News - March 2011


31 Mar 2011. Phantom Huab lions. The lions that killed livestock at Krone in the Huab River a few days ago have vanished. Search efforts throughout last night and today have not revealed any fresh signs. A female cheetah with two large cubs were spotted on a ridge towards Peter's Pool. *Moment*

30 Mar 2011. Huab Valley. A report was received that lions approached a boma at Krone in the lower Huab Valley and killed several head of cattle. Most of last night was spent driving and negotiating rivers to get to Krone. It rained during the night and there was still a lot of moisture in the air this morning (bottom image), but by this afternoon the humidity had dropped to < 50% and there was a cool breeze from the coast. Last night's rain covered most of the lion tracks, but there was enough evidence to suggest that they might still be in the area.

29 Mar 2011. Desert rain. It would appear that the brunt of the rains in the western part of the desert is still to come. The past two days have seen spectacular thunderstorms along the coast and even out at sea (photos below). The Uniab River has been flowing continuously and driving anywhere, other than along the main coastal road, has been near impossible.

28 Mar 2011. Uniab in flood. Several sets of lions tracks were spotted at the mouth of the Hoanib River. Most of the tracks probably belong to Xpl-10, but one set did not fit with the known movements of Xpl-10 during the past few weeks and could possibly belong to one of the younger Floodplain lionesses. The Uniab River was in full flood and crossing the river was not possible. To great surprise, a lone person was encountered walking along the barren coastline (see photo: bottom right). Anette Grobler is on an expedition to raise funds for charity, called Slient Steps: Skeleton Coast Solo Adventure (see link), by walking the length of the Skeleton Coast Park, from the Ugab to the Kunene River.

27 Mar 2011. Dangerous. The risks posed by flooding rivers cannot be over-stressed. The images below were taken this morning by Anthony Swartz, of Wilderness Safaris, at the mouth of the Hoaruseb River. The two vehicles attempted to cross the river en route to the Kunene Mouth.

26 Mar 2011. Elephant company. A big effort was required to dig the Land Cruiser out of the silt depression, and thirty-two hours later it was finally free. A lot of time was wasted, however, because an elephant bull approached the Cruiser early this morning and spent many hours sleeping and browsing less than 50 metres from the vehicle. Based on his radio telemetry signal, the male lion (Xpl-73 "Rosh") also spent most of the day a few hundred metres from the vehicle.

25 Mar 2011. Mowe Bay. Due to the rains and floods, a bit of time was spent at Mowe Bay working through the biological samples and sculls at the museum. The opportunity was used to asses the scull of Xpl-5 and the extent of tooth-wear was measured and photographed. Another effort was made to locate Xpl-10 and her new litter. The radio signals of "Rosh" (Xpl-73) and one of the young Floodplain lionesses were picked-up in the direction of Auses spring. But the attempt to find the lions was abandoned because the entire Floodplain is under water. The floodwaters broke through the first set of dunes on the northern edge and formed a water channel that may eventually pierce the sand barrier and reach the ocean. There was always a high risk of getting stuck by entering the area and collecting the above mentioned information. Sometimes risks like these have to be taken - finding and observing Xpl-10 amongst the dunes, leading her two small cubs on the their first "major" journey (see 22 & 23 Mar 2011), is a case in point. On this occasion the risk was too high because the Land Cruiser became badly bogged-down on the edge of a depression between the dunes. *Moment*

24 Mar 2011. Hoaruseb. The Hoaruseb lionesses have been moving far upriver and have killed livestock at Purros and further north towards Orumembe. It has not been possible to investigate the problems because the Hoaruseb River has been flowing constantly and cannot be crossed safely.

23 Mar 2011. Towards Auses. Under difficult conditions, with rain and the risk of getting bogged down, Xpl-10 and her two small cubs were followed to the edge of the Hoanib Floodplain. It was not possible to enter the Floodplain because the floods have reached the edge of the dune-belt and the entire area is waterlogged. It appears as if Xpl-10 is heading for Auses spring in the dunes.

