Quest for African Lion

Quest for African LionDSC_0038

My years of biodiversity exploration journey with biodiversity exploration organization Exploring Nature and their monthly e magazine Holocene, gave me opportunity to explore forests and places of biodiversity significance, across the world

This blog is a platform for telling stories from the moments of my journey which I have been experiencing with Exploring Nature for last few years.

After my first biodiversity exploration in the forest of Gir, with Exploring Nature team, I did many more explorations within India. Immediately after Gir we headed towards Little Rann of Kutch to chase Wild Ass. In the winter of same year (2015) we explored forests of Western Ghats extensively and did one of the toughest forest hiking of India – Periyar Tiger Reserves. I have exciting and fascinating stories to tell from these explorations which I would do later.

But, to continue the Lion Tales,  I will give an account of my first solo and out of country exploration in the savannah forest of South Africa — Kruger National Park.

The quest for African Lion started at 4:30 PM of the Valentine ’s Day. Jeep started towards eastern direction from the main gate of Kruger National Park and after 30-45 minutes of journey three lionesses were spotted at the right hand side of the direction of driving. They were busy in eating their morning kill – a huge African Buffalo.

When plenty of food is available lions generally gorge themselves into near immobility. At these times, on average, males swallow around 15% of their body weight.

Food is shared grudgingly. The smallest and weakest lions often lose out altogether and hungry mothers will not even share with their own offspring.

Lions usually start feeding by opening the abdomen and eating the entrails. Most lions will eat the heart, liver and kidneys, but it unusual for lions to open up the skull.

In the evening of 14th February, at Kruger National Park, the Lionesses were spotted from approximately 200 mt distance, and explorer wished if he had a closer look. Although, the flesh from the opened abdomen of the buffalo were quite visible from that distance, but he didn’t know, that he would also witness one of the greatest and most exciting phenomena of nature in next 36 hours.

On 16th February, the morning safari started at 6:00 o’clock. Two safari jeeps started their journey towards north direction. After one hour of journey and as usual spotting of herds of impala, baboons, few giraffes and zebras, both the jeeps had to stop.

Their path was blocked by few of the most majestic creatures of the earth – a full pride of African lion – siting on the road, enjoying the softness and warmth of the first sunlight of the day.

The basic units of lion social organization are resident prides occupying hunting territories of a size that can sustain the pride during times of scarcity. Lion densities, home territory size and social group size vary in parallel with habitat suitability and prey abundance, generally larger in moist grasslands where game is plentiful and smaller in drier bush with fewer prey animals. Prides can attain 40 members, however the average pride, both in Kruger NP and the Serengeti, consists of 13 members. In Kruger, the average composition of 14 prides totalling 181 lions was 1.7 adult males, 4.5 adult females, 3.8 sub-adults, and 2.8 cubs (including yearlings). Females outnumber males by a substantial margin, despite a near 50% male/female birth ratio. This is probably due to the tendency of males to be nomads, take on more dangerous game, and be killed in pride takeover attempts.

The pride, which explorer and his team bumped into, consisted of 9 members – 6 females and 3 males. All the members were busy in hugging and cuddling with each other. The pride leader was clearly enjoying his happy moment with his fellow members and company of her queens. He was found romancing with a big lioness of the pride under the shade of a tree.

In larger prides it is rare for the whole pride to be together, but individuals or small groups, typically of three – five members will scatter throughout the prides territory for days or weeks at a time, especially in arid environments or times of prey scarcity. There is no hierarchy between females, and no particular bonding between any pride members. A pair of females will be found together no more than 25 – 50% of the time.

Presence within a pride’s territory is not a sign of membership as many lions are transient or “squatters”. Membership of a pride can only be distinguished by an amicable greeting ceremony performed between pride members. Any member without the confidence to perform the ceremony will be treated as outsider.

After noticing human presence, the pride leader came out form the shade and urinates at the edge of the road to mark his territory. A strong message was silently conveyed – stay away from this point.

Typically, home territories range from 20km2 in the most suitable habitats to more than 500km2. The average area of nine Serengeti prides was c. 200km2. Pride ranges and territories may overlap but each pride maintains a core area where most activities are undertaken with little interaction with other lion groups. Territories are stable except in periods of hardship. If an area becomes devoid of lions (as a result of disease for example) this will be followed by an influx of competing lions to claim the territory. Lions will defend their territory against lions of the same gender, but most encounters do not result in fighting; usually one pride will skulk off under the watchful gaze of the other.

In the morning of 16th February, at Kruger National Park, we were alerted by Mike – their safari guide- as all of a sudden the biggest lioness of the pride stood up and started moving slowly towards further north. Whole pride started following her in same slow and silent pace. She stopped, the whole pride stopped. She moved tip of her tail – from left to right and then from right to left. The pride members dispersed in different directions.

