Since beginning our research on lions in Northern Botswana, we have visited every homestead in 5 villages, interviewing 200 people, spoken to the staff at area lodges and local wildlife officials to organize all of the local knowledge on the regional lion population. At this point, we have a clearer picture of the current lion numbers and some room to speculate on the demographics. We have identified 2 main prides with varying numbers of young. The first pride is made up of 2 females with three subadult males. Each of these females appears to be at different stages of pregnancy. The second pride also has two adult females and both appear to be lactating. In this second pride there is a female whose tail tuft is removed. She is called "Mhaleherehere" or sneaky one because she is thought to be the main culprit of livestock killing. She seems to move in and out of the village without detection with only livestock carcasses behind. Also within the area are two large males that appear to be associated with both prides. This is not abnormal. Males will try to associate with as many females as possible in order to improve their chances of passing on their genes. If pride males are not present then neighboring males will extend their range to associate with 'unattended' females. Lastly, there is one lone male who was previously part of a larger coalition.
So what do we think this means? Lions are reproductively active all year round. They tend to have multiple females with cubs at varying ages in a healthy population. The fact that both prides appear to be pregnant or lactating suggests that something has caused a disturbance in this pattern and females are rebuilding their prides all at once- either pregnant or lactating. Disturbances include the killing of young animals by external factors or an event of infanticide. Infanticide occurs when new male lions take over a pride and kill the cubs of the resident females in order to bring the females into heat. Males typically hold prides for 2-5 years depending on the area. Since it takes nearly 2 years for cubs to grow old enough to fend for themselves, it is imperative for males to start reproducing as soon as possible once they take over a pride. In order to do that they can not wait for females to finish nursing and raising young cubs of the previous pride males.
In areas of high conflict, male lions are often targeted and killed. This creates a vacuum filled by new males that are eager to pass on their genes. We believe this is what we are seeing is the fall-out from conflicts occurring between the lion population and the local villages. The male lions are killed, it destabilizes the prides, new males take up residence then the cubs are killed for access to females in heat, then to here is a pulse of new cubs.
Our study area is going through intense periods of instability because of the conflict within local villagers. We hope to help villagers coexist with these lions and have fewer conflicts to help stabilize this important lion population! Stay tuned...