In part 1 of this blog, we discussed what a take-over means for the dominant males; in this instance, the Birmingham Males. Now let’s talk about the Ntsevu Pride. This pride is in a very interesting place at the moment. As of two months ago, they sat with 11 cubs of varying ages, from two to three months old all the way to a litter of 3 that are sitting at about eight months old.
Those April-born cubs were already destined to be in for a rough ride given the age and declining state of the Birmingham Males, who quite likely have been reduced down to only one male. Over the course of the year, this situation has grown ever more tenuous as the females have continued to birth further litters. The general rule of thumb is that the cubs really only make it out of the danger zone of being killed in a territorial take-over, or even just by marauding young males moving undetected through a territory, at about one year old. But that can often stretch as far as 18 months, upon which time they are a relatively self-sufficient member of the pride.
A plethora of different aged cubs! It’s going to be hard work for these three females, as well their sisters and daughters, getting as many of these cubs as possible through the coming months/year.
18 months is a long time for cubs to be vulnerable.
And conversely, it is the reason they are likely to be killed; a male, upon taking over, needs to mate as soon as possible to give his offspring the best possible chance of survival.
Females can fall back into oestrus as little as 6 weeks after having lost their cubs. Thus, by removing cubs sired prior to his arrival, a newly dominant male makes sure that he is not expending energy protecting a pride that is raising cubs that aren’t his. This also ensures that as many females as possible come into oestrus at the same time; females will often, where possible, synchronise their oestrus cycles so that there is a better chance of having cubs at the same time. Therefore the odds of successfully raising more cubs to independence are significantly increased if several females birth around the same time.
And so, in this particular instance, the females are going to be resistant to change. They will support the Birmingham Males where they can, not necessarily out of any direct loyalty to the males but in order to protect their cubs. A pride of 11 females (6 older original lionesses plus 5 newly independent females) as well as 6 soon-to-be-independent young males, despite being heavily fragmented a lot of the time, could provide considerable backup when the need arises!
Were there only one or two cubs in the ranks, the pride would likely accept the loss of those for the opportunity to raise a larger litter under the protection of a newly dominant male. In this instance, they would be less invested in supporting the current dominant male(s). At this point, we have to remind ourselves not to anthropomorphize these animals; they are not humans, they have a different set of, for want of a better word, “emotions” that are completely alien to ours. Placing human emotions on these animals is a sure way of skewing our interpretation of their behaviour.
One tactic that this pride may have employed, when mating with the Avoca Males, is distraction. Certain females may enter into a state of “pseudo-oestrus” as a diversion tactic. This serves the dual purpose of allowing the rest of the pride with the cubs to move out of the danger zone – basically anywhere near these males – while also beginning the process of confusing paternity. In this state, the females usually won’t become pregnant; this is not a conscious decision on the females part but rather a hormonal state induced by circumstance. The result is that any cubs born in the near future may be the progeny of either the invaders or the existing dominant males, and so no matter the outcome, the victor is invested in the raising of those cubs.
Another strategy that may be employed is a temporary dissection of the pride where some will remain behind with the newly dominant males, mating more “seriously” and falling pregnant while other members flee the territory to raise the cubs to a safer age, away from the danger of the males. The runaways will usually try to return to the original pride once the dust has settled. A prime example of this was with the Tsalala Females circa 2009, where the original Tailless female lead four of her daughters’ cubs (not even her direct offspring) to safety far from the territory being competed for.
However, upon her return to the pride the following year, the cubs she had protected were no longer welcomed by the original pride and they were forced to break away. Fortunately, they survived and formed a new pride, the Mangheni Pride. Here, this tactic worked despite the pride not reforming; the Tsalala Females had successfully procreated and in doing so, had fulfilled one of any animals’ most basic functions on this planet; reproduction and the furtherance of their genes.
But these tactics may not always work and sometimes, the situation dictates the results. The most notable example around Londolozi is the “downfall” of the previously mentioned Tsalala Pride where despite several very clever plays by the pride-members, their numbers were whittled away from somewhere around 9 (and growing) down to a single female who is yet to turn three years old. But that is a tale in and of itself, and one told beautifully by Kirsten Jocelyn.
One thing is for certain, the Ntsevu Pride members are going to have to manage themselves through the coming period of upheaval. It is something that I am, personally, really looking forward to watching unfold; not from any morbid perspective but because, from a behavioural point of view, it will be absolutely fascinating to see what strategies are going to be used, what gambits played, as these lionesses fight for the survival of their progeny.
And I’d love to hear your views on how you think this will all play out.