Lions of the Kgalagadi
A New Year, a new beginning that’s what most people say. However, here in the Kgalagadi, transgressing lions have new beginnings all year round. The Kgalagadi is a vast semi arid savannah with astounding beauty. Average rainfall is about 200 mm per year. It brings life to an array of different life forms, and one of the most magnificent must be the Kalahari lion.
Lions in the Kgalagadi have incredibly large home ranges. The average home range size is between 1462 ± 388 km². The largest home range size of a lion pride in the Kgalagadi is 4532 km². They have large home ranges because of the relatively low prey densities of this typical Kalahari ecosystem. They therefore have to cover large distances to find potential prey. This may be the reason why these lions feel the need to leave the park from time to time. Domestic animals are also much easier to catch.
Towards the northeast of the park the density of prey species commonly used by lions, for example gemsbok, eland and red hartebeest increases due to the higher carrying capacity of the veld which is directly linked to the many pans to be found there and the higher rainfall. Therefore the average size of lion home ranges decreases drastically. At Mabuasehube in the east of the park the size of a home range could be as small as 500 km² keeping in mind the size of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier park, which is about 36000 km², the estimated size of the lion population is 448 lions. There are about forty lion prides resident in the park with an average of eleven lions per pride of which up to four could be females. There are only 1.5 males per pride compared to 2-3 in other natural lion populations. In the Kalahari you would find 2-2.5 females per male lion compared to 3.1-3.4 females per male in other populations. The birth ratio of males is much higher than that of females. The reason for this is that the survival rate of sub-adult male lions is much lower than sub-adult females. This is a result of sub-adult male lions being evicted from their natal prides by territorial males as they mature. Ever so often a coalition of sub-adult males, up to three individuals, eventually die of starvation after being evicted from their natal prides, since they are not genetically equipped to survive on their own.
Over the past eight years, since 1997, 144 lion transgressions of the park boundaries took place. All of them were relocated back into the park. On average 18 animals transgressed per year. These lions were mostly sub-adults and adults. These were not all-different individuals as some of the lions, which transgressed, left the park on more than one occasion. These are known as habitual problem animals. A habitual problem lion is defined as one that transgresses the park’s boundary and threatens human livelihood and or property more than twice or even if the second time is within six months of the first transgression.
One lion, KM13, recently lived up to this theory. After transgressing and being relocated in the park on three occasions over the past two years, he recently transgressed the park boundary three times in 19 days. Previously his first three offences were into Botswana. What is most amazing is that the past three times this lion went over the fence it was at exactly the same place every time and into the same farm. He actually went visiting his old carcasses before taking a fresh donkey or horse! Each time the lion was darted and relocated. The distances from his pick-up point to the place where he was offloaded ranged from between 48 km and 82 km. It took him only six days to walk the 82km and jump over the fence again. After his last transgression he was placed in the predator camp near to Twee Rivieren. We are currently trying to relocate him to a different park or suitable conservation area where no unethical hunting takes place and where he will have the chance to breed. However, we are waiting for permission from Botswana Wildlife Authorities, as this is a Transfrontier park and all decisions are made bilaterally.
Seeing a Kalahari lion is absolutely awesome. It is an experience in itself. Those who have seen one will know what I am talking about. Working with them is even better; it is a privilege and honour.
Another remarkable female lion KF19, left the park 9 times within thirteen months. Each time she was taken an average of 61 km away from the boundary, which she transgressed. Astonishingly she walked 111.8 km from where she was offloaded back to the other side of the park boundary in only five days. She was therefore classified as a habitual problem animal and something had to be done to stop her from transgressing. She was fondly known as “Die Teef van die Kalahari”. The only solution for this lion was to destroy her during her tenth transgression as no other park was interested in adopting her. During the 13 months at no stage did she seem pregnant or to have had cubs. During her second and third last transgressions the same very aggressive male accompanied her. He broke three of his canines on the rails of the catching vehicle during his second transgression and was so far never encountered again. All marauding lions receive a small brand mark so that they can be identified thereafter and their status confirmed. If we receive the nod from Botswana, hopefully in future, habitual problem animals can be sold to parks and private reserves provided that they are not used for unethical hunting. This way capture expenditure can be curbed.
I had the privilege of tracking, darting and relocating a lioness with two six-month-old cubs back into the park. This was not an easy job. It took us four days to successfully dart her and her cubs. It was not easy to get close to her as she was very weary of us and kept moving off. High temperatures prevailed at the time. We had to slow down the process of tracking them in order not to subject them to overheating, which results in kidney failure etc. On the second day we managed to dart her. We then took her to the predator camp at Twee Rivieren and went back into Botswana to dart the cubs. With the help of two excellent trackers we were able to find the cubs and bring them back safely and unharmed to their mother. The cubs kept us busy for two days in a small area not bigger than one square kilometre. Being so small in stature it is hard to spot them and even as young as they were they have amazing abilities to hide as well as to keep on moving and avoid capture. Their behaviour is hard to describe but one thing is certain: the lions in this park is perfectly adapted to their harsh environment. Prides exists on the Botswana side where they have no access to surface water for long periods of time. This phenomenon has been observed in other lion populations too where animals lick dew from grass or their own body hair in order to keep themselves going.
Re-uniting them with their mother was a great feeling. After spending two days in the predator camp recuperating from the drugs, we set them free again. What a happy ending for such a lovely family.
8 February 2005
Student in Nature Conservation
Nelson Mandela Metropolaton University
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Cell No. 072 288 3310