Written by: Berenice Meintjes
This past week in the Kruger National Park, just south of Rhino Post Safari Lodge, I watched, spellbound, as two relatively mature bachelor lions affectionately nuzzled one another during a midday nap in the heat of the day. And should you ever have had the privilege of watching a pride of lions interact, you may have realised that they have a highly social nature and communicate with each other in a fascinating way.
Here are 6 interesting things you need to know about lion interactions:
Scientist George Schaller in his research paper, The Serengeti lion: A study of predator-prey relations, noted that head rubbing, nuzzling and licking is a way of showing affection between lions. Touching foreheads may be a form of greeting and lions may even do this to restore peace after a fight. Interestingly, it is more common for same-sex lions to interact affectionately with one another.
A lion’s roar may be heard from 8km away, usually starting with deep, long roaring, and trailing off into shorter, softer roars. Lions usually roar at night to declare their presence and show dominance of their territory. But they also make a number of other varied sounds, including barking, meowing, hissing, snarling and coughing at different pitches.
3. A lion’s mane
Male lions have a distinctive mane, which darkens with age. The thicker and darker the mane, the healthier and older the lion may be. The mane is primarily used as a display of power and aggression. Prijal Bivedi researched female preferences and found that they tend to prefer males with darker manes.
4. Pride dynamics
Lions usually live in prides of about 10-15 individuals, mostly comprised of female lions. Young adult males may be displaced from the pride as they become a threat to the dominant adult male. When a new male lion takes over a pride by displacing the dominant male in battle, he may kill off the existing cubs in order for his genes to dominate.
Mothers will defend their cubs against the attacking male and may even encourage competition between males. Unlike other mammals such as wolves, female lions will never kill cubs from within their own pride, but will kill cubs from another pride. When a new male takes over a pride, it is as if the females’ biological clocks are re-set, and they will wait 18 months before giving birth, often all giving birth at a similar time. Females will usually form a crèche so that their cubs may be protected while the mothers hunt, and to protect their cubs from infanticide from males. Some young female lions prefer a nomadic life away from the pride, but two-thirds will remain with their mother’s pride, bonded for life.
When living in a pride, lions are strongly gender divided, with females doing most of the hunting (although the males get to eat first), while the role of the dominant male is to protect the territory of the pride. Ousted bachelors, however, are effective hunters and may form partnerships with their brothers in order to hunt and socialise together. Two separate ‘bands of brothers’ have frequently been seen in central Kruger National Park, and locals have nicknamed the one pair just south of Skukuza ‘The Buffalo Boys’ because of their skill in hunting buffalo. A trio of young males seen near Rhino Post Safari Lodge is affectionately known as ‘The Mohicans’ and may be seen at dawn with their immature manes standing up after a rough night out.
Lions will not usually interact with or hunt humans, but in 2005 an unusual occurrence was reported by the BBC News and police sergeant Wondimu Wedajo, who claims that a 12-year-old kidnapped girl in Tanzania was saved from her attackers and protected by a pride of lions until she was rescued by authorities.
Lions are frequently sighted in South Africa, with the central parts of the Kruger National Park having a high density of lion thanks to the richness of wildlife because of the sweet grass that grows in this area. That said, lions protect vast territories, and coming across a lion in the bush is never guaranteed. It is recommended that you book several nights on safari in order to increase your chances of coming across that unforgettable experience of seeing a big-maned male on a dawn patrol, hunting bachelors or an interacting pride.
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