22 Mar 2011. Small cubs at Hoanib Mouth. The radio signal of Xpl-10 was picked up at the mouth of the Hoanib River. Whilst trying to locate Xpl-10, her tracks were spotted where she crossed a dune. The tracks revealed that she had two very small cubs (see photo: right, second from bottom). A few hours later Xpl-10 and her two cubs were observed. Based on the movement data downloaded from Xpl-10's GPS collar for the past two months, it was possible to determine that the cubs were born between 10 & 15 Feb 2011. The map (see below) shows her movements and the place where she gave birth is indicated by the "X". On 24 Mar 2011, Xpl-10 moved all the way to the coast and, despite the heavy rains during the past week (see photo: bottom, right), her tracks are still visible where she walked along the beach, less than 8 km south of Mowe Bay and the seal colony. Xpl-10 is the daughter of Xpl-5 (see News: 15 Mar 2011) and this is her fourth litter. The cubs, barely five weeks old, were struggling to negotiate the sand dunes and rocky outcrops through which Xpl-10 was leading them, but she was very attentive and kept on going back to encourage them (see photos: middle/centre & middle/right). It was an unique privilege to observe the cubs on their first journey into the wide-world, as Xpl-10 led them through the dunes towards the Floodplain.

21 Mar 2011. Uniab. The tracks of two lionesses were found moving from the Samanab to the lower Uniab River. They are presumably two of the Obab females, but could not be located because it started raining.

20 Mar 2011. Samanab. A huge volume of water swept down the Samanab River during a flash-flood that changed the appearance of this rather small drainage line. During the past 13 years the Samanab River flowed into the Skeleton Park on three occasions, and only once did the flood waters reach the dune-belt.

19 Mar 2011. Obab encounter. By a stroke of good luck, Xpl-49 was observed briefly as she met up with Xpl-22 in the upper Obab River. It then started raining, the lionesses moved off, and the observations had to be abandoned. *Moment*

18 Mar 2010."Nina". Rain showers swept through the Urunedis River and surrounding areas for most of the morning and the Obab lioness (Xpl-49) moved continuously in between the mountains. She was presumably hunting for zebras on the mountain slopes. When the rain stopped during the late afternoon, it became possible to navigate through the mountains towards her location. Xpl-49 moved into the open this morning at 01h30 and she was observed for an hour. She is in good condition, but she was alone. It is unsure if her three cubs (now 9-10 months old) are still alive.

17 Mar 2011. In between rainstorms. The past few days have seen heavy downpours and soft drizzling rain at regular intervals during the day and at night. Fieldwork has been difficult and had to be done in between the spells of rain. Several lions of the Aub & Agab prides were located and observed briefly. The third Obab lioness, Xpl-49 ("Nina"), was located in the upper Urunedis River. A total of 16 hours was invested to try and get a visual sighting of her and to determine if her 3 cubs (see News 26 & 27 Sep 2010) are still alive. But the regular spells of rain and a flat tire at an inopportune moment, prevented observing her.

16/17 Mar 2011. Dart young lioness. Xpl-67 was darted in the Khoabis River and fitted with Xpl-5's radio collar. The collar, recovered from Xpl-5 after she died, still has 3.5 years of battery life remaining. The event was attended by Wilderness Safaris (WS) staff and guests from Rhino Camp. A brief presentation on the Desert Lion Project was given to the WS guests afterwards.

16 Mar 2011. Beautiful scenery. The rains have completely transformed the desert. For example, the area around the Kawakap and Uniab Rivers (see below) is normally characterised by its stark red/brown basalt rocks and Euphorbia bushes.

15 Mar 2001. Xpl-5 died. The radio signal of Xpl-5 (also known as the "Queen Mother") was picked-up near the Aub/Barab Junction early this morning. It soon became evident that she either lost her radio collar, or that she was dead. After almost four hours of searching, the radio collar, scull and some skeletal remains of Xpl-5 were found. From the available evidence and data from the GPS collar of Xpl-65 (the daughter of Xpl-5) it is estimated that Xpl-5 died between 20 and 30 December 2010. The cause of her death is unknown. Xpl-5 was a remarkable lioness and she was a key figure in the Desert Lion study. She was born in Jan 1992. The information collected by monitoring Xpl-5, from the time when was first darted and marked at the age of 2.5 years until she died at the age of 19 years, made a significant contribution to our understanding of the behaviour & ecology of Desert lions. According to the available scientific literature, Xpl-5 had become the oldest known free-ranging lion. Records of the progression of tooth wear, collected during different periods of her life (see photos below), make up an important base-line and helps to improve the technique of aging lions based on the extent of tooth wear.

First darting of Xpl-5
Sep 2010 - last photo of Xpl-5
The scull and radio collar of Xpl-5
Xpl-5: age - 2.5 years
Age - 8 years
Age - 11.2 years
Age - 13.5 years
Age - 17.3 years
Death: 19 years

14 Mar 2011. Springbok. During periods of high rainfall, springboks are known to congregate in large groups. An unusually large group (est. 4000 - 5000) was observed moving along the Uniab tributaries. Predators are quick to follow these movements. *Moment*

13 Mar 2011. More rain.
Heavy rainfall continued during the past 24 hours. Field work has not been possible because of the flooding rivers and the muddy surface conditions. The time-lapse animation (right) shows a thunderstorm moving across the desert over a period of 20 minutes.

