Sunday, October 30, 2011

Extraordinary maternal moment

We have all seen breathtaking documentary footage of a lioness gently carrying her cub in her mouth and been touched by the tenderness with which she handles the tiny fur balls!

Every ranger and wildlife enthusiast dreams of witnessing this moment for themselves, I waited many years for all the elements to fall into place and finally had my breath taken away last week.

Having been very close to seeing this behaviour a few times I know that a good deal of luck needs to be on your side. The den site is usually secluded and quite inaccessible (which may be a thicket, a reed-bed, a cave or some other sheltered area) away from the rest of the pride.

This particular lioness chose a rocky area in a dry river bed to hide the little ones and we were able to drive in the sand to access the area. We had just seen her tracks going back and forth and then finally followed her one day and found the cubs which we could just hear initially and had no view. Then one morning they hobbled out and treated us to our first view, we estimated 3-4 weeks old, one of the little ones decided the safest place was on mom’s back. 

The cubs themselves are born blind and their eyes do not open until roughly a week after birth. They weigh 1–2 kg at birth and are almost helpless, beginning to crawl a day or 2 after birth and walking around 3 weeks of age. Notice the black spots of fur on this one which they lose after about 5-6 weeks.

Now the lioness could move her cubs to a new den site several times in their first few weeks, carrying them one by one by the nape of the neck, to prevent scent from building up at a single den site and thus avoiding the attention of predators that may harm the cubs.

The following day we moved into the area this is exactly what happened, we arrived just as the lioness had returned from her night time hunt, she then began calling them and they popped out of their rocky hiding place. Ever so gently she picked one up in her mouth and strode off carrying it away into a totally inaccessible drainage line and we haven’t been able to view them since. A privilege to have shared this unique moment with my guest Ken who has been on safari for decades and has never come close to witnessing such a special sight!

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