Lion - King of Beasts?
Mention a safari to Africa, and one animal springs immediately to mind - lion! This, the so-called King of Beasts, is on everybody's list of animals to see. This fascination is no doubt due to the size and awesome power of this large cat, and its hunting prowess. But it may also have something to do with the human psyche, for our hominid ancestors on the African plains had to contend with lions as competitors and enemies on a daily basis. Perhaps they still dwell deep in our subconscious mind!
Family Life of the African lion
The lion is the only truly social member of the cat family, with prides typically consisting of related females (normally sisters and aunts) and their offspring. Male cubs are ejected from the pride when they approach maturity, whereas female cubs stay on as a second or third generation. Mothers help to raise one another's offspring, with litters often being synchronised and lactating females suckling other cubs. These prides are usually lorded over by adult males (normally two or more) which may also be related as brothers. The males lions defend a territory larger in size than the home range of the lionesses and very often rule over two or more prides.
This typical arrangement is, however, subject to much variability, and the more that is learned about lion ecology the more permutations come to light. It seems also to be true, that population dynamics - along with other behaviours - differ among lions from one region to another. In areas where lion populations are hemmed-in by fences, human settlements or agriculture (sadly, this is now the case over much of Africa) pride dynamics may be altered radically, as dominant males are either in control for abnormally-long periods, or are killed (shot by farmers) on a regular basis. The implications either way are serious, as males with too long a tenure may eventually mate with their own daughters, while repeated changes of pride dominance caused by regular mortalities, results in a high rate of infanticide (male lions will invariably kill cubs which they have not sired).
The African lion On the Hunt
Lions are the super-predators of Africa, able to capture prey from tiny elephant-shrews to immature elephants. By and large, zebra, wildebeest and buffalo are the favoured prey, but this depends upon the size of the pride, the terrain and the availability of particular prey. Only large prides will tackle buffalo, and - even then - males are often called upon (literally) to deliver the killing bite. A buffalo bull is a huge and powerful animal averaging 800kg, but once it is down, it can provide food for a week or more. Prides seem to specialise in certain prey and develop strategies accordingly. This can mean, for example, that a pride will walk past a group of feeding zebras and target a lone giraffe. Prey is also seasonal in many places, such that the lions of Kenya's Masai Mara have a glut of migratory wildebeest between July and November (some prides may kill three per night!) but then have to survive of wily warthogs and agile gazelles for the rest of the year.
Not above scavenging
One reason for being in a pride is not only to be tackling large prey but also to defend it. The Spotted Hyena is the arch enemy of the lion, and large clans of these tenacious carnivores are sometimes able to dispossess the big cats of their prey. In contrast to the Hollywood image of hyenas being cowardly, these adaptable animals are highly organised team-workers in their own right. Since any predator has to avoid injury if it is to survive, lions will usually take to easiest available prey, preferring a limping zebra foal to a vigorous stallion. It is perhaps not commonly known that lions derive a large part of their diet from scavenging or pirating a meal from a smaller or solitary carnivore (cheetah are the most victimised, and this is why leopards take their prey up into trees).
Conservation of lions in Africa
Because lions come into conflict with mankind, in particular his livestock, they have been systematically eliminated over most of the continent and their known range has shrunk by about two thirds. The areas previously infested with tsetse fly (carrier of dreaded livestock disease) have until recently been a refuge for lion (most large national parks were created in tsetse areas) but recent prophylactics and fly eradication programmes (with other environmental impacts) now permit growing numbers of cattle to enter these previously hostile environments.
There are only three parts of Africa which contain populations of 2000 lions or more. The Serengeti-Mara, the Okavango-Chobe-Hwange complex, and the Kruger National Park and its neighbours. Elsewhere, populations are fragmented and therefore vulnerable. The long term future of the lion cannot be considered secure in these areas, without human intervention to monitor and regulate population genetics.
Where to see lions on safari with &Beyond
The majority of &Beyond lodges are situated in the three core areas mentioned above and lions are regularly encountered and photographed by the majority of guests. Lions were successfully reintroduced to Phinda in 1991, but the population of twenty or so which range freely over this 15 000 hectare reserve, is under strict management. Because guides normally view lions on a daily basis at &Beyond lodges, it has been possible for them to identify individuals and document the status of prides over the years. Accurate recording has been in place for several years at Londolozi, Phinda and Ngala and the results of observations (including identikits of known animals) are published in the &Beyond Ecological Journal. The lion population at Matetsi in northern Zimbabwe is under constant threat as they roam across some of the neighbouring state land which is under lease to trophy hunters. In northern Tanzania, lion viewing in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro is unsurpassed and guests at Klein's Camp, Grumeti or Ngorongoro Crater Lodge are almost guaranteed of close and dramatic encounters. The lions of Kenya's Masai Mara are constantly on the global stage thanks to the BBC's "Big Cat Diary" - visitors to Kichwa Tembo will be enthralled by sightings of the local Kichwa Pride. The Okavango Delta is another prime lion region, with Nxabega and Sandibe both offering great encounters with resident prides. At soon to be opened Kwandwe, in the Eastern Cape, an ambitious lion reintroduction project is about to get underway.
- Duncan Butchart -
Posted: Mammals by CC Africa, Date: 21 November 2006