The Lion is the largest feline carnivore in Africa and the second largest in the world after the Tiger. Together with the Leopard the Lion belongs to a sub-order called “Feliforma” which are cats and a sub-family called “Pantherinae” which are regarded to true-cats that roar.
They are yellow-ish brown in coloration with black ear and tail tips. Male Lions develop a thick mane which also darkens with age. Young cubs have light spots on their coats for the first ±6 weeks which then fade away.
Male Lions reach a weight of ±190 – 225kg and a shoulder height of ±120cm whilst females reach a weight of ±120 – 160kg and a shoulder height of ±100cm. Females have 4 abdominal teats so they can in principle give birth to 4 cubs at a time. A Lioness goes through a gestation period of ±3,5months.
Lions are carnivores that usually suffocate their prey , either by strangling them with a powerful throat hold or by clamping down on the muzzle. They do also readily take carrion. Whilst Lions are primarily hunters they will displace other carnivores of their prey if they are not out numbered. When there is an abundance of food Lions will gorge themselves and males are known to consume as much as 40kg of meat in a sitting whilst females consume a little of 20kg. They will however prey on just about anything thats bigger than 1kg. They can be highly aggressive feeders if food is scarce and often the smallest are the most marginalised. Lions are occasionally known to consume plant matter and this is directly related to digestive requirements and gut health. Lions get a fair amount of moisture from the blood they consume but also need to drink and have a healthy consumption of water.
Lion prey species in the Kruger National Park vary based on region, soils and flora. The most popular large prey species are Buffalo, Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Kudu and Giraffe and Impala. Historically Impala are considered to be the dominant prey species across all the major predators due to their availability. Major James Stevenson-Hamilton the first Warden came to the conclusion that Lions would simply eat what was available and didn’t favour one species over another. As pointed out later in this body of information alot has to do with region. Interesting Lions will on the odd occasion enjoy consume plant based matter as an aid to improving digestion. Plant based matter appears to serve as an effective laxative and helps them to remove worms and hairballs.
How do Lions hunt ?
Lion pride dynamics are an important factor in when it comes to hunting. Both sexes participate but its the female Lionesses that take on the majority role to feed the pride. Females use teamwork, strategy and experience to guide hunt. The most experienced female usually leads the hunting party and will manipulate each situation based in her experience to provide them with the best opportunity to capture their prey. Working together in a group of 2 to 10 they deploy the following basic hunting methods :
Lions kill their prey by either biting behind the neck, which is typical in smaller prey and with larger prey they will bit the throat and clamp down to strangle their prey. In larger prey species you will find that more than one lion will participate in bringing the animal down and as soon as they have they animal down another member will grab the muzzle as well to restrict further breathing and speed up the process of strangulation. You may also find that additional members will add their weight to top of the animal ensuring it stays down and struggles to take further breaths of air. Cats have long canine teeth which they use to bite down deep into the spinal area as well as neck area. This can severe nerves and also provide the necessary leverage needed to bring down large prey species.
As a result of the changing savanna in the Kruger National Park, Lions will hunt differently based on the regions they occupy. The regions in Kruger vary and may differ from open grasslands to thickets and mixed woodland savanna. Some of the regions are flat whilst others offer very arid and rocky terrain. These changing conditions have directly effected the resident Lion populations and so they have learnt to adapt their hunting styles and prey species accordingly. One of the most prominent hunting zones is around water and particularly the artificial water points that the Park introduced through the 1960’s and 1970’s. As a result of the devastating drought period the Park installed nearly 400 water points that made use of windmills to pump water into shallow troughs. These sites have witnessed countless Lion hunts over the years with the highest level of activity between July and September every year. This period represents the end of the dry seasons and places tremendous dependance on the available water. As recently as 2019 we have witness 4 males Lions (we refer to as the Delaport coalition), occupy the Delaport artificial water point just south of Skukuza Camp for nearly 5 months as a result of late rains. The limited natural water in the area tuned the artificial point into a life saving mecca which the coalition used to their advantage.
How often and when do Lions hunt ?
Frequency of hunts will depend a lot on the size of the pride, of course a larger pride will have many mouths to feed so they will be required to hunt regularly, typically every 2 to 3 days. Lionesses usually lead the pride hunts every 2nd day and loan adult males will hunt every 3rd day. Digestion also plays a role in hunger as certain items of the prey species will take longer to digest. Lions will eat all parts of the animal except thick bone, hooves and horns as well as stomach contents ie. stomach bag and colon. The hide of the prey species takes the longest to digest and has been found in the exiting stomach material of a adult Lion a week after having kind the species in question.
