Monday, 5 May 2014

Mikumi NP: The lions of the village

After missing our planned trip over Easter thanks to malaria, we were itching to get out to the bush again, so we decided to make use of the May day holiday and make it a long weekend.  Since it would only be 4 days, the only real viable option would be Mikumi. 
Red-necked spurfowl
And considering that everywhere was raining (and we've had plenty of rain in Tanzania over the last few weeks) it was probably the best bet - we didn't have to camp and we knew that there were roads in Mikumi that are passable in all weather. (Unlike places like Selous that have so many bad roads in the wet that most of the lodges close down).  

Unusual sighting to have eland so close
So 6 o'clock on Thursday morning we headed out of Dar, this time through the main road to Chalinze rather than our normal detour through Bagamoyo as one of the bridges that way had been washed away because of the heavy rains.

Giraffe affection
Although the traffic was pretty heavy with trucks, we made good time and made the Mikumi gate by lunchtime.  Because it wasn't a long weekend for most people (Friday was a working day) the park was pretty quiet, and there wasn't any problem getting the resthouse for our stay.  

Yellow-billed oxpecker on buffalo
We also got some interesting news when Dru inquired about lions - apparently 2 lions were sleeping in the hostel in the village!  What is going on with these lions?  We've forever hearing about lions in the village, but to have taken up residence in the hostel?!

Green-winged pytilia
So of course, the first thing that we did was head to the village, both to put some of our stuff at the resthouse, and to check out this information.  While we didn't see any lions hanging around outside, we immediately noticed that the area was deserted - normally there were guys hanging around the hostel, and a couple of people hanging around, but now there was no-one. 

Vultures waiting...
We also saw a bunch of vultures hanging around on trees nearby, so figured the lions had killed something near and after eating their fill, they'd decided to find a nice warm (and dry!) spot to sleep it off!

Big tusker
But our priority for this trip was to find the lion cubs.  We'd missed them on our previous trip in April, but really wanted to catch the 6 cubs this time around, so we headed straight to Hippo Pools, the pride's stronghold, on the way catching some shots on one of the biggest tuskers that we'd seen in Mikumi.  The elephant himself wasn't a big bull, but his tusks nearly reached the ground - definitely the most impressive tusks we'd seen in a long time.  

Curious giraffes
Unfortunately there was no sign of the lions at Hippo Pools and for the rest of the afternoon drive we didn't catch any cats, although we had nice sightings of giraffe, and a massive herd of impala on the airstrip.  Rain had been threatening the whole afternoon, and we were glad we weren't camping! It was nice to get back to the resthouse and not worry about getting the tent up and setting up shelter in case it rained :)  

View from our resthouse - 2 of the big 5
Our biggest immediate problem was mosquitoes though - we were convinced that we'd been bitten by the malaria mozzie when we were in Mikumi last time, so for the first time it was into pants and long-sleeved shirts before the mozzies started to bite.  But soon that wasn't our biggest problem - the lion roaring close by was ;)

Southern ground hornbill
Obviously the lions asleep in the hostel had woken up for the evening and were making their presence known... and it wasn't too far away from the resthouse either.  And we knew from experience that the lions don't have a problem walking around between the buildings here, we've had male lions walk past us within 20 metres without batting an eye.

African Hawk-eagle taking off
That, combined with a sudden heavy downpour, had us heading inside the house.  The heavy rain didn't let up the whole evening, so the night was spent sticking our head outside the window listening for the lions ;)

Yellow-billed oxpecker hitching a ride on a zebra
Luckily by morning the rain had stopped, and although it was cloudy we headed out to try to find the lions.  The males that had been calling were nowhere to be seen, though we did catch their spoor along the road.  Assuming that they had started walking back to Hippo Pools, we headed that way but again there were no signs of lions in the area.  So much for our theories!

Buffalo - the bouncers of the bush
And that was the story for the rest of the morning and the day.  Plenty of antelope, including the very skittish eland, but no cats.  We did spend a long time with the big herd of buffalo that had appeared in the vicinity of hippo pools.  It always a challenge to photograph these "bouncers of the bush", but them and their accompanying oxpeckers gave us plenty of opportunities.
Buffalo portrait

And we found something else interesting - a freshly killed impala ram right on the side of the road.  We'd been wondering the previous night if the predators would hunt in the pouring rain, and now we could see the evidence that they do.  Strangely the impala was only half eaten, and we wondered if the predator had been chased off its kill, making us think that it was only a single cat - probably a leopard (we knew there was a resident leopard in the area).  Surely if it had been lions the impala would be mostly eaten or they'd still be there.  

Water thickknees
We were hoping that the hunter would be back to carry on eating, but if not - then hopefully the vultures would pick up on the carcass, and we'd be able to catch their feeding - something we hadn't seen up close before.  So the plan for the day was to look for lions (as usual!) but to keep passing by the carcass in case the vultures came.