12 Mar 2011. Rain. With the aid of satellite images linked to a GPS it was possible to navigate through the hills and mountains towards Springbokwasser. From mid-afternoon ominous rain clouds were building in the East and by late afternoon there were dramatic thunderstorms, followed by extensive rain throughout the night.

11 Mar 2011. Uniab floods. Xpl54 recovered well from the immobilsation. It rained heavily during the latter part of the night. Early this morning the Uniab River came down in flood. The water levels rose rapidly and the river became a roaring torrent. The Land Cruiser is safe on the southern bank, but it is trapped in a difficult spot where there are no easily accessible exit routes. It might be necessary to wait until the floods subside.

10 Mar 2011. Dart Xpl-54. A great deal of luck was involved when Xpl-54 (with the faulty satellite GPS collar) was located in the Uniab River this afternoon. But the good fortune was short lived, when Xpl-54 started moving at 18h00 and quickly disappeared over very rugged terrain. A huge effort had to be launched to follow him and with a bit more luck he was located and darted at 22h16. The faulty satellite GPS collar was removed and replaced with a VHF radio collar.

9 Mar 2011. Xpl-22. Shortly after sunset the two Obab lionesses (Xpl-22 & 45) were located some distance north of Salvadora spring. There was no sign of their cubs. The lionesses were hunting actively and presumably the cubs are still in the Uniab River (where they were left on 7 Mar 2011).

8 Mar 2011. Hyaena den. A large number of images and video-clips, recorded by the camera trap mounted on 31 Jan 2011 at the brown hyaena den near the Hoanib River, was recovered by Wilderness Safaris. The images still need to be analysed properly, but the hyaenas vacated the den on 17 Feb 2001 and presumably moved the two cubs to another location. The radio signals of Xpl-53 & 54 could not be located again. The two Obab lionesses (Xpl-22 & 45) stashed their five cubs in the Uniab River and moved north along the Beacon River in search of prey.

7 Mar 2011. Beacon River. Last night the Obab lionesses moved east along the Uniab River as far as the Beacon River. The spoor of an adult male lion (presumably that of Xpl-54) was located this morning and was followed for most of the day. The faint signal of Xpl-53 ("Charlotte") was heard from the top of a ridge shorty after sunset. All efforts will be focussed on locating "Charlotte" and possible also the Hunkap male (Xpl-54) during the night.

6 Mar 2011. Uniab vegetation. An effort will be made to observe the two Obab lionesses (Xpl-22 & 45) for a few days, with the hopes that Xpl-54 (the Hunkap male with the dysfunctional satellite collar) might join-up with them. This is proving to be a difficult task because early this morning the lionesses decided to move into the Uniab River. Due to the recent floods there is a lot of water in the river and it has become overgrown with vegetation, which makes driving and observing the lions rather difficult.

5 Mar 2011. Obab lions. The satellite GPS collar of the Hunkap male (Xpl-54) failed to send location data for three consecutive days. It was decided to investigate, with the hopes of finding him near the last recorded position in the lower Uniab River. Unfortunately there was no sign of Xpl-54, but two lionesses of the Obab Pride (Xpl-22 & 45) were located on an oryx kill in the lower Obab River. To great surprise, there were five small cubs with them. Preliminary observations suggest that two cubs (age: 10 - 12 weeks; both males) belong to Xpl-22 and the other three (age: 8 - 10 weeks; 2 males & 1 female) belong to Xpl-45.

3/4 Mar 2011. No luck. Large sections of the Huab Valley, including the areas around De Riet, Krone and Slangpos, have been covered. But no fresh signs of the lions have been found. It possible that they have moved back to the Springbok River. *Moment*

3 Mar 2011. Mud. The Land Cruiser was badly stuck in very soft mud and it took seven grueling hours to get the vehicle out. The search for the Huab lions is continuing.

1/2 Mar 2011. Bogged down. The Huab River is proving to be more treacherous than anticipated. The Land Cruiser became stuck near Peter's Pool and it took two hours to free the vehicle. There is a lot more water and signs of flooding in the surrounding areas. During a concerted effort to vacate the river, the Land Cruiser got bogged down again at dusk.

1 Mar 2011. Searching for Huab lions. A systematic pattern of scanning the Huab River and all its major tributaries for tracks and other signs of lions is underway. The effort is however being hampered by the rains. The main Huab River has not yet flooded and it is still possible access the area.