Predators of the Plains: The African Lion

March 04, 2013
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If you've seen the movie “The Ghost and the Darkness,” you’ll know the strength and ferocity of the African lion when they are so inclined to harm people. This movie is based on a true historical event that took place in the Tsavo area during the late 1800’s. Two male lions killed 130 people over a period of nine months. Of course, with modern transportation and weapons, this type of long-term killing of people by an animal predator is a thing of the past. Today, there certainly are many human deaths caused by lions in Africa and tigers in India, but they are isolated instances.

The African lion is an awesome predator capable of taking very large prey, especially due to their behavior of social hunting, when multiple lionesses will cooperatively hunt to subdue large animals. This includes such adversaries as African buffalo and giraffe.

The African lion is truly one of the world’s most remarkable predators, and are easily observed from the comfort and safety of a safari vehicle during IE’s Tanzania & Kenya safaris. Cooperative hunting strategies are not especially common in big cats and to witness a pride of lions on the hunt is an incredibly fortunate circumstance for safari guests, yet to some folks it may be somewhat gruesome to observe. Most often these big cats hunt prey at night but occasionally, a pride may take an opportunity to take down prey during the day.  It takes patience on the part of the safari guide and his guests as the actual take-down of an animal may take hours.  This often is the case if a pride gets a large animal like an African buffalo singled out from a herd. Lions will rush in, the buffalo will wheel around to face the charge, and the cat will back off. This standoff may take a long time and if indeed the buffalo is a strong bull, eventually the lions may give up. However, if multiple lions charge simultaneously, one will typically grab the throat, another will clamp its very strong jaws over the nose and others will grab haunches and even leap onto the back. The sheer weight of five or six lions may exceed a ton which may bring the buffalo down and death quickly occurs due to suffocation. This is part of the life and death struggle of all wildlife and while some people find this unpleasant, it is essential to the ecology of the African plains. 

Another thing of interest in regards to lions is the hierarchy of a pride being under the control of a male lion.  Males have to fight other males for the right to breed and pass along his genetic material to the lionesses of the pride. Males fighting for dominance of a pride often fight to the death, or at least to the point where the loser sustains terrible injuries. What is also of interest ― yet disturbing to many ― is the behavior of new males when they take over a pride. The newly dominant male will kill all of the young lions sired by the previous male. This allows the lioness to quickly come into heat so the new male can breed, passing along his genetic material. This cycle continues year after year with new males battling for the rights to breed.

Observing African lions is a magnificent experience, even if the pride is just lounging in the shade. Be sure to look closely – there may be things going on that only the careful observer will discover.
 

Naturalist Greg Greer is a favorite among IE travelers, and has gained a reputation for his friendliness and good humor, along with his incomparable knowledge of natural history, photos and articles have been widely published in books and magazines, including Georgia Outdoor News, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Alabama Outdoor News, Riversedge and Southern Wildlife.