White headed vulture coming in to land
And later on in the morning we were rewarded with a white-headed vulture attempting to peck at the intestines that were scattered nearby.  We were hoping for more vultures, but we also knew that they were still occupied with the remains of the kill in the village :) 

Vulture with the stomach of the impala
Lunch was back at the resthouse, since it has a waterhole nearby which usually served up something.  Even though it's the middle of the long rains and water everywhere, there were a few resident buffalo dagga boys enjoying wallowing in the muddy water.  

Yellow-throated longclaw
Our afternoon drive was still focused on the vultures, and we could see that they had started to gather on the trees near to the carcass.  We were actually surprised that nothing else had come to grab the impala, but the carcass remained untouched the whole day.  

And so the show begins...
After a quick tour around the plains nearby we headed back to the vultures and were rewarded with the beginning of the vulture show.  As we arrived, we saw a jackal had come to scavenge, and had been trying to keep the vultures at bay.  But as soon as we got there he ran off as we'd come to expect - for some reason the jackals in Mikumi are very skittish.  

Standing on each other to get at the carcass
But that gave the vultures the opening they needed and without a moment's hesitation dozens of white-backed vultures descended on the carcase.  It was pretty amazing to watch the vulture feast - they literally stand on top of each other to try to get at the meat.  And the noises are fantastic - they hiss at each other if someone gets in their way!  So this noisy buffet continued, while more and more vultures landed on the ground or trees nearby waiting for their turn. 

All looking for something to eat
There seemed to be some kind of pecking order, where the younger ones waited their turn while the bigger vultures got the best pickings.  But you could see that they were starting to get impatient and the hissing from the sidelines got louder as the main feeders wouldn't stop.  And as the carcass got less and less, so the fighting began - all trying to get something to eat.

More fly in to take part in the feast
It's absolutely amazing to see just how fast a "corpse" of vultures can devour half of a fully grown impala ram, but after about 40 minutes, there was nothing left!  Just a bit of skin and bone - literally!

Pecking order rules
It was a scene we'd always wanted to see up close, and the sighting (and in good light) was great to see - a real highlight for us.

Where's the food gone?
Still no sign of cats, but happy with a sight that is rarer than lions, we did a few more rounds in the area without any luck and were soon heading back to the resthouse just as it was getting dark.  And of course, cue the lion roars...

Zebra family portrait
It seemed as if the lions hadn't moved at all, and were either still in the hostel or somewhere very close by in the village, despite us having seen a couple of men walking up the road near to the hostel over lunchtime!  Again, lion roars and rain forced us inside and the evening was spent inside cooking and chilling out while looking into the night from the house for signs of lions ;)

Zanzibar red bishop
We were up first thing in the morning, but the sky was heavily overcast and drizzling by the time we were ready to head out, making it pretty dark still.  But we didn't have to go far, standing in the middle of the road in the middle of the village, was a male lion!
Black-bellied bustard

He stood there for a while, until the parks board car had to pass, then he sauntered off into the bush next to the road before sitting down in the grass.  Unfortunately it was still too dark to take any photos, but soon caught sight of the other male walking nearby, but he headed straight into a clump of bushes and disappeared.

Cattle egret taking advantage of the flies around a buffalo
However, we were still looking for the 6 cubs, and since there hadn't been any mention of the cubs in the village - only the 2 males, we decided to head to Hippo pools again, speculating that the lionesses and their offspring were not near the males.

Dwarf bittern
We were lucky enough to spot a spotted hyena crossing the road, but he moved into the scrub and was soon hidden from our sight.  Unfortunately, the cubs were again nowhere to be seen at or near the waterhole, but after a bit of driving around we got a text message from one of the parks board people to say that there were lions at the office. (talk about keeping us up to date!) We knew that these were the males we'd seen earlier but decided to head back to the village and see if the 2 males were still up and about.  

Right in the middle of the village
But by the time we got back they had disappeared and so we stopped to watch a herd of elephants browsing (yes, all the animals come to the village!). Suddenly one of the elephants trumpeted and a lion ran out! It turned out it was a 3rd male, one we recognised as being part of the Hippo Pools pride - one of the coalition of 3 males.

At Park HQ - he was fascinated by his own reflection in the glass door!
And the male - a real old boy with a scraggly mane put up quite a show, heading towards park headquarters where he proceeded to get startled by his reflection in the glass door ;) He actually seemed to want to stalk this strange lion with the scraggly mane! We watched him for quite a while as he wandered around the outside of the office, before lying down near the building and relaxing.  
Another big bull in the village
 Finally he walked up the road to where we'd originally seen him and disappeared behind one of the other buildings and despite looking for him, he seemed to have disappeared into the bush.

Lilac-breasted roller with snack

And then there was another surprise to be had - the safari vehicle that had also been watching told us that they had seen a cub around earlier!  What?! We'd been searching for the cubs 2kms away when they'd been here all along!

