Bushwise Field Guide students recently came across a lioness on a game drive that they noticed had an injured foot. The tawny coloured female was lying lazily on the ground, with her chest moving with shallow pants.
They all speculated on how this could have happened. Had she been injured during a hunt? Or was it a bad thorn that was causing her grief? However, the conclusion was that her injuries were most likely sustained from a fight with other lions.
Lions are able to recover quicker from their injuries than other animals that are not in a pride. Most cat species live a fundamentally solitary existence, but the lion is an exception. It has developed a social system that thrives on teamwork – an extended close-knit family unit centered around a group of female relatives. Alongside the females is a set, or coalition, of adult males, as well as cubs of various ages. A small pride can consist of just one female and her cubs, or can extend up to 40 members in total.
The essential thing about pride structure is that all the females are related: mothers, daughters, aunts and cousins. Only under very rare circumstances do distantly-related or unrelated females team up. Females are so closely bonded that they will even allow other females’ cubs to suckle with their own, all to ensure that their pride has better chances of survival.
The fact that they are social cats means that they can recover much quicker because they don’t have to fend for themselves. Prides defend their territories vigorously and also protect their kills from cheeky and brazen scavengers like hyena, jackal and vultures. If the injured female were alone at a kill she made, there would be a good chance that she would lose it or even get killed by the ruthless hyenas or neighbouring lion prides.
They also hunt together to increase their success rate, since prey can be difficult to catch and can outrun a single lion. The lions fan out along a broad front or semi-circle to creep up on prey. Once within striking distance, they attack from all angles and work very well as a team. An injured female would not have to hunt and would be allowed to join in on the meal.
Another success of a pride and their survival is that several females will give birth at around the same time. Cubs born into such ‘synchronised’ or ‘communal’ litters have a number of advantages. They have a better chance of survival, being defended and suckled by more than one ‘mother’. They are also protected by the male(s) in the pride. Without question, lions in groups do better at all stages of life.
Even once an old female has lost most of her teeth, the pride will wait for her and share with her if she can still keep up.
Lions recover from wounds at an incredible speed, and keeping the wound clean is the biggest problem. Fortunately the wound on this particular lioness is on a front foot within reach of the tongue that will keep it clean. So fingers crossed for a speedy recovery!
The students will keep an eye out for her over the course of the next few game drives to see how she is doing. Let’s hope she recovers well and gets back to what lions are best at, which is sleeping for most of the day!