Lions are the top predator in any African ecosystem in which they occur, and are the largest of the African carnivores. With their large, muscular, tawny bodies and characteristic manes, they are unmistakable, and are treated with respect by prey species as well as visitors to game reserves.
Of all the cats, sexual dimorphism is most striking in the African Lion. Adult males are not only larger than females; they have a characteristically tawny to almost black mane of long hair on their head and extending onto the shoulders. Males typically weigh 175-190 kg and females about 120 kg. The lion has a wide habitat tolerance and is absent only from extensive desert regions and tropical rain forest.
Open woodlands, savannah and thick scrub provide the lion's best habitat. They select their prey from a range of available animals, but, given a choice, they exhibit a preference for large ungulates. It is believed, that the social structure of lions has evolved from the necessity of co-operation in bringing down such large animals successfully.
It was assumed that lions and other predators were the main mechanism of population regulation on ungulates, and in the early days of game parks, lions were shot so as not to reduce ungulate populations. The idea has since been tested by generations of modern biologists and it was established that the availability of food, and the presence of parasites and disease pose a far greater threat to the survival of antelope and other ungulates than the predator.
The abundance of prey does affect lion populations and being the top of the food pyramid, they require a wide base of prey species below them in order to survive. An individual adult male can consume over 40 kilograms of meat in a sitting, but can then go for many days without eating thereafter. One will often see lions lying about in the shade of an umbrella thorn; their enormous distended bellies out of proportion to themselves, after gauging themselves on their latest kill.
Lions drink regularly, particularly when it is hot, and will drink from muddy pools, rivers or water holes and show little indication of preference for clean water. Drinking is a social event and the pride tends to move to water en masse, usually crowding together in the manner similar to that maintained during feeding.
The lion is the only permanently social, or group-living cat and similar to elephant society, the lioness and her offspring are the focus of the lion society. Female lions in a pride are usually related female cubs born to pride lionesses usually remain bonded to the group for life, whereas males invariably do not figure as permanent members and are ousted at puberty.
Sub-adult lions leaving their natal prides usually adopt a nomadic existence. There are, however, several restraints on their movements: they tend to follow game, and they avoid settled prides that often attack nomads. Nomadic groups may consist of lions of both sexes; they may be members of the same litter, or different litters from the same pride.
Lions are active at night, early morning and towards sunset, although they do sometimes hunt during the day. They are generally fairly lethargic: they exert themselves for short periods of time and then spend long periods of slow movement or relaxation with apparent obliviousness to their surroundings unless they are unduly disturbed.
Most hunting takes place under the poor light conditions of early evening or dawn, and during the night. During daylight when prey animals themselves are better able to see, the lion is at a disadvantage. The lion's final charge is usually made from as little as 20 to 30 metres.
Studies have shown that the weight range of prey is predominantly between 20 and 800 kg in mass, from impala and warthog to giraffe and cape buffalo. Team co-ordination is important, particularly with larger prey. Some large lion prides do however specialise in hunting very large prey: the young of elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus, but this is rare. Smaller animals such as steenbok and springhares will tide lions over during hard times, especially in areas where larger game migrate and food becomes scarce. Lions will even climb trees to scavenge on a leopard's warthog kill! Yes, lions can climb trees!
The females do most of the prides hunting: the pride either walks in single file, or fans out in a loose formation, searching for potential prey. Their body language is casual until prey is sighted: they will then freeze or sink down into cover, then begin to stalk the prey, with one lioness leading: every scrap of cover is used. Silently bursting from their cover, they launch at the animal, usually killing it by strangulation or suffocation and showing incredible strength in doing so.
I was witness to the exceptional stalking ability of lions at the Sonop waterhole just off the tarred N'wanetsi road (H6). While driving down the access road, we noticed that the impala, wildebeest and zebra heading towards the waterhole were decidedly skittish. "Bush sense," told us that it could well be an ambush. Our excitement grew as we thought we could spot the predators hiding in the sparse vegetation before the procession of prey arrived at the waterhole. After a half an hour of combing every bush, gully and patch of grass with powerful binoculars and a trained eye we sadly decided it was time to head off back to camp as it was decidedly late.
At least two thirds of the game had already drunk their fill when all hell broke loose. How we missed getting trampled by the fleeing mass of game I don't know. One lioness was not more than two metres from me before launching herself at a zebra, a mere 15 metres from her. Incredibly she missed! The couple of seconds of intense action and excitement seemed like a lifetime. The dust settled and we slowly got our hearts to beat normally again. I have seen other kills and attempted from a distance, but there is nothing to match the incredible reality of being in the middle of it all.Lions often drag their prey, sometimes over considerable distances, to a sheltered spot before eating it. This allows them to eat in shade, and keep the kill out of sight of vultures, whose presence would attract other marauding predators.
A lioness in oestrus is followed closely by the males of the pride. Copulation is quick and noisy - lasting only a few seconds. After some 10 to 20 minutes, mating is repeated. This routine can continue unabated, day and night, for several days. The mating lions are reluctant to go off hunting with the pride and usually remain behind. A single male, or coalition of males, generally remains the consort of an oestrus lioness throughout the course of her mating period.
