Nature has no script. It is amazing, fascinating, kind, cruel and unexpected. And within Nature’s ‘circle of life’ nothing compares to motherhood in the wild. There have been many ‘aaah’ moments in the past few months at Sabi Sabi as we have watched the Southern Pride lion cubs grow, held our breath as the female leopard we call Little Bush’s small cub flourished, and been endlessly entertained seeing the energetic impala lambs mature. Yet behind some of these stories is tragedy, drama and a desperate fight for survival; with the mother animals playing the starring roles.
While blog followers are delighting in watching Little Bush’s cub evolve from a tiny ball of fur to a sleek cat, it is sad to remember that the second cub suddenly disappeared. No-one knows what happened, but after having survived the challenges of early infancy the cub must have succumbed to one of Nature’s forces. Little Bush is an excellent mother and a formidable hunter – making a kill almost every day – and yet she still lost one of her precious cubs.
The small lion cubs in the Southern Pride are also constantly under threat from the possible intrusion of male lions who aren’t their fathers – lions who would kill them given the chance. They are many dangers lurking for these cubs – danger of predation from hyenas, jackals, leopards, and large eagles. Or even being trampled by a herd of buffalo – the huge bovines’ instincts telling them these tiny creatures will eventually grow into fearsome buffalo hunters. Lionesses within the pride jointly take responsibility for the cubs, sometimes even going into a fake oestrus and luring predatory male lions away from the pride to mate with them – effectively removing the threat to cubs. Less than 30% of lion cubs survive to adulthood and those that do, owe their lives entirely to their mothers’ and surrogate mothers’ protection.
An elephant mother carries her young for just under two years, finally giving birth to a calf that is dependent on her for up to five years. In that time, the mother is solely responsible for all of her offspring’s needs. Calves suckle for around three years before weaning and mothers are fiercely protective. It is never a good idea to get between an elephant and her calf!
There are endless examples in Nature of animal mothers who will defend their babies to the death, often against much bigger opponents. Many bird species are particularly defensive of their chicks and will distract and mob potential predators that get too close to their eggs or fledglings. A prime example is the tiny Fork-Tailed Drongo which will often confront a raptor several times its size to protect its young.
At the opposite end of the spectrum there are bushveld mothers which seem totally indifferent to the fate of their offspring. Snakes, for instance, lay their eggs (as many as 18 at a time) in a safe place, and then leave them to hatch and defend themselves from the moment of birth (which they do with remarkable success).
Motherhood in the wild is wonderful. To the human observer it is sometimes heart breaking, frequently entertaining, very often tragic. But it is always amazing.
Meet Larney Visser, who heads up our wonderful EleFun Children’s facility at Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge. Larney frequently takes on the responsibility of “mother to all” and seamlessly cares for our young guests, who visit from all over. Not only that, she professionally home schools a number of children who call Sabi Sabi their home, who flourish in this environment under her care and protection.