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We watch in awe as a huge male lion emerges from the bush and starts to walk down the dusty road towards our safari van. He is a magnificent specimen displaying an abundant dark mane and has an unmistakable hint of a swagger as wanders down the road, perfectly at ease in his kingdom. Out here in the middle of the bush he reigns supreme and is a feared and respected warrior, protector and hunter. The wonderful sighting is tinged with a moment of regret as we all reflect on the fact that our symbol of Africa, our wonderful African lion is under threat in his kingdom and that future generations will not share our quintessential African moment.
Read: Where Do Lions Live
The Male Lion – Undisputed King of the African Jungle
Lions are fascinating animals and worthy of all the admiration they inspire. For centuries they have represented bravery, pride and royalty and regularly feature as a symbol of courage and nobility on national flags, family crests and coats of arms.
At one time lions were abundant throughout the African continent as well as in Greece, the Middle East and Northern India – how sad to see that today they only occur naturally in sub-Saharan Africa (mostly in eastern and southern Africa), and even here their numbers have declined by more than 42% in the last two decades alone. (A small number can still be found in India). It is interesting and significant that wherever the symbolic lion appears it is always the splendid male lion, even though the lioness does most of the hunting!
Lion Facts and Figures
The male African lion is by far the largest carnivore on the continent and a good specimen can be up to 1,2 m tall at the shoulder, and between 1,5 and 2.4 m in length – now that is a lot of cat! The male lion is almost always larger than the females, and can weigh up to 225kg. The most easily identifiable difference in appearance between the sexes is the male lion’s mane, a thick fringe of hair around the head and neck, which gives him a regal look and helps to protect his neck from injury during fights.
In addition, research seems to indicate that the more luxuriant the mane, the more attractive its bearer is to the opposite sex – a huge mane seems to hold the promise of virility and superior genes and, given the choice, females will generally choose to mate with males who have the best manes. However, a heavy mane also has its down-side – males are more visible to prey and they also over-heat quickly in a chase, both of which factors make it more difficult for them to hunt successfully. The colour of the mane can vary from tawny to almost black and it seems that lions with darker manes are more feared by their peers than those with light-coloured manes.
Leo’s place in the Pride
Read: The Female Lion
Lions are the only species of cat that lives and hunts co-operatively in a large group known as a pride. The pride usually comprises around 12 to 15 animals and is made up of related females (who form the core of the pride and usually stay together for life), their cubs and between one and three adult males, who will generally stay in the pride for around two to three years before they are ousted by younger males. The male lion/s job is to protect the pride from outsiders and to mate with the females; he does very little of the hunting, usually just throwing in his considerable weight to help bring down larger prey such as buffalo, but he does have to protect his range which can be up to 250 square miles in size. This he does by marking his territory with urine to alert other lions and by loud roaring – a hefty roar can be heard up to 8 km away. Territorial fights are quite common and are the reason that male lions have a shorter life span than the females.
Male cubs remain with the pride until they become sexually mature at about 2 – 3 years of age after which they leave the pride. Young males then have to fend for themselves without the protection of their pride and sometimes form small bachelor coalitions usually comprised of 2-3 siblings, who will have a better chance of taking over a pride by driving away the resident male. Many male lions never succeed in taking over a pride and live a solitary existence or remain with a sibling and hunt co-operatively.
The members of a pride appear to be quite affectionate towards each other when they are at rest – they can often be observed touching, patting and purring – but this behaviour changes dramatically as soon as food comes into the picture. Even though the lionesses do around 80% of the hunting, the male lions will invariably chase them off the kill and take the “lion’s” share for themselves. Once they have devoured enough to keep up their strength the females get a turn, followed by the cubs – it is quite amazing that any cubs manage to survive! When male lions hunt for themselves they do not share the kill.
About the Hunt
Read: What do Lions Eat
Lions may be big and brave, but both the males and the females are not really built for speed and endurance, like cheetah, wild dog or hyena. An adult male lion may be capable of reaching a top speed of 80km per hour for very short bursts, but that is not fast enough to run down an impala, for example. To make up for their lack of speed, lions rely on stealth and co-operative hunting to catch their prey. They are most successful hunting in fairly long grass and under the cover of darkness, when they can sneak up close to their chosen prey and then pounce from around 20 meters.
However, there are instances where lions have come up with some very usual hunting practices – in the Okavango Delta, for instance, they have been known to swim across the channels and hide in the reeds to ambush thirsty animals coming to drink, and in the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha have found that it pays them to rest quietly in a cool tree-top and then simply pounce down on their unsuspecting prey. (It is believed that they climb trees in this part of Africa to escape persistent Tsetse fly).
Lions feed on all kinds of animals including antelope, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and buffalo, and will sometimes attack rhino, hippos or even elephants, particularly when there is a shortage of food. Male lions which are not part of a pride will often scavenge up to 50% of their food by driving cheetah, leopard and hyenas off their kill and will also resort to eating small mammals such as warthog, rabbits, tortoises and even mice.
Unfortunately for them, they will also happily attack domestic animals such as sheep, cattle and goats which are very easy to catch, and this is one of the factors responsible for their diminishing numbers in the wild. As pastoral settlements encroach on their range lions are increasingly coming into conflict with farmers who regard them as thieving vermin and kill them indiscriminately.
Currently there are several initiatives which are trying to change the tide by educating local people about the importance of protecting lions in the wild, and some small success has been achieved. However, conservation is an expensive business – if you would like to assist you can donate online or volunteer your time.
Although humans have hunted and persecuted lions for centuries, lions seldom regard humans as prey.
One notable exception to the general rule was a pair of mane-less male lions in Tsavo in Kenya who developed a distinct taste for human flesh back in 1898. At that time a railway line was under construction to link Kenya to Uganda and the famous Tsavo Man-Eaters discovered that the construction workers were easy prey; at least 35 (some sources put the figure at 135!) unfortunate men were killed and devoured over a nine-month period before the pair of enormous lions were shot. A movie was made in 1996 based on these events – The Ghost and the Darkness starring Michael Douglas.