Lions prefer not to hunt over a Full Moon cycle as they prefer the darker nights which offer better ambush opportunity. The Lion has a particularly advanced form of night vision in that its enlarged tapetum lucadim which is layer of tissue in the eye lying immediately behind the retina, performing the function of a retroreflector. This offers improved vision at night for hunting. During the winter months Lions will often hunt during the cooler daylight hours but again hunger will determine their activity and whilst they are noted to be sedentary for 20 hours of they day, they will hunt if hungry or an easy opportunity presents itself.
Lions will also often take carrion and feed on rotting carcasses or steel a carcass from another predator. In 2018 we witnessed a female Lioness that climbed high up into a tree to retrieve a 2 day old Impala carcass that a large male Leopard had stashed. Read more about this sighting later.
Lions have the ability to survive in a variety of habitat but in the Kruger National Park this is defined as Savanna. Savanna is biome that dominates two thirds of South Africa and offers the best habitat for their favoured prey species. Lionesses live in a natal pride system with both adult females and dependent off spring. Close ties exist between these females as they are generally are related. Young males are pushed out by the age of 2 years old and either live a solitary life into adulthood or form a coalition bond between . Coalition males are usually born from the same pride but can also come together in the early nomadic wondering years. Male Lions establish a territory that ranges from 45sq kilometers in the Kruger National Park to 100 sq kilometers. These territories encompass female prides and are competed for. Areas that offer the best availability of water and flora are the most competitive and violently fought for. Single males have smaller territories and are able to retain a pride of females for 18 months until they are displaced by a stronger coalition. Males in coalitions of 4+ adults can retain a territory and its female prides for 8 to 10 years.
A Lioness is sexually receptive for 2 to 7 days every two years if she raises her cubs to weaning. Alternatively a Lioness comes into oestrus every 3 weeks and it then lasts for a week. Gestation is a mere 3,5 months and cubs are born blind and in an altricial state completely dependent on mom.
Lions are incredible capable animals and often regarded as large lazy cats. As mentioned above they are very capable climbers using their strength and claws to hoist themselves up high into trees. With females weighing up to 160kg and males up to 225kg, support is the most important aspect when climbing a tree so Lions are very selective of the trees they will attempt. They are very fast runners and will reach speeds of up to 60km/h and cover short distances rapidly but they lack stamina and are unable to maintain this over longer distances. Lions are also wonderful swimmers and although most regions in the Kruger National Park don’t require them to be competent swimmers, this prides along prominent rivers are capable for swimming across. Unlike the Lions of Botswana that live in the marshes of the Okavango Delta, the Lions in the Kruger National Park lead a more terrestrial lifestyle.
Both genders of Lion are territorial and both will patrol and protect their boundaries. Male Lions are notorious amongst territorial mammals for constantly patrolling their boundaries to keep other males away from their prides.
A background to the Lion’s of the Kruger National Park – Population
The Lion population in the Kruger National Park has stabilised over time but if one goes back to the early era (1800 – 1895) pre the proclamation of the Sabie Reserve, the population was in peril. With decades of sanctioned slaughter to preserve the antelope for hunting, Lion and their other carnivorous counter parts had suffered heavily at the hands of man. The results of this meant that modern day Kruger National Park had to deals with lasting effects of mass culling as well as how to deal with and maintain a recovering population of Lion in the modern ear from 1928 until today. Very little was understood about Lions during the early tenure of warden James Stevenson-Hamilton. It was only later, just before his retirement in 1946 that he had come to the realisation that Lion populations would move the gradual ebb and flow of their prey and thats much was determined by climatic conditions and the abundance of water or lack there of.
By 1956 the realisation had set in that some degree of work needed to be done to better understand the role of Lion in the Kruger National Park and this started with an extensive survey on the population to determine the actual population size. From 1940 to 1956 it was estimated that the central grasslands of Kruger Park had seen a population increase by +-425 individuals and by the 1963, some 7 years later the entire parks population had increased to over a 1,000 Lions. Later in that year a census revealed that the Parks population was made up as follows :
Park Ecologist Butch Smuts, was the first to really pioneer a body of data that gave modern day Kruger National Park a clearer picture of the Lion population , their regions, movement and of course favoured prey species.
The Central district, long regarded as being the home to Kruger largest Lion population, had by 1975 reached over 700 Lions that was made up of 60 Pride groups. This translated to roughly 13 Lions per 100sqkm and it was believed that the combination of grassland vegetation for their favoured prey species as well as the abundance of artificial water points through the region created the perfect environment for the apex predator of the Kruger National Park.
