‘Lions in camp!’, ‘Lions approaching the bridge’, ‘Pride of lions heading towards Little Mombo junction’ or the likes has been heard numerous times in the past three months that I have been back in camp (click on the links below). At a quick guestimate, lions have been seen on the island in front of camp or right in camp no less than 12 times since June!
In fact, over the last two years, this has got to be the most frequent the lions have come into camp in any work cycle I have done at Mombo. It got me wondering, why all of a sudden would the king of the bush be coming into camp on such frequent marauds? After a few discussions with other managers and the guides, and after laying awake many a night listening to the Moporota Pride chewing on some hapless impala, red lechwe or Cape buffalo a few feet from my tent, I decided it had to do with a few key variables all colliding at one spot – Mombo!
2.Time of year
5.Pavlov the great Russian psychologist
The geography of the terrain around camp and the specific location of the camp on the end of a tear drop shaped island means that to access camp, animals that prefer to keep their paws, claws or toes dry have to cross a causeway – one way in and the one way out. The front side of camp is situated on the water’s edge which brings me to point number two – the time of year. During this period (July to August) the deep waters have started to slowly drop from their furthest reachings. As this year’s inundation has not been as dramatic as previous years, it has resulted in the camp being surrounded by more dry and firm ground during the peak of the inundation, which, in turn means more places for grass, shrubs and new shoots to grow as the waters dissipate. Adding these three points’ together means that the area is prime real estate for browsers and grazers such as impala, red lechwe and the occasional Cape buffalo.
Pride boundaries – Mombo seems to be situated at the overlapping peripheries of different territories for different lion prides. The Moporota from the north and east of camp seem to be the most frequent visitors but we have also had the Mathata Pride from the South as well as the Western Pride from the,….. well….., the west in and around camp. Whilst the Moporota patrol their territory, they encounter the browsers and grazers in camp. Whilst the red lechwe are usually able to flee to the safety of deeper water and the Cape buffalo herd together to protect each other, and the impala usually try to make a dash back across the causeway due to their extreme fear of crossing water. This is usually when they encounter the other pride members laying in ambush creating mass confusion which results in one or more impala being killed.
So what has this got to do with Pavlov then? The fact that the lions are successful with their hunts into camp on a regular basis means that they are rewarded with their sorties into Mombo by being able to corner and catch their prey. This elicits a greater sense of urgency to hunt in an area where the pride will be more successful; more success means more food which in turn helps in replenishing the energy spent in the hunt. Breaking it down to the bare necessities, if one can get food easier in one area, the lions DNA has them programmed to revisit that area.
So why do the impala, red lechwe and Cape buffalo then still return to the camp to feed if they are being hunted and kills being made on a more regular basis? I have been informed but without any proven research that prey species have short term memory. This helps apparently keeps stress levels down and prevents herds from constantly migrating away from danger.
However, more apparent to me is that the grasses and shrubs around camp are the same as the other species found elsewhere on the island but it seems that only a specific herd of impala, red lechwe and Cape buffalo are confident enough to feed around camp due to the activity of vehicles, guests and staff using the boardwalks. In any other area the animals would keep a safe distance but certain animals will become a bit more habituated to people, this is common in other camps I have worked at and this in itself is a reward as it is a select few (in terms of the abundance of general game in the area) that will be able to feed to their hearts content without competition from their fellow species. More food for fewer mouths.
Therefore, throw all these variables together and you get a burst of adrenaline, great lion sightings and amazing sounds to lull yourself to sleep at night! Never a dull moment at Mombo!