From the Field

posted: 05/15/12
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Christiaan Winterbach
Courtesy of Tau Consultants |

If not for the efforts of ecologist Christiaan Winterbach and his wife, Hanlie, the swimming lions of the Okavango Delta still would be shrouded in mystery. The husband-and-wife team run a monitoring project that seeks to understand how lions are managing to live in this land of seasonal flooding.

We caught up with ecologist Christiaan Winterbach to ask him a few questions about the project and to find out how the swimming lions have been doing since filming.

Why do the lions swim? Why is all this so new and surprising?

The lions in the Okavango Delta have to swim at certain times of the year, or at least cross the water. It's a very unique environment where you have a very flat area that seasonally floods. The average water depth is about 2 to 2 1/2 feet, but there are deeper areas as well. These lions know the area very well and can select the best route between point A and point B. They can avoid very deep water or take the shortest route if they want to. They are very adept at swimming if they need to.

We sometimes see that they don't like to go through the water — it gets very cold, for example. They just have to cope with this, which other lions don't have to do on a regular basis.

There's a lot of similarity between the Okavango Delta and the Florida Everglades. Florida panthers have to cross water the same way that our lions have to cope with water in the delta.

So lions are not usually known as swimmers?

Lions are not known as swimmers in the sense that they don't do it daily. They're not like tigers, which love to go into the water to cool down. But when they're faced with a river, they will cross it if they need to. It's something that does not happen very regularly, except when you have them in an environment like the Okavango Delta, where they have a habitat with a large part of water that they need to cross to move around.

Is this the first scientific study of lions in the Okavango Delta?

When we started our project full time in 1997, we had already done lion surveys in the Okavango Delta in 1995 and 1996. Before that, nothing was done on lions in that area.

We started off with a monitoring program to collect baseline data on how lions live in this very unique environment. From that we encountered a few strange things, or things not fitting in with the normal pattern. These raised some questions that we are looking into now. One of the things that we are looking at is how the lions move in relation to the available litany of prey in their home range areas.

Has anything unusual happened in camp since the filming?

Very recently we had several big fires around us. We spent about five days fighting fires to save some of the neighboring camps and to save our camp as well. Luckily we didn't have any damage, but it was a very close call. We can breathe a bit and relax now after all the excitement.

We also have a lot of zebra that moved in shortly after the fires. They're after the green grass that starts growing very soon after a fire. There's a lot more game in the area now; I think we're going to see a lot more zebra kills in the next month than what we've normally been seeing.

Do you know what started the fires?

The fires started in an area between us and a neighboring camp that's quite far away. There were some local fishermen in the area, and we suspect that it was either a fire that they deliberately started or a fire that started by accident from their campsite. It covered a very large area and it threatened five different camps in quite a big area surrounding us.

How have Sadu and her cubs been doing since the filming?

Sadu and her cubs have been doing very well since the filming. She still has the two cubs with her. They're almost 3 years old and are both sub-adults now. The three of them are doing very well.

It's very dry at this stage; we don't have the water that we had during the filming, which is making life for the lions a little bit easier than what it was during that time.

Have Sadu and her cubs had much interaction with the other lions?

Sadu was seen with an adult male a short while ago, and we think that they may have been mating. We hope that if she conceives we may have some small cubs again from her in about three months' time.

Have you seen any spectacular kills since the filming?

In the last couple of months we've seen our lions quite a few times on giraffe kills. Unfortunately we haven't seen them pull down the giraffes ourselves, but we've found them afterwards. They stay for a couple of days on the giraffe, feeding there, and that provides them with food for quite a while before they move off and start looking for new prey to tackle.

It's always, I think, very exciting to see them pull down a giraffe, and that's one of the things that is on our wish list to experience ourselves.

Have any new cubs been born?

At this stage we have some very small cubs with one lioness from the Xudum pride. She's still hiding them in the den site and hasn't introduced them to the rest of the pride yet. We hope that they're going to survive.

Cub mortality can be very high. We very regularly have lionesses that have cubs and then return to the pride without them. We hope that she will be successful in raising her cubs and bringing them to the pride.

We also have a few other cubs. They are close to 2 years old, so we're really hoping to have some baby cubs in some of the prides in the next couple of months.

The Winterbachs post regular updates on their Web site,

Interview conducted by Jason Robey.

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