The Female Lion – Queen of the African Wilderness
The iconic heavily-maned male Lion is traditionally awarded the title “King of the Jungle”, but a quick look behind the scenes will show you that in reality it is the influential matriarch, the alpha female Lion, who rules the pride and keeps Leo in his place. In actual fact, male Lions do not have a very easy life, although it seems at first glance that all they do is lie around under a tree and wait for the females to hunt and present their dinner.
Read: The Male Lion
In real life things are a lot more complicated and to really understand the dynamics at work in a pride of Lions we need to have a closer look at all the factors that differentiate the sexes and how these affect their place in the pride.
The Dynamics of a Pride
Lions are very social animals, a concept that is unusual among felines who generally lead solitary lives in the wild. A pride of Lions is composed of a group of related female Lionesses, who together with their off-spring and one or two adult male Lions form a social unit. The related females in the pride will not accept any other females into their unit, and the grouping of a pride generally remains unchanged until one of the females die. Male cubs live in the pride until they are mature, around 2-3 years old and are then excluded from the maternal pride in order to strengthen the gene-pool and avoid interbreeding which will have an adverse effect on future generations.
The Lioness – Caring Mother or Fearsome Predator?
Truth be told, she multi-tasks extremely well, (like most females?) combining her tender maternal instincts with the necessary degree of ruthless determination she needs to safeguard her off-spring and contribute to the food-security of her pride. Let us first have a look at her role as a food provider.
As we all know, the female Lion is one of Africa’s most respected and feared predators, and does most of the hunting in a pride of Lions. Why is it that the smaller, weaker member of the Lion family does all the hard work, you may wonder? An adult African Lion male can weigh up to 250kg, while the female Lion seldom exceeds 180kg in weight, which at first glance would seem to make the male the preferred hunter, but this is not the case. In this instance, bigger is not better and the size of the male Lion can actually hamper his chances when hunting. Firstly, he is a lot less agile than the smaller female, and secondly he has to carry around a huge mane, which makes him look more impressive, but really gets in the way when he is hunting; it is more noticeable to prey, it easily catches in the vegetation, and causes him to over-heat really quickly when he is active.
In a regular pride the females, usually around five or six adults, hunt together in an extremely efficient co-ordinated way with each Lioness regularly performing the same role in the stalk and kill, which is why they are such efficient hunters.
Read: Where Do Lions Live
Lions are not very well designed for running; their hearts are relatively small in proportion to their body-weight and this means that they tire quickly in a chase and could easily be out-run by a healthy animal boosted by a good dose of adrenalin! Instead of depending on speed, Lions prefer to use stealth to stalk their prey, often concealing themselves in dense undergrowth and waiting for unsuspecting animals to approach them.
In some instances in the Okavango Delta in Botswana they have even been observed swimming and hiding among the reeds in the shallows, waiting for prey to come to the water’s edge to drink, before they explode out of the water and attack. In some areas of East Africa Lions have learnt to climb trees and use this skill to great advantage; they simply lie in wait for an unsuspecting animal to walk under the tree and then drop down for the kill. When hunting in the open, the Lionesses will patiently follow and surround a herd and then pick out a vulnerable animal on the fringe of the herd that they can quickly attack without resorting to a long chase.
Who gets the Lion’s share?
Smaller prey is consumed on the spot, which means that the hunters (Lionesses) get most of the food in order to keep their strength and stamina up for the next hunt.) When the kill is larger, it is usually dragged to the pride area and shared, and sometimes the heavier males assist in the kill of larger animals such as Buffalo or adult Giraffe.
Read: What do Lions Eat?
There is often a lot of aggressive behavior around a kill as each animal tries to eat as much as possible, and in many instances the male Lions will dominate and the female lions who did all the work will get very little to eat! Male lions may share some of the kill with the cubs, but they seldom share anything that they have killed themselves.
Many people do not know that Lions are also great scavengers and will quite happily consume carcasses of animals that have died of natural causes or have been killed by other predators. They are adept at watching out for circling Vultures, as they know that this is an indication of a sick or weak animal or a carcass. They will also steal kills from Hyena, Wild Dogs, and Cheetah and have been known to scramble up trees to steal from a Leopard’s lofty pantry. Lions will also attack domestic cattle if the opportunity presents itself, which often brings them into conflict with humans where local settlements are located close to National Parks or Reserves.
The Tender Side of the African Lioness
The female Lion is an excellent mother! Most Lionesses have their first litter of cubs when they are around 4 years old. They instinctively choose a secluded, hidden spot to give birth, some distance from the rest of the pride. The cubs are born completely helpless and blind – their eyes only open about a week after birth – and they are totally reliant on their mother. She keeps them safe by hunting (by herself) in a close radius to the den and making sure that she moves them to a new den (carrying them one-by-one by the scruff of their necks) every couple of weeks to avoid their scent becoming concentrated in one spot as this would invite disaster! Baby Lion cubs are very vulnerable to attack from other predators and even herds of Buffalo have been known to stampede an area where they have picked up the scent of a Lion den.
Once the youngsters have been integrated into the pride at around 6 – 8 weeks, the other Lionesses, (who somehow manage to synchronise their reproductive cycles so that they all give birth around the same time!) will all assist with the nurturing of the cubs. If the dominant male Lion is ousted from the pride by a rival new-comer, the cubs are at dire risk as the new male will usually kill all existing young cubs. There is a high mortality rate among Lion cubs and only an estimated 20% will make it past 2 years old, another factor contributing to their threatened status.