African Hawk-eagle pair mating
Desperate to see the cubs, we searched where the guide had pointed out they had seen the cub last, but we couldn't find any sign.  With the rains the scrub was thick and the grass tall - anything walking a few feet off the road just disappeared into the greenery, not ideal when searching for 4 month old cubs :)

A most unusual sighting on the road
Having exhausted all options, and no sign of lions anymore, we decided to head back out with the plan to come back over lunch and and check out the scene.  But the morning drive wasn't particularly successful with the animals all too far away to photograph.  We decided to take a drive to Mkata Dam in the north, but to take the less traveled road.  From memory the road was passable in the rain as they'd laid gravel over the black cotton soil, but we soon realised that the rains had washed some of the gravel away and there was big bogs with black cotton underneath - not a good thing!  We went through a few of these bogs, but finally reached one that was just too deep and ugly to attempt on our own.  

Giraffe posing with a thunderstorm in the back
With our only option to turn the car around, it was a tight squeeze with marsh water on either side of the road, but after about a 10 point turn we finally got the car turned around and headed back in time for lunch.

Wooly-necked stork
 Still no signs of the lions around in the village, but we did have nice sightings of some elephant bulls come to drink at the waterhole, including the elephant with the big tusks.  After lunch it was again a quick drive through the village, checking out the side roads that we don't normally take in the hunt for the lions, but still no sign.  Our idea was to do a game drive but then around 5pm to come back to the village, and hope that the lions were up and about.  

Marabou stork perched
The drive around was pleasant but nothing really to show for it.  The rains seemed to have scattered the animals, and all we could find were some herds far in the distance.  In fact it seemed that the best place for animals was actually around the village, with plenty of elephants, impala and giraffe all grazing near the buildings!

Marabou stork "stalking" the staff
So eventually we headed back, had a quick stop at the resthouse. We did a quick round through the chalets to see if anything was there, and found a Marabou stork perched on a tall dead stump.  What was really amusing though, was when one of the staff members walked to their garbage area to throw some scraps away, the stork immediately flew off his perch and started to walk about 2 metres behind the man waiting to check out the garbage! 

Fast asleep on the sign at Park HQ
But no lions, so we headed out - and just outside the chalets found a lion!  Again, it was the scraggly male sleeping it off in the bush, but just down the road, we found a lioness - sleeping on top of the sign for the resthouse!  She hadn't been there when we had driven past a few minutes before, but now she was calmly lying on top the concrete block right at the park headquarters, totally at home in the middle of the village...

Just cruising down the road
We recognised her immediately as one of the lionesses that is part of the Hippo pools pride - she's quite distinctive because she's blind in one eye.  She was totally chilled out and we were happily taking shots of her, when from the back of the car we spotted not only the scraggly male walking down towards the car, but one of the cubs with him!  At last - a sighting of the cub... and then another... and then another!

The most timid of the 6 cubs
The cubs kept coming, until there were 6 of them in all - totally relaxed and chilled out amongst the cars that had gathered to watch.  The male had disappeared up the road by now, and the cubs were on their own, albeit with one of the females nearby (still sleeping on the sign) but they weren't phased at all, and played amongst themselves, until one of the other females materialised from the bush, which had them all running to greet her.

Completely chilled out despite cars around
Meanwhile another lioness had appeared near the sleeping female, but disappeared again soon after.  The lioness with all the cubs in tow, soon arrived near to the signboard, and the cubs proceeded to chill out near the moms, playing with each other and generally being lion cubs ;)

Mom bored by it all
It was a fantastic sighting, but the light was pretty bad with the sun going down on a very overcast day, and the whole scene needed to be photographed with a flash, not ideal.  Still we sat with them until it was almost dark - luckily our house was only about 100m up the road.  Of course that presented us with a new problem - we knew there were a total of 12 lions just 100m up the road!

Climbing practice
And of course when the roaring starts, you get a bit nervous ;) And the rain started again, so it was back indoors to cook for the night - not such a bad thing...  We were lucky enough to spot a genet while flashing the torch around outside, but other despite the calls of the lions, we didn't see any of them walking around near to the house.  In fact it seemed that they were staying put, which made plans for our last morning a lot easier - just drive around the village looking for lions!

Ground hornbill in a tree
But they decided not to make it easy for us, and by the time we got going in the morning, they were nowhere to be seen again... In fact there was hardly anything around, and all I managed to shoot was a Yellow-throated longclaw :)  We headed back to the resthouse for breakfast and coffee before our drive back, and were lucky enough to catch 4 elephant bulls coming to drink at the waterhole, which was a nice end to our trip.

Heading out, we were pretty happy with the sightings and (hopefully) the photographs.  Our mission had been to see the lion cubs, and we'd seen them.  We are concerned about the fact that they and the adults are so comfortable hanging around the village - we hope that it doesn't lead to a problem where someone gets hurt, which would also mean the end of that pride.  But chances are that the adults grew up just like the cubs are now - in the village, and that both people and predators have learnt to co-exist.   One can only hope!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Cheryl,
    Lovely blog and photos, you are really capturing the spirit of africa.
    I found your site because of a search for leopards in the Kgalagadi. I'm running a project studying them using public sightings (
    I noticed that you have been to the park and have had some sightings. It would be great to be able to add them to our database. Historical sightings are very important as they allow us to look backwards.
    Please have a look at the website and drop me an email to
    Many thanks