As a result of this increase their was a notable decline of the Blue Wildebeest population in this region of the Park which of course worried the ecological team. The ratio now of Lions to prey species was estimated at 1 Lion to 110 prey species. As a result of this a regional cull was sanctioned and 252 Lions were killed. Its important to remind oneself now that the Kruger National Park is a closed system ( fenced and has boundaries to human populations) and with limited scientific data in this early era, the Park was having to learn daily about how to best manage the Park’s wildlife populations.
One of the studies conducted during this period of research (1973 to 1976) was to establish exactly what the Lions were eating and whether or not they could use the data to form a model of consumption and which prey they favoured the most. So it was decided that of the 252 Lions that had been culled, a extensive autopsy had to be done on stomach content to provide insights on prey. The findings were as follows :
Of the 131 Lions with contents in their stomachs the prominent species make up was as follows :
The remaining 26 stomachs showed a make up of smaller to medium sized antelope such as Steenbok (Raphicerus campestris) , Duicker (Silvicarpa grimmia), Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus) , Waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) and Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsciceros).
By 1975 the Lion management program had expanded to the Southern Region of Kruger National Park and specifically into the South West corner. The reasons being similar to that of the central region in that the Mountain Reedbuck had been reintroduced and like the Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) decline the Park wanted to manage the effect of Lion predation on this small population of antelope. The management of Lions in the central region had proved successful in that it had stabilised the Plains Zebra (Equus quagga) population with an increase in new young fowls and albeit the Wildebeest decline long term had proved to be for other ecological reasons, the same rational applied to Reedbuck eventually saw this population also stabilise but in smaller numbers as they are not a large herding species. After the South West region the Park focussed its attention on the South East and specifically in the region of Mlondozi Dam just east of Lower Sabie camp. The goal here was similar to that of all the other regions in that they wanted to provide the necessary opportunity for the Tsessebe (Damaliscus lunatus) population to gain a firmer footing and re-establish itself on the eastern grasslands.
The Lion Management plan in Kruger National Park was established in the early 1970’s and continued throughout the regions until 1978. During this period roughly 335 Lions were culled and nearly 300 Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) who are regarded as 2nd most prominent carnivore in the Park. These culls were the first since the 1950’s when 450 Lion had been culled however the understanding this time round was far more scientific rather than by observational and opinion based.
Ultimately its still not completely understood if the Lion Management program and the culls truly realised the objective in that of stopping the decline in the Blue Wildebeest and Plains Zebra populations. Today the Blue Wildebeest are still a small population of grazers in comparison to that of Plains Zebra, Giraffe, Buffalo and Waterbuck. One of the few takeouts from the research was that as the Blue Wildebeest populations declined the Lions simply moved their focus onto other prey such as Buffalo, Kudu and Waterbuck.
An observation that was made, was that all of the areas under the Lion management control plan recovered their culled populations by roughly 90% within 18 months. The realisation was that the Lion population depended on the availability of prey species within that specific region who were dependent on appropriate flora availability.
The 2006 census
After years of population management plans the Kruger National Park had decided in 2006 to conduct a census that would accurately indicate the number of Lions spread across the Park. For years there had been speculation true number of Lion the Kruger National Park and so it was diced to conduct a intensive count to finally determine the true population size. This would be done by air and land and using location as well as interaction and photographic material, scientists would try determine just how many were roaming the savanna. After months of work its was decided that the true population was not 2,000 Lions but rather 1,600 with a variance both ways of 225. So in good times the population would be around 1,825 and in the more challenging drought periods or at the hands of disease it would drop to 1,375 animals.
What was very interesting from this body of research was that Lion prides were not evenly spread and that areas with greater abundance had higher concentrations of Lion with smaller territories.
Lion distribution in the Kruger National Park
Distribution of Lions in Kruger National Park is largely determined by the geology of the Park. Simply put, sweet soil’s such as clay offer the herbivores better nutrient dense flora and as such cause them to aggregate in higher numbers. The more food available the more Lions there will be. From the census research conducted in 2006 it was established that over 14 Prides and 181 Lions they proposed that the average Lion pride was made up of 13 members of which there was 1.7 mature Males, 4.5 adult Females, 2.8 cubs and 3.8 sub-Adults.
In terms of the distribution it was established that Lion density was higher in the eastern side (clay) of the Park and slightly lower on the Western (granite) side of the Park. The South had the highest densities throughout the Park.
Lion distribution per 100sqkm in Kruger National Park