Mike whispered, “She is in a mission”. Everybody was excited to know that they were going to witness “hunting by lion” – the most well strategized predatory behavior of animal kingdom.

Whole forest became silent with anticipation of action. Presence of a huge African buffalo bull was noticed deep inside the bushes – he was grazing – his huge horns were visible.

The buffalo raised its head; he had realized that he was getting surrounded. He decided to come out from the bushes and at the same time with a signal from the lioness – the leader of hunting party – the pride leader charged at the buffalo. The buffalo charged back violently and the pride leader had to retreat. The buffalo escaped.

But the hunting movement was not over. She – the hunt leader – continued her movement. The whole exploring team was surprised to see, that one more male and female lion joined the hunting party from the other side of the forest and were waiting for instruction from the hunt leader lioness. The whole party started moving again slowly. Two safari jeeps followed them.

The next half an hour was great display of strategy, leadership and obedience. None of the members of hunting party moved without further signal from their leader.

Another African buffalo bull was spotted from distance on an open ground. Everybody understood the objective of the mission. With every movement of tail and neck of the lioness, the other members of hunting party kept changing their direction and movement. The idea was getting closer and closer to target and surround it from all sides to block its all possible escape routes.

The pride leader took the charge of being at front and started moving towards the buffalo.

There was a herd of impala, which noticed this movement of big hunting party and starting running towards deep forest and gave away the presence of lions.

The Buffalo had noticed what was going on and starting getting further away from the hunting party. Lioness realized, that was not the time to attack. More time needed to be invested on their prey. Two lionesses and one sub male lion who were moving together, sat on ground and kept close watch on their pray. They kept waiting their patiently while the male lions started roaming casually at least 200 meters away from the buffalo, without showing any indication of attack. The strategy was to give buffalo a false sense of security and get him in oblivion about the situation. The strategy was to wait for the right moment and strike so hard that there would be no opportunity to counter attack.

With relatively small hearts and lungs lions are not fast runners; a maximum speed of 60kph, nor do they have the stamina to keep this pace for more than a 100 – 200m. As such, lions rely on stalking their prey and seldom charge until they are within 30m, unless the prey is facing away and cannot see the charge.

Lions stalk their prey, although ambush behavior has been observed. This happens mainly during daylight when stalking prey is more difficult.

Females do the majority of the hunting, and males who tag along with the hunt usually stays back until a kill is made. Lions hunting in pairs and groups have a success rate of c. 30%. Lions hunting singly by daylight have a success rate of 17 – 19%, but are the equal of groups at night reopening the debate as to why lions became the only sociable cat; maybe it is to control exclusive hunting grounds.

Most successful hunts are on dark nights in dense cover against a single prey animal. One reason for lions’ relatively low hunting success rate is that lions do not take into account wind direction when hunting; they often approach prey from an upwind direction thereby alerting the prey and ending the hunt. Secondly, the lion’s charge is generally launched directly at its quarry and it rarely alters the path of attack, as do other cats. Generally speaking, if a lion misses its target on the first run it usually abandons the chase.

Hunts of impala and medium-sized prey are significantly more likely to be successful when the lions do not stalk their prey but rather chase them immediately upon detection. The opposite is true for small-sized prey species. However, lions are more likely to stalk impala and medium-sized species, whereas they are less likely to stalk small-sized prey. Females are significantly more likely to stalk anything.

Cooperative hunting brings a greater probability of success in lion hunts, but a question exists on whether pre-planned cooperation is taking place or that lions are making use of opportunities brought about by the presence of other lions.

Studies of the tactics of group hunting by lions give a similar basic plan of the hunting process. When the group spots the prey a hunt is often initiated by a single lion looking at it, to which the other lions respond by looking in the same direction – the only clear form of “communication” evidenced in the hunting process. The group fans out, with certain lions stalking at a greater distance to encircle the prey. The encircling lions launch the attack, seemingly to drive the prey towards the others who ambush from their cover position.

It is suggested that lions often, but not exclusively, followed the same hunting patterns and divided lions into stalking roles; left, centre & right wing positions. Lions hunting in their preferred roles increased the success of the group by 9%. Once within range of smaller prey, lions use their paw to slap the rear of the animal at its legs or haunch to knock it off balance or drag it down. A bite to the neck or throat quickly kills the animal.

With larger prey lions approach the animal at an angle, jumping on top and using their own weight to wrestle the animal to the ground, biting at the vertebrae in an attempt to sever the spinal cord as they do so.

Once downed they bite the throat or over the nose and mouth of the prey to suffocate it, a position that keeps them out of the way of horns that could injure the lion.

I don’t know what happened in the hunting movement of 11 lions and lionesses led by their queen in the morning of 16th February, 2016 at the North West part of Kruger National Park.

But I now know —— “Strategic, gregarious, territorial, matriarchal society, communal care, male coalitions” —- Lions are the only truly social cat.

 

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