The biggest of the African cats, lions are often one of the most sought-after sightings on a Kruger safari.
These fearsome, family-orientated felines can be seen in many different areas in Kruger Park, and have a powerful presence and piercing roar that only further illustrates why they are such a dominant force and a must-see on Big 5 game drives.
Lions live and move in groups called prides. The size of a pride can range from anything between 10 and 15, to possibly even 25 individuals.
The most distinct feature of a male and what distinguishes its look from that of a female, is its mane. This mane can be simple and short or can grow into full-bodied, shaggy locks of hair that frame the face of the lion.
Males have a greater body mass than females and can weight between 150 - 225kg. Females, on the other hand, usually weigh between 110 - 150kg.
A lion’s footprint, much like its face, is iconic, with four claws on the back feet and five on the front paws (the fifth claw is a little further back and doesn’t show in its paw prints).
Females, known as lionesses, do most of the hunting in a pride. However, when it comes to enjoying the spoils of the hunt, it’s the males that eat first, then the females and then the cubs (young lions). The main job of the males is to protect the pride and its territory.
Lions are adaptable and can be found in a number of different types of habitats, including open grassland and thick bush areas. They tend to hunt during the cooler part of the day, which is generally between dusk and dawn. And during the day? They hide away from the hot sun and enjoy plenty of sleep.
These fierce and strong animals tend to hunt and prey on anything from buffalo, hippos and zebra, to wildebeest, several kinds of antelopes, like impala and even giraffe. However, this depends on the circumstances (ie. if the animal is older, sick or slower than the others of its herd) and the most opportune moment.
While lions are successful hunters in their own right, there are times when they have been known to steal the kill of other predators like wild dogs and cheetah.
There isn’t a specific mating season for lions and they will often mate throughout the year. While it does vary, a female can mate with a male a few times a year, and during this time, the pair mates every 20 - 30 minutes for several days, to ensure fertilisation in the female.
The gestation period for lions is 3 to 4 months and a female can give birth to between 2 and 6 cubs, however not all the cubs will survive for reasons ranging from competing with the other cubs for food to being killed off by other animals or a new dominant male, should the old male be defeated and ousted from the pride.
In a pride, lionesses tend to assist in taking care of all the young, whether its their own or not as cubs are born blind and incredibly vulnerable in the beginning. As with most young mammals, cubs are completely dependant on their mothers for the first few months, and will only begin hunting when they are about one-year-old.
While it’s not a given, female lions will often stay with their pride from birth, later mating with the males of the pride, whereas, male lions are sometimes forced to leave and form coalitions with other male lions that have been kicked out by the dominant male of their pride, as well.
One of the most sought-after sounds in the African bush has to be the distinct roar of a lion at night. It is that sound that sends shivers down your spine and creates a natural intrigue about the animal creating it.
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Lions have a hyoid apparatus. This is a bone structure, consisting of a number of other bones that are connected to each other and that suspend the tongue and larynx (voice box). This creates an elongated vocal tract.
If you compare it to humans - when we speak or produce sound, air from our lungs flow past our vocal cords and vibrate creating the sounds coming out of our mouths or throats. Our vocal cords (also known as vocal folds) are in the shape of a triangle and open and close when we produce sounds.
With lions, these vocal folds are more square shaped. The combination of the suspended voice box and the square-shaped vocal folds, allow more air flow past the vocal folds and, with the help of the hyoid apparatus, the vibration of the sound is intensified tremendously.
This thunderous sound can be heard by humans up to 8km away. Now imagine with the various animals in the bush - who have a more acute sense of hearing - how far they are able to hear the call of a lion?
The size of a lion pride varies based on the territory available to them. Some prides consist of one male to rule the territory, while others have two, three, possibly up to six fully-matured males. So what happens when the females come into oestrus with so many males around?
Majority of the time, the males in a coalition are related. In some cases, you will have one male that is clearly the dominant one among the rest and he will have the right to mate with any female that may come into oestrus first.
But when you get brothers that are more or less equal in size and strength, they have a kind of gentlemen’s agreement - the male who notices the female that’s ready for mating first, gets the first right to mate. It must also be said that a female that is ready to mate will make sure she presents herself to a suitable mate. Males will sometimes fight with each other for this right, but not to the point of killing one another.
Their instinct for survival helps them understand that if a strong member of the pride is hurt, it creates a more vulnerable situation for all of them. It is not uncommon for males in such a situation, to take turns mating with a female. Or, when the first male is at the point of exhaustion, another male takes over the process. The main reason for this is to produce offspring with their genes after all.
Most documentaries show that the females do the hunting. What they don’t always show is the fact that the males are not present. Lions are very territorial and males are away from the pride most of the time to patrol their territories. Does this mean that the male lions starve while away on patrol? No - they are very capable of hunting for themselves and don’t need the assistance of the females to bring down their prey.
