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Production Diary

David Youldon


Since late September we have been hosting a film crew producing a series about the lion release project for the UK's ITV network. The production diary is below.

25th September
The ITV film crew arrived into Zimbabwe today, and will travel from Harare to Antelope Park outside Gweru this afternoon. Over the next seven weeks, the crew will be filming all aspects of the program both at Antelope Park and later at our Livingstone program.

26th September
Offloading over 380kg of equipment – including a small crane – the film crew have arrived. This morning, following an initial production meeting with some of the key staff from Antelope Park, the crew toured the Park to get a feel for the place and to start to get to know the lions, helping to form the storylines that will be followed over the coming weeks.

27-29th September
Tuesday was meant to be the first full day of filiming... and then the main camera broke. So while waiting for a new one to arrive from the UK the two other cameras were used to get various ‘filler’ pieces for editing later on.

30th September
Two new cameras arrived into Harare today, and arrived at the Park in the evening – full filming schedule will resume tomorrow.

1st October
Filming is finally underway and there are a few stories to cover today. Firstly, Luke is being introduced to three females later on; Alice, Nadia and Ezulu, who are all spayed so there is no chance of uncontrolled breeding. This is the first time Luke has been with other lions since his return from Dollar Block. The three females have been housed nextdoor to him for some time now and the group have been observed greeting each other through the fenceline regularly. While there is always some degree of friction when lions meet for the first time, the introduction went very well. Nadia and Ezulu submitted pretty much straight away to Luke’s dominance; Alice took a little longer, but she soon backed down.

2nd October
The youngest lions at Antelope Park, Jelani and Jebari, drew the camera’s attention this morning on their walk. Encountering a herd of impala, Jebari immediately headed for the nearest clump of grass and watched the herd intently. However, no one could quite work out if this was a clever cub trying to conceal his presence, or a nervous youngster hiding from a few impala. Luke and his new pride continue to do well, and his progress with the girls will allow us to ascertain if he is ready to be released again into stage two. Our consultant vets arrived yesterday and have spent some of today doing the rounds on the lions and tending to any minor ailments.

2nd & 3rd October
As part of a study into the effects of FIV infection on lions in partnership with the University of Glasgow a total of 18 lions were darted to take blood samples for testing. The same lions will be monitored with retesting every year to identify the progression of the disease within 9 FIV positive females. The remaining nine lions that were tested are FIV negative and are being used as a control group due to the fact that all lions are kept in the same conditions with the same nutritional inputs. We hope this study will provide important insights into the virus that will aid in lion management across the continent. We were also happy to see Ed Oelofse back at AP who is following a dream to work in the veterinary sciences by joining our partner AWARE who conducted the sample collection for us.

3rd October
Rain. To take advantage of the changing conditions and the fact that the 2Js have never experienced rain before, we took them out to see how they would react. They loved it running wildly around the Bush providing some of the best footage yet.

In order to ensure that the Ngamo release pride of Ashanti, Athena, Phyre, Kwali, Kenge, Nala and Narnia maintain as many species specific behaviours whilst they wait for their release site to be ready they are fed as a pride on a large piece of meat. Today that was the remains of a giraffe. Also by feeding this way we can continue to study the dynamics within the pride. The most dominant females of Ashanti, Athena and Phyre split themselves evenly spaced across the carcass. The remaining less dominant members then positioned themselves in between – exactly as we would expect. Ashanti is clearly still top cat, with Nala and the bottom of the pile, having to wait for the older, bigger cubs to have their fill before getting a good chance at a meal. There was very little aggression within the group except for a couple of small episodes promoted by Phyre (no surprises there!) showing that we have a fully bonded and socially stable pride. Even the link Nala & Narnia had with Athena seems to have been dissolved with the two youngsters flanking Ashanti at the carcass.

In the afternoon we attempted to move Sango in with Echo & Etosha in order that his sister Swahili might bond with Sahara and Soriah. Swahili is too reliant on Sango instead of the females and this is not good for her long term progress in the program. However Sango was firmly staying put and the move had to be delayed for another day.

6th October
Over the last few days heavy rain has besieged Gweru and the Zimbabwean Midlands. While the torrid weather caused the power to go out and halted all communication with the outside world, the change in conditions provided some of the best footage yet. Jelani and Jabari had never experienced rain before – so to see how they would react, staff took the youngsters on their first rainy walk. Weather has a massive influence on lion behaviour and activity levels and to say that the camera had trouble keeping up with the pair as they ran all over the place would be an understatement.

To ensure the Ngamo release pride of Ashanti, Athena, Kenge, Kwali, Nala, Narnia and Phyre maintain as many species specific behaviours whilst awaiting their release site to be made ready they are fed as a pride on a large piece of meat. Today, that was on the remains of a giraffe – this method also allows us to continue to study dynamics within the pride. The most dominant females of Ashanti, Athena and Phyre split themselves evenly around the carcass. The remaining, less-dominant members then positioned themselves between the three. Ashanti is clearly still top cat, with Nala at the bottom of the pile.

