Excerpted from
Animals of Africa


IN MYTHS and in heraldry, in adventurers' tales and children's stories, the lion reigns as the king of animal symbols, a model of savage beauty. Lions have so stirred the human imagination that scientists who first began studying animal behavior used the African lion (Panthera leo) as a subject. Their discoveries, while dispelling myths, also confirm some of the lore in old tales.

Why are you interested in lions?

For a school project.
For business-related purposes.
I just like animals.
I was looking for the Detroit Lions.

Take, for example, the concept of the "lion's share," which we all learned from the Aesop's fable. Looked at in terms of lion behavior, the fable turns out to be not far from right. Again and again lions have been observed moving in on prey killed by another lion or, more often, by lionesses. A lion will snarl and strike out with his paws as he wrests away a large portion--as much as 80 pounds of meat or more at a kill. Often, however, males will guard their portion, keeping lionesses away from it--and then share it with cubs.

Most lions of the African savanna live in groups called prides. Each of these complex societies consists of two or more adult males and several females and juveniles. The territory of each pride is several miles in diameter, with boundaries that overlap into the adjacent territories. Prides generally stay intact as long as the food supply is abundant. The females in a pride most often are related, with sisters, cousins, mothers, and daughters all working together in the group. The cubs of one mother are adpoted by other mothers. In a kind of day-care arrangement, mothers share the suckling and the guarding of a pride's cubs. While some mothers and maturing cubs are on the hunt, other mothers and cubs stay in the heartland of the pride's territory and keep watch over the pride's youngest members. Cubs need protection from adult males. To them, an unprotected cub is prey.

The gestation period for lions is 108 days on average, an extremely short time for such a large animal. The result is that newborn cubs are usually very small--about a pound in weight and about a foot long--and immature. Blind at birth, they do not have full sight for two weeks or so. The cubs remain close to the adult females, and enjoy maternal affection and protection during the most vulnerable stage of their early life. Small and infrequent litters make it possible for a lioness to spend a great deal of time with her cubs, even after they have been weaned.

Cubs nurse for about six to eight months, and depend upon adults for all of their food until they are about two years old. Weaning begins about three months after birth, when the cubs begin to eat meat. Young cubs learn by watching the adults, and by playing to perfect their hunting skills. They are never far from their mother or her female kin until they are about six months old. Then they begin to tag along behind the hunters, learning the elements of hunting and the harsh etiquette of the kill. By the time they are one and a half years old they are hunting with the pride and claiming their share of the fallen prey.

Most pride lionesses remain in the pride for life. Inevitably, the males leave, as do some lionesses. They become nomads, living without the protective society of the pride. These occasional defections keep the pride's size in proportion to the food available.

Lions prosper during the rainy season, from November through May, when the Serengeti is green and dappled with sparkling lakes. Prey is abundant then. But during the rest of the year, when the plain can look like a desert, prey is scarce, and lions must hunt for stragglers or smaller animals of the woods. Lions may go for a week or more without food. In a pride desperate for food, adults will eat even while cubs starve to death.

The pride accommodates to a rhythm of abundance and scarcity by having a relatively loose social structure and by staking out a territory and defending it. A pride, which may include 30 or more lions, does not have a ruling lion or lioness. The lack of a hierarchy means that the meting out of food is not determined by rank, especially when there is a shortage of food. In the hierarchy of other animal societies, subordinate animals would cower before the dominant. In the lion society, some may be weak and others strong, but the weak can still fight for food.

The social structure also allows for cooperative hunting. Sometimes pride members go off to hunt in pairs; other times, when the hunt demands it, they can stalk on a broad front. They prefer to hunt large animals--wildebeests, buffalo, zebras, wild hogs, giraffes, impalas, and other antelope--but they will eat anything they can catch, killing small prey with a swipe of the claw. They hunt inside their own territory, which can range in size up to 150 square miles, according to the density of prey. Territoriality aids lionesses, giving them a permanent living space full of familiar places for hiding cubs and seeking prey.

The pride's males mark its boundaries by roaring or by spraying the brush with strong-smelling urine. Nomadic lions, unwelcome visitors to territories, can tell by a sniff how recently a territorial male passed on patrol--and thus how safe it would be to stroll through the territory.

Nomadic males begin their wandering at around the age of three and a half, when they are expelled from the pride by dominant males. Sometimes two or three brothers, expelled at the same time, will become nomads together, following migratory herds of zebras or wildebeests. As a nomad, the young male matures, growing in strength and prowess until he can challenge a pride male. Usually, the challenge consists of fierce snarls and flailing claws, with little or no bloodshed. Sometimes the challenge escalates to a fight to the death. Wounded lions may recover but, hobbled or sickly, they risk an early death when they become prey for hyenas. (Lions in the wild live eight to ten years; in captivity they may live 25 years or more.) When a nomad succeeds in entering a pride, its females accept the newcomer, thereby welcoming new genes to the pride.

Members of prides can count on family help if they are wounded. One young lioness, wounded in one leg and unable to hunt for nearly nine months, lived on meat brought to her by other members of the pride.

In most prides, lionesses do 80 to 90 percent of the hunting. On a typical hunt involving several members of the pride, slinking females pad ahead, stalking prey. The males lope along in the rear, and to the untrained eye, the males seem to be letting the females do the work. But, on the hunt with the lionesses, the males do have a role: They protect the cubs that stumble along far behind their mothers and other female relatives. When the lionesses make a kill and the males move in to get their lion's share, they guarantee food for cubs that cannot depend on mother's generosity. Mothers have been seen driving their cubs away from a kill. Cubs that manage to snatch away a morsel often have to give it up under assault from mother.

Lions must especially hunt together when the prey are large animals, such as zebras, which are too strong and wily for a lone lion to pull down and kill. Against a concerted assault by large prides, however, zebras cannot prevail. In a study of lion hunts, zebras were particularly vulnerable, with 1,300 kills recorded in 4,750 hunts. During the same period, lions stalked giraffes 200 times and were successful only six times. Besides the usual diet of impalas and tsessebe antelope, lion prey include young elephants, Cape buffalo, and hippopotamuses.

Lions devote little time to hunting, usually spending about 20 hours a day sleeping or lying around. Usually, though, they keep their eyes on the sky, for the sight of vultures circling down on a carcass will launch a lion even in the heat of midday. Lions are opportunistic, and carrion is easy food.

When lions hunt, they rely as much on timing as on their retractile claws and long canine teeth. They watch for that single moment when their quarry slackens its vigil, or, on the run, slackens its speed. By reacting one moment too late, the hunted gives the hunter that instant that lies between life and death, between hunger and the lion's share.

<--- g o   b a c k   t o   T H E   H U N T E R S c o n t i n u e   t o   C H E E T A H S --->

Return to Animals of Africa,
to the book's Table of Contents,
or to the HLLA Reference Library.

© Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.