Whisker Patterns, Lion Mating, and the Missing Cubs

I’m pleased to note that the Tarangire Lion project has some additional help this summer--Rae Wynn-Grant, a master’s candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Here she tells about her experiences in the field so far.

My first two weeks of lion tracking with the Tarangire Lion Project team has been exciting beyond anything I could have imagined as well as hugely enriching to my education in wildlife ecology.  Each day after a breakfast of chai and homemade bread, we’ve left camp at sunrise to check on our first pride, spending the entire day – often past sunset – driving both within and outside of Tarangire National Park boundaries looking for these amazing creatures.

This is a picture of Bernard and his team's camp. © AWF.

Working with the team, I’ve learned how to identify a lion based on distinct marks on the ears and the pattern of dots above the whisker lines that are unique to each individual.  The team has taught me how to estimate a lion’s age from the amount of pink or black skin present on the nose, and I’ve even begun to understand the different migratory patterns of the prides.  Every encounter with one of the lion prides is new and different and is always worth the hours of driving off-road, swatting tse-tse flies, and sweating in the hot sun that undoubtedly constitutes a typical day of lion tracking. This particular morning, our team headed out in the AWF Land Rover with lion tracking gear in tow (large metal antenna and a radio to pick up signals of nearby prides).  At what felt like the very beginning of our hunt we picked up a faint signal of the pride Altapiano, a pride that often stays within park boundaries, especially during the dry season when water resources are scarce in other parts of the Maasai Steppe.  Tracking them through the bush, we finally found our collared female, Celestine, a mature lioness with a beautiful tan coat of fur and a dark nose, just off of one of the dirt roads that winds through the park.  Relaxing under one of Tarangire’s famous Baobab trees, she was joined by a male with a full, dark mane and matching fur on his tail.

This is not Celestine but another collared lioness. I hope to photograph Celestine soon. © AWF

We parked the car a safe distance from the pair and observed their behavior while also using the AWF’s collection of lion identification cards to see if Celestine’s male friend was new to the pride. While we watched and waited, the pair approached each other, preparing to mate.  This was surprising, as Celestine recently gave birth to two cubs within the last two months.  In the last few weeks of tracking Celestine and the Altapiano pride, the team had not acquired any visual clues to the whereabouts of the cubs, who normally wouldn’t be far from their mother.  This information along with the willingness of Celestine to mate again gave us the sense that perhaps this new male lion had killed her cubs in an act of infanticide. It wasn’t long before Celestine and her partner became annoyed with our intrusion. Both animals looked our way and growled.  We made note of the GPS location, drew a sketch of the whisker pattern of the new male, took some pictures for further identification and respectfully drove off to leave the pair in peace.

Here's Bernard taking notes -- he has been a great mentor. © AWF

The Tarangire Lion Project Team is an excellent group of Tanzanian researchers doing great work that requires diligence, patience, and lots of skill.  As a visiting American student, I am honored to be a part of this project and will return to the U.S. with a much broader and richer understanding of general Tanzanian conservation issues, and specifically lion behavior in the Maasai Steppe region of the country.  Bernard Kissui and the rest of the team have been absolutely warm and welcoming to me, and I am truly having an unforgettable experience.