Wildlife Spotlight: The African LionDecember 16, 2021
Known all over the world as the King of Beasts, the African lion has astounded and inspired since the earliest days of human civilization. The magnificent creatures have been depicted in artworks for thousands of years (the oldest, cave paintings found in Ancient Egypt, date to about 3500 BC). They’ve also been celebrated in legends ranging from ancient Buddhist texts to Greek myths, and from the Bible to modern-day animated films. Given their famousness, you might think you already know plenty about lions—even before you encounter them on an African safari. But here are a couple of facts about these regal cats that might be new to you.
Uniquely Collaborative—and Cuddly
The largest of Africa’s cats, lions are also the only ones that live in prides — family groups that can include more than two dozen members (though most average around 15). A typical pride consists of two or three males, usually brothers; up to ten females (who are all also related); and their cubs. The pride functions as a communal unit, with the males working together to defend territory and the lionesses using teamwork to hunt prey animals like zebra and wildebeest, to steal kills made by other predators, and to collectively raise young. Since all the lionesses in a pride tend to give birth around the same time, they even nurse one another’s cubs.
Young lions, who aren’t expected to hunt until they are about a year old, are coddled by their attentive mothers and aunties—who can often be seen ardently licking and nuzzling them. But adult pride-mates are also remarkably affectionate with one another. According to wildlife researchers, lions’ demonstrative behavior, which includes mutual head-rubbing among males and grooming among females, is unique among large cat species. The prevailing theory is that it helps the cats to maintain their strong social bonds.
It’s well known that lionesses do most of the hard work in a pride—including 80 to 90 percent of the food-procuring—while their male counterparts are usually found lazing, surveying the landscape, or snatching the “lion’s share” of their females’ kills. This doesn’t mean male lions are lazy, though; they simply fulfill a different role. Specifically, it is their job to guard and ferociously defend their pride’s territory, which depending on food scarcity and the size of their family group, may be over a hundred square miles. When they aren’t resting, a pride’s males can be found patrolling the boundaries of their home area, scent-marking and emitting fearsome roars to warn off other invading lions. And when a boundary is breached, it’s the males—who can weigh up to 600 pounds when fully grown, and whose signature shaggy manes help them both intimidate rivals and protect their necks from attackers—who launch into terrifying action.
Where and When to Spot Lions
While the population of African lions has sadly and steadily declined over the past two decades, there are still an estimated 20,000 living in the sub-Saharan part of the continent. Most of these occupy game reserves in southern and East Africa, with the largest concentrations in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, and South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Lions’ peak birth months tend to coincide with the rainy season, but since the cats breed year-round, you may see cubs no matter what time of year you go on safari.