One of the iconic animals of Africa. Males are larger than females with manes ranging in color from light to black.
Distribution Once widely occurring in Africa the lion now occurs in national parks and reserves south of the Sahara. A small population is still found in western India.
Lions are the most sociable of the large cats of Africa, living in prides made up of females, cubs and juvenile males. The size of the pride and the area of the home ranges (territories) depend on the availability of food and the terrain.
Female cubs will generally stay with the pride whereas the male cubs will be pushed away form the pride upon reaching sexual maturity. The males will then become nomadic, sometimes forming coalitions, until they challenge for territories of their own.
Colour shades and behaviour vary a great deal across its range. In respect to hunting, prides in certain areas have adapted to hunting a specific prey.
Lions inhabit a wide range of habitat from desert areas to open savanna. They are, however, absent from deep forests. Water is not essential for their survival.
A lion’s diet varies greatly, and these predators have been observed feeding on everything from termites to elephants. Generally throughout Africa antelope, zebra and buffalo make up the largest part of lions’ diets.
A common fallacy is the belief that lions are great hunters. This species success ratio per hunt is one of the lowest of all predators. Some studies have shown that their success rate is as low as 20%. In my personal observations (which cannot necessarily be taken as scientific) I have found the success rate to be less than ten percent.
Cubs are born throughout the year after a gestation period of about a 3-and-a-half months. Up to six cubs per litter have been recorded. When new males take over a pride they will kill all the young cubs in order to bring the females into estrus faster. The males do this in order to foster their own kin.
The view many visitors have of lions is of them sleeping in the shade.
Play is an important part of growing up as it teaches skills necessary for adulthood.
When a male takes over a pride from another pride he will often kill the cubs of the old male.
A male will follow a female in oestrus, scenting her at intervals to test for readiness.
The lion is the iconic animal that most people associate with Africa. It’s also the one animal that almost all visitors to Africa want to definitely see!
Male lions reach full maturity at five years but, depending on the competition, they may manage to assume dominance over a pride before they even reach full maturity. In areas where trophy hunting is practised it is not unusual to find three-year-old males in a pride. This is due to the fact that the dominant males in the area have been shot out.
Lions mating habits are the stuff of legends (every 20 minutes for 3-4 days). Having observed many matings, I find truth in the theory that lions mate many times during a single cycle. What is not generally recorded is the reaction of the individuals before, during and after the process.
I have observed males attempting to initiate a mating with a not-so-eager female and vice versa. I have observed a female snarling at a male who was attempting to initiate the act.
Upon the male’s dismount a lioness will regularly take a swipe at him as he flinches, while leaping away from her. This behaviour is attributed to the fact that a male lion has a barb at the end of his penis which causes a female pain when he withdraws his sex organ from inside her.
Scavengers and hunters
Lions will scavenge for food, in some areas more so than scavengers themselves. There is a general consensus that lions are the ultimate hunters and hyenas are scavengers. This perception is built-up from the fact that when lions are feeding on a kill there will always be hyenas around waiting for them to move off.
The truth is that lions often cheekily chase off Hyenas from prey that they have rightly captured. Unlike lions, Hyenas will hang around after being chased off their meal. When hyenas do scavenge from lions, the pride will generally leave the scene.
Hyenas are deadly hunters in their own right and lions will often scavenge from them. In some parts of Africa the majority of lions’ meals are the results of scavenging from other predators, whereas hyenas’ diets are made up of prey that they have hunted themselves.
Lions and water
There is a general theory that lions avoid water if they can. This statement may hold true in many parts of Africa, but the lions of the Okavango Delta in Botswana are very much at home when it comes to water.
The Okavango lions’ home ranges are forever undergoing change due to the flooding of the floodplains. In some parts of the delta, lions have even adapted to using the water during the hunt. They are constantly crossing vast floodplains to reach other islands where game may be.
In the Timbavati region of South Africa there is a pride of lions that carries a white gene, producing offspring that are pure white in colour. These white lions were initially taken from the wild for their protection and a number of white lion breeding areas have developed. Plans to reintroduce them to the wild are underway.