After a gestation period of about 110 days, the lioness will retreat to a secluded area to give birth. The average litter comprises of three to six cubs. The cubs weigh no more than 1.5 kg at birth: they are blind and barely able to crawl, and therefore helpless against predators.
Their coats are fluffy and marked with dark rosettes - a phenomenon which is theoretically traced back to some primaeval leopard-like ancestor. They have characteristic long hair on the back of their necks, which is supposedly also to emulate honey badgers, which are known for their incredible ferociousness despite their small size. These early days are fraught with danger and the cubs are vulnerable to attack from hyaenas, leopards and black-backed jackals.
For the next six to eight weeks, the cubs are kept hidden from the pride: during this time the mother returns to suckle them, and spends a fair amount of time with them. At two months old, weighing in at roughly four kilograms, and sporting a full set of teeth, they are then carried to the pride for introduction and inspection: first by the pride male/s, and then the rest of the pride. The mother is very protective over her cubs, and communicates with them via short humming calls.
From six months of age, the male cubs tend to grow faster than the females and at one year, their behaviour is consistent with that of adult males. They begin to grow a mane by 10 months, and take an interest in the hunt by one year of age, gradually learning to master hunting and killing techniques, and are independent at two years old.
Grooming plays an important part in bonding of the cubs and their mother, as well as the rest of the pride, and also is important in keeping each other clean. A vital element in the life of cubs is play: play involves stalking, chasing and ambushing, and is important for preparing them for hunting.
The one or more adult males that usually accompany a pride, occupy their positions by right of conquest: in some cases they may be brothers or cousins, but often they are unrelated. Their reign is generally short-lived however (usually 2 to 4 years), when younger, stronger males oust them during noisy battles of succession.
It is not uncommon for visitors to National Parks being caught up in the middle of one these frightening battles; windows rattle and necks twist as the spectators try to keep up with many angry lions running between and even jumping over their cars! Once the new coalition of males has taken over a territory and gained tenure of the pride they often perform the shameful act of infanticide - they kill the cubs. The smaller females, even with ganging up on the males, are usually unable to prevent this.
Infanticide gives the new males a chance to sire their own offspring and give protection to cubs with which they share their genes. As the period of tenure of a pride by males is not usually more than three or four years, they might not otherwise be able to raise any of their own offspring.
Today most interactions between humans and lions are limited to encounters in game reserves. Lions have been recorded stalking game from behind the cover of cars and buses and will settle down to rest in the shade provided by the vehicle. 'Park' lions offer visitors the opportunity to watch them for hours doing what they do best - lying around doing nothing and looking majestic.
There is probably no other species whose distributional range has shrunk over historical times to the extent shown by the lion: at one time they occurred throughout much of Europe, Asia and Africa. They are now extinct in Europe, and only a few individuals remain in northwestern India. There are no longer in lions north of the Sahara, and their range in the southern African subregion has also shrunk considerably.
In remote areas stock-killing lions used to be fairly common, and were dealt with in a variety of ways. Today lions are largely confined to remote, uninhabited or protected areas and there is little incidence involving livestock killing.
African literature has many stories about man-eating lions. The lions of Tsavo in Kenya made a name for themselves at the turn of the century by killing labourers constructing the railway between Mombasa and Nairobi, bringing construction to a complete standstill until they were dispatched. Although not as prevalent today as in the past, man-eating still occurs, largely as a result of the increase in human population and the decline of game.
Managing lion populations is a dilemma, particularly due to sub-adult lions being driven out of the pride and becoming nomadic, which sometimes takes them out of the reserve onto surrounding tribal or farming land, where they take to killing cattle, and usually have to be destroyed. To avoid this type of situation these sub-adult lions are culled inside the reserve before they venture out. This impacts on not only the long-term pride structure, but also the genetics of the lion populations.The better any animals' behaviour and biology is understood, the better its chances of survival will be. Numerous studies have been conducted on lion populations and their movements, using modern radio and satellite tracking techniques. Despite all these studies there is little that can be done in the face of dwindling 'lion country'. Even intensive capture and relocation programs are doomed as more areas are taken for use by livestock at the expense of wildlife, and the human population continues to grow. Viable Lion populations could gradually become non-existent.
New dangers are also facing lions in many of the National Parks: bovine TB and feline AIDS has infected many lions and poses a great threat for the future: in other parks the lion populations are facing the dangers of inbreeding, as the populations do not have a large enough genetic pool, and are becoming increasingly susceptible to various diseases. Lion managers have an increasingly difficult task ahead, in order to maintain viable populations of this magnificent animal for future generations.
The recent development of trans-frontier parks and the many new private "Big 5" nature reserves that are being established is tremendous news for future of the African Lion. We can only hope that the conservationists' dream of having migratory corridors interlinking the major nature reserves may now be become a reality!