Males play an important role when the pride is hunting large prey species like giraffe (giraffa camelopardalis), the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and elephants (Loxodonta africana) - this is where their brute strength is needed.
It has been recorded that while a few lionesses tried to bring down a blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), a male lion jumped onto the back of the wildebeest and broke it, making the process much quicker.
It should also be said that even though a male lion has all this incredible strength, they are less agile than the females. The thick mane on their necks does have a negative effect when it comes to super fast movements, but it doesn’t mean that they are less capable.
Lions are the only cat species that have a mane. So what does the mane signify?
The following are the results of Peyton West and Craig Packer, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation, according to the 23rd Issue of Science Magazine, titled “Sexual Selection, Temperature and the Lion’s Mane” published in August 2002.
Earlier suggestions were that the mane acts as protection when males are fighting. But after doing research on males with manes, females and sub-adult males, and examining the wound patterns, they could not find any suggestion that the neck was a special target. The wounds were more concentrated on the back, legs, hindquarters and shoulders of the different sexes.
The next part of the research involved setting up lion dummies around the various prides where they were conducting the experiments. They even used real manes from various lions, ranging from short to blond to long to dark.
It was then determined that majority of the males in the prides would rather approach the “intruder” male that had a shorter mane or the one with a more blond mane. This would suggest that lions with these kind of manes are apparently less intimidating and easier to approach when in a conflicting situation like a pride takeover.
The females on the other hand did not seem too bothered about the length of the mane, but approached the “intruders” with the dark mane 9 out of 10 times more than any of the other dummies! Talk about a tall, dark and handsome male getting all the attention...
The researchers then also analysed blood samples from a number of males in different prides and came to this conclusion:
Males with shorter manes had been injured or sick often, thus having shorter hair would send a specific message about a male’s fighting ability.
Males with dark manes were estimated to be older, had a very high testosterone level and seemed to recover quicker from injuries. They also seemed to have more confidence in not patrolling their territories as much as the blonder males and, as such, spending more time with the rest of the pride to ensure that cub survival is higher.
According to African folklore, the lion became the most feared of the predators. In the early days, lion still had a gentle voice, not very loud at all, and so he was able to catch and eat the other animals without much trouble.
This, of course, greatly worried the other animals, since they never knew when lion was on the hunt. They decided to hold a meeting to find a way of somehow making lion less dangerous. They talked for a long time, but none of them could think of anything.
Hare, always the imaginative one, then had a bright idea. “I know a way that would make lion's voice like the terrible thunder of a summer's storm,” he said, “and then we would always know when he was coming.”
The other animals all agreed that this was a marvelous idea. But how was hare going to manage such a thing? Hare just winked and set off on his difficult task.
Eventually hare found lion resting beneath a shady umbrella tree, and approached him carefully, saying, “O Great One, I am truly most unhappy to bring you bad news, but your brother is very ill, and requests to see you at once.” Lion was dreadfully upset to hear this news and told hare to lead him to his brother as fast as possible.
Hare took lion for miles and miles around the bushveld and, after several hours, lion (who had been disturbed during his morning sleep, after all) was so weary he could go no further. He lay down in a shady spot and slept.
Now, with the help of a honeyguide bird, the crafty hare found a wild bees' nest in a tree not too far away. After following the required custom of leaving a good piece of the honeycomb as a “thank-you” for the little bird, hare took some of the honey and dribbled it all over the paws and head of the sleeping lion. Hare then ran off into some thick bushes nearby and hid.
When the bees returned home and saw that someone had raided their hive, they were terribly angry. They soon found lion sleeping nearby, with honey all over his paws. In a raging swarm, the bees attacked him, and lion was stung so many times and was in such pain that his soft cries soon swelled into a thunderous roar that could be heard for miles around!
That is the story of how lion's voice was changed forever. The animals were very grateful to hare because, from then on, they could hear a lion's roar from a long way away,and be warned that the King of Beasts was on the hunt.
From When the Hippo was Hairy and Other Tales from Africa; Nick Greaves
As with all sightings, but especially those of cats like lions and leopards, it’s crucial that you keep your arms as well as any other part of your body inside your vehicle. Trust us when we say that you’ll only truly understand the size and intimidating stature of these magnificent animals when you see them up-close.
Be sure to keep your distance and not to crowd around the lion or lioness when stopping at a sighting or taking photographs. Always remember your game drive etiquette - should there be a few cars at a sighting, it’s best to enjoy and experience the sighting, and then move aside so that other visitors to the park can enjoy it too.
It’s important to be very quiet around lion sightings, especially if you happen to come upon them hunting.
It’s also quite common to come across lions sleeping during the day and while visitors to the Kruger National Park are often tempted to make a little noise, in order to wake them up, this is definitely not advisable. Rather use this opportunity to sit and admire these beautiful creatures as they get their much-needed rest.
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