Life of lions

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Life of lions

Lions of Africa

Lions will always be on top of the must-see list for visitors to Africa. Many visitors will be fortunate to see these great creatures of the wilderness, but most people will only observe these lazy predators sleeping in the shade. In this chapter, I share some of the most memorable moments I’ve had with lions.

Journal Entry, 1997

The lioness got up from the elephant carcass and walked towards the waterhole. She was soon followed by two others. As the first lioness reached the water she charged the flock of turtle doves drinking at the waterhole, managing to snare one as the doves scattered in flight.

The other two lionesses ran at their companion and a game ensued that lasted for a few seconds. Stuffed on elephant meat the game soon became too much effort. The dove-killer plucked at the feathers before eating the bird. She then had a drink and slowly walked back to the elephant carcass where she lay down to rest.

Reflections on the dove-killer

I reflected on the above-mentioned incident for a number of days. ‘Why had the lioness killed and eaten the dove after having fed on an elephant carcass?’ ‘What made her then return to the elephant carcass after eating the dove?’

Although lions have been known to eat a variety of species in times of hardship it was obviously not through hunger that this lioness killed the dove. Lions have been observed feeding on termites and other insects, birds, rodents and rotting carrion but in most cases the behaviour was simply fuelled by hunger.

Questions answered

“Man is the only animal known to kill for fun.” The phrase popped into my mind whenever the idea surfaced that perhaps the lioness had killed the dove for sport. I have often seen examples of lions killing just because prey happened to cross their paths; it seems man is not alone in his thirst for bloody fun.

On a few occasions, I have witnessed lions killing mongoose. In each of these observed incidents, I watched the members of the pride play with the carcass for some time before finally rejecting it; the uneaten carcass was then left to rot.

I watched the members of the pride play with the carcass for some time before finally rejecting it.

Obsessive killing disorder

A pride was feeding on a buffalo carcass in the Chobe region of Botswana when one of the lionesses moved off to the water to drink. As she approached the water, the lioness noticed a slow-moving buffalo cow lagging behind the herd , her new-born calf alongside her.

Without hesitation, the lioness ran at the buffalo calf and killed it. A few lions left the first carcass and attacked the mother, quickly bringing her down. The calf-killing lioness then walked back to the first carcass. After a few licks of the skin she settled down alongside the others.

Why had the lioness attacked the calf when it was already full from the original carcass? I observed the scene for over an hour. The lions had still not eaten any of the meat; both dead mother and child were left uneaten.

We do, because we can

Despite my strong feelings about trying to rationalize and explain nature, the dove and buffalo incidents intrigued me, almost demanding explanation. From gorging on the carcass of the world’s largest land mammal to killing a harmless dove, the behaviour seemed completely obsessive. The only explanation I can propose is that sometimes lions kill, simply because they can.

Elephant killers

“Do lions develop a taste for specific prey species?” I was asked this question during an African safari, while we watched a pride of lions feeding on an elephant carcass. The elephant had probably died of old age and the lions, known for their scavenging, had picked up the scent of the carcass.

I’ve observed lions feeding on elephants on numerous occasions. In most of these incidents the elephant had been an adult.

At the time, this led me to presume that the elephant had died of old age, but was this really the case? A much more intriguing question lay at the heart of this encounter. Could the Savuti pride have potentially brought down an adult elephant?

Hunting and scavenging

Throughout the wilderness areas of Africa there are lion prides that specialize in killing certain prey species. This specialization has developed over time, arising from the availability of prey, terrain, adaptability and the effects of different seasons. Some prides will specialize in buffalo, some in smaller antelope, and other prides will rely mostly on scavenging for their food.

In most parts of Africa, elephants will generally chase lions when they come across them. There is one notable exception. In Botswana there is a pride of lions that hunt and kill adult elephants!

David hunts Goliath

In some areas, lions have been recorded preying on young elephants. When it came to adult elephants, however, it was always believed that they were too large to be preyed on by lions. So how did this Savuti pride develop the technique to kill adult elephants, and why did this technique develop in the first place?

Lions scavenge when they get the opportunity, often stealing prey from other predators. At a large carcass such as an adult elephant, lions will spend more than a week feeding. I have personally witnessed a pride feeding on an elephant carcass for eight days.

The Savuti region of Botswana is home to many bull elephants of varying ages (including some very old ones) and it was not uncommon for a weak and elderly elephant to fall down, unable to get back up.

Lions scavenge when they get the opportunity and at a large carcass such as an adult elephant they will spend more than a week feeding.

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