overlapping into one another’s territories. The Treeline Pride is found on the southern side of the Plains while the Busanga Pride resides in the central parts with the Papyrus Pride in the north.

These prides were sharing this empire with Mr Busanga (Mr B) and his coalition partner who went missing at the end of 2012; being without his partner put Mr B at risk of being overpowered by another coalition. And so in September 2013, the day came when two male lions came looking for Mr B. They located him, and not brave enough to stand his ground he took off, running for his life… Mr B’s favourite females didn’t disappoint him and joined him on the run – the female had two male cubs with her.

Mr Busanga 

Mr B made his final appearance in August 2015 when he was seen with the Papyrus Pride. The pride would not allow him too close as they were protecting their sister, Princess. He was last seen feeding near to the pride but this was short lived as the ‘Boys’ , the Musanza Males, had returned and this time chased him away for good.

Mr B

The new Busanga males (known as the Musanza Males, and as Slit and Mohawk) then moved in with Queen (the collared Papyrus female) who had broken away from her original Papyrus Pride and was seen moving in between territories. At this stage she had already had a second litter with Mr B… In her first litter she had Machine, a strong and reliable lioness, Bad Eye, Shy and Maggie.

In June 2015 we spotted Queen with three cubs belonging to the Musanza Males. This excitement however did not last long as it was only four days later that a hyaena (we had dubbed him ‘Tripod’ as he only had three legs) was seen in close proximity to the lioness – looking full-bellied. Queen was seen looking everywhere for her cubs. The cubs had met a sad fate. There was however one remaining cub. Two months later while with my Australian guests John and Sarah, I informed them of what had happened to Queen’s litter. They were very sad to hear this and we agreed to name the remaining cub Princess, after we had discovered that she was female.

In June 2016 we discovered Machine with twin male cubs; the cubs are now a year-and-a-half old and are strong hunters in the pride, like their mother. The cubs are known for their bad habits such as stealing cushions from the Busanga Bush Camp main area viewing deck and taking these into the bush!

When we left at the end of 2016 the pride was looking healthy and strong, with a total of 10 members:

The Musanza Males: Slit and Mohawk

Queen

Machine plus twins

Maggie, Bad Eye and Shy

Princess

Shy.

The 2017 season has brought a lot of interesting occurrences with the pride. We have still not had any sightings of Slit and Mohawk, the Musanza Males. The big surprise of the season is the appearance of two unknown males who are roughly between four and five years of age. They seem to just have rocked up as if by magic and are on the tail of the rest of the pride. My initial reaction was, ‘Oh my, what next? What will happen to the cubs?’

With the disappearance of Slit and Mohawk, it appears as though Shy has taken over the pride. Bad Eye has not been seen and my feeling is that he might not have made it. Shy is at tremendous risk with the two new intruders and won’t stand much chance against the males who are following the pride everywhere. The females continue to play a game of hide-and-seek with the new males as they try protect their cubs. Maggie seems to be breaking away from the pride and on 11 June was spotted with two cubs. We recently also saw a lion cub that must have been killed by a hippo who was standing over the cub and sniffing it. We believe that this cub belonged to Maggie.

The new males on a buffalo kill

The tension continues as the two new males have been sighted more than six times now and have been making themselves heard. Their loud roars have caused neighbouring lion prides to keep their distance. We have asked researchers in the area to come help us identify the two lions.

As always, the lion interaction is enthralling on the Plains and we will keep you updated on what happens next…

Words and Images: Isaac Kalio

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