Following a failed attempt the previous day to move Sango in with Echo & Etosha, he finally co-operated this afternoon.

This afternoon saw the 2Js take part in a study being conducted through ALERT’s Facilitated Research program. The cubs were presented with a mirror to assess their boldness when faced with an ‘unknown’ lion. Both boys were fascinated – but while Jelani kept a safe distance, Jabari was clearly more than willing to approach the ‘intruder’.

7th October
Jelani and Jabari was once again the feature of the day as they went on their last walk at Antelope Park and were made ready for their transfer to our Victoria Falls project, to coincide with the retirement and return of the 2Bs, Batoka and Bhubesi.

8th October
Today is the 3Ss’ second birthday and Sahara and Swahili with Soriah were walked to Bush enclosure. En-route they played at the dam, chased reedbuck, impala and zebra. Swahili was a bit tentative to leave Sango in the neighbouring enclosure but soon decided to follow the other girls. And what of the birthday boy? Sango continues to bond with the 2Es – while they’re not all best friends just yet, there have been no fights and with the girls gone he can concentrate on strengthening those ties with Echo and Etosha.

Late in the evening, the truck which took the Js to the Falls returned with a very special cargo. Pulling up next to the Night Encounter enclosures, two crates were carefully unloaded and pushed up to the sliding gate. The first door was lifted, and a frankly bemused Bhubesi could just be seen. She was gently called and took her first tentative steps into her new home. Batoka on the other hand almost bounded out of his crate and reunited with his sister before starting on the task of spraying his scent all round the enclosure.

9th October
Checking in on the 2Bs, they’re still getting to know their new home after their long journey yesterday, but seem content enough and welcome the attention when staff arrive to greet them. Next door, Sango continues to make progress with the 2Es, even receiving a good grooming from Echo.

Luke also continues to bond well with his pride of ladies; Alice, Nadia and Ezulu are sprawled on top of their anthill sleeping peacefully while Luke keeps a watchful eye out a few metres away at the base of the hill. All very serene and majestic.

10th October
The 2Bs are taken for their first walk since returning to the Park in an effort to re-forge the bond with Park staff in preparation for Night Encounters. They spend their time chasing warthog and wildebeest. Unfortunately something seemed to spook Batoka and he bit a staff member. While all staff are aware of the dangers inherent to such work, it was a poignant reminder to everyone.

11th October
The S girls were out on a Night Encounter, their first since Sango was removed from their social group. There was encouraging hunts over the course of the evening, the best being a well coordinated stalk on some giraffe – with Swahili taking the lead.

14th October
Focus has fallen lately on the volunteer program, with a full day at the breeding program. With the onset of the rainy season, there is plenty of maintenance to tend to, such as enclosure poles receiving a fresh coat of protective paint. The volunteers also did a full sweep of the enclosures removing bones and skin from feeds and shovelling copious amounts of pooh as well as updating lion description files. Lola had a visit from the vet after she sustained an injury from a scrap with Chemma next door while Anna and Mufuta’s feed needed prepping. Some of the meat was not suitable for the lions, and so these were taken to vulture’s restaurant which supports some 350 birds, from as many as six different species. The final task on the day’s list was building a new platform for Ariel, Zuva, Amber, Chipo and Emma. The job started at 6.30am and by 5pm the last nail in the masterpiece was hammered in. To start with, the lions ignored the vols’ hard work, and then slowly one by one cautiously approached it. But it was Emma, who, after a few moments of uncertainty claimed the multi-level platform and looked extremely proud of herself as she viewed her domain.

16th October
Yesterday afternoon Damisi and Dhakiya stole the show on their walk with a playtime that will not soon be forgotten. The cubs were slow to walk to start off with, but as the route led the cubs to a watering hole the fun soon started. Both Ds sprang into life and charged around after one another. At one point, Dhakiya jumped clear over Damisi before he decided to go for a swim – with all but his head submerged by water.

This morning, some of the other frequent visitors to the Park came into focus. The old bones or meat not being fed to the lions is taken to vulture’s restaurant. Squadrons of white-backed vultures swooped in from a distance, and were joined by the impressive lappet-faced vulture.

21st October
Filming at the Park comes to an end today; and the last few days have been hectic to say the least with stories to finish off and new ones to get done. Sahara, Swahili and Soriah were out after dark again, with Swahili to continuing to lead the way. Sango has been fully accepted by the 2Es; one surprise here though is that is has been Etosha and not Echo who Sango has bonded with first. Sango can often be seen following the bigger male around and constantly greeting him. They are also frequently seen lying next to one another with their paws intertwined and Etosha will regularly groom Sango. His sisters are clearly long forgotten!

The 2Ds caught a mongoose allowing Damisi to make his first kill – and then of all lions Echo made a kill on a hare. He’s still a little way behind his brother in terms of number of kills and prey size; but you have to give him his dues.

And so the camera’s attention now falls on the cubs at Lion Encounter Zambia; Kela, Kwandi, Toka, Leya, Loma, Zulu, Rundi, Rusha, Temi and Tswana. Check later for their instalment in the diary.


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