Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Note: all photographs taken in the wild & available in high definition upon request – All right reserved
The big 5 get their nickname from the times of hunting. Lions, leopards, buffalos, elephants, and rhinoceroses are Africa’s 5 most dangerous mammals to come across in the African bush, and as such they were the utmost trophies to bring home. Today, thankfully, most dream of spotting them in the wild, and capturing them only on camera – even if trophy hunting is still a current practice. Walking in the bush where they still roam is not common. In many African countries, these king animals are confined to game parks (that can be as large as a country: for instance, Kruger Park in South Africa is about the size of Israel) enforcing strict rules for visitor’s safety. Still, bush walks can be organized with highly-trained rangers. Whether you are on a walk, in your own car, or in a game drive vehicle, knowing behavioural facts about lions can greatly up your chances of spotting them!
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Where can you find wild lions? [habitat]
Lions live in the following habitats: grassland, savanna, dense scrub, and open woodland. Lions used to live in abundance in Asia, parts of Europe, and the whole of the African continent but for the heart of the Sahara and thick rain forests. Lions got extinct in 26 African countries and Europe. Only one small pride has survived in India’s Gir Forest and some African countries.
How many lions are there left in the wild?
- Over the years, lion populations have decreased drastically due to habitat loss and excessive hunting.
- Today there are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 lions left in the wild. Their main territories encompass Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. These numbers include lions living in National Parks that are considered as wild despite the fact that these parks remain fenced.
How big is a lion?
- African lions are the largest of the African cats (second largest in the family Felidae, with the tiger being the largest):
- Male lions can be as tall as 1.20 metres at shoulder for over 3 metres from nose to tail tip (with the tail accounting for about 1 metre of length).
- A male lion can weigh up to 230 kilograms, while lionesses weigh between 120 and 180 kilograms.
- Despite their large size, lions are not that easy to spot. They are very well camouflaged in dry grass, sandy, and rocky areas. They spend most of the time sleeping, and they are very easy to miss especially when laying down in high grass or on in thickets, even when driving slowly and close-by.
- The mane of a lion is impenetrable tough hair that protects its head and neck in fights.
Lions are the most sociable members of the cat family. An average lion pride consists of 15 individuals, including one to four adult males. The size of the pride depends on the surface area of its territory and the availability of prey.
Mating and cubs
- When a new male comes into the pride, he will kill all the cubs.
- When a female is ready to mate, the male will accompany her for a few days, mating every 15 minutes or so! Yeah, you get that right, 4 times an hour for days in a row!
- Lions mate all year-round, without a specific mating season.
- Cubs are helpless. They are kept hidden for six weeks during which they feed on the milk of their mother and even other lionesses.
- Cubs savour their first meat at 19 weeks.
- Cubs remain dependent on the pride until they are 2.5 years old.
- Females usually have their first litter when they are about 4 years old. It is extremely rare for lionesses to abandon their cubs (contradictory to what most unethical lion sanctuaries claim).
- Males are sexually mature at 2.5 years old. They do not usually mate before 5 as they need to assert their position as a strong male in a pride first.
Male lions live up to only 12 years old, females up to 18 years.
- Lions are very strong, but lack stamina. If they are the second fastest cats (after cheetahs) with a top speed of about 80 kilometres per hour (50 miles per hour), they can sustain it for only a few metres. This defines their techniques and favourite prey: they get as close as possible, and aim for not too dangerous (exit the large antelope with long horns) and rather large mammals (between 50 and 300 kilograms), with a preference for oryx, buffalos, wildebeest, zebras and giraffes. Occasionally they hunt for smaller animals such as lizards, mice, birds and termites.
- Apart from being great hunters, lions are mainly scavengers. They often chase cheetahs or leopards to steal their food.
- Lions hunt mostly at night. Opportunistic, they can hunt during the day, but their success rate is low as they often fail to get close enough to their prey.
- If lions are more efficient when they hunt in groups, but it is as common for them to hunt on their own, especially for males. When the group is well organized to ambush a prey, it has hardly any chances to escape. This is a great minority of the kills.
- The commonly-held belief that females do the dirty job is false.
- Males do eat first though as they impose themselves by their strength once at the dining table.
- Lions rely on their great hearing capability to locate their prey.
- Provided it is well fed to start with, a lion can go about two weeks without food. The longer it takes, the less performant they are.
- Lions need to drink at least every 3 days. After eating, their first move is often to head to a waterhole.
- During full moon, lions are the hungriest as their hunting success rate drops dramatically in the moonlight. The two nights following the full moon, they hunt early at night as the moon is not that bright yet, and around dusk when the moon is lower again.
- Prey is not very sensitive to the smell of lions as they spray their territory frequently. For that reason, the commonly-held belief that lions hunt down-wind is false.
- Prey is more focused on sounds, so lions have to be silent. They use stealth to approach their prey quietly and attack from a short catching distance as they cannot maintain their top speed for long.
- The hunting success rate of lions averages 30% when in groups, and is down to 18% when alone.
- The loud roaring of lions, their most distinctive sound, can be heard up to 8 kilometres away. They roar to warn off any potential enemies as the males are very protective of their prides.
- Lions communicate amongst their pride with an extremely wide variety of sounds like meowing, roaring, grunting, snarling, puffing and woofing.
- Lions flatten their ears as a warning signal.
- When awake, cubs are playful, and teenage lions love to do their mock-fights to practice their hunting skills.
Encounters: do’s & don’ts
Lions rest for about 20 hours a day, snoozing in the shade… It means they are often hidden, and with a very limited activity. The rest of the time, they walk (2 hours), eat (less than an hour), and groom. Still, spotting them is thrilling. If you are lucky to see them play, eat, mate or hunt, it is purely magical!
- If you encounter a lion, keep your voice low.
- Do not hang out of the vehicle and stay seated.
- If you encounter a lion during your bush walk, you will most likely be with a ranger. Follow the instructions of the ranger. When alone, freeze (never run!) and stare the lion in the eyes. Wave your arms and shout loudly, it will probably run away. If not, back off slowly and stop when it moves to approach you.
- If you are driving, give them room on the road and keep your windows up.
What about white lions?
White lions are not a different species but are a result of a genetic mutation. They originate in the Timbavati area in Kruger National Park in South Africa. Today, there are only three of them left in the wild. If you would like to learn more about white lions refer to the rare white lions of Ngala.
How to spot a lion on your safari?
- Keep your ears open at night and listen to where the roaring comes from to head that way in the morning (be aware of the wind direction).
- Look for them hanging out in the morning sun, scan river banks and waterholes.
- As soon as the sun gets hot, they move to the shade. Scan thickets of bushes for any colour changes, or moving ears.
- Always pay attention to birds calling in distress and to erratic behaviours of their favourite prey. They may be closer than you think!
Which are the best parks to spot wild lions?
- Kruger Park in South Africa is world famous for its lions, in particular in its southern part.
- Maasai Mara National Reserve is the spot to go in Kenya for lions.
- If you want to see white lions in the wild, the only place is the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve area in the Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa, including the Ngala Private Game Reserve.
- The Okavango Delta in Botswana hosts the largest lion population in the world.
- Etosha National Park in northern Namibia is also famous for lion spotting. In the dry season when water is scarce, they are rather easy to spot by the waterholes.
- Hwange National Park is the largest national park in Zimbabwe known for good lion spotting.
- To understand the situation of lions better please check this article out about the alarming conditions lions are in today.
- There are different types of safaris. Choose the safari that suits you best.
- Ready for an exclusive safari experience while supporting conservation efforts read about Phinda Private Game Reserve.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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