Lions are the largest of the social carnivores and live in groups known as prides. A pride consists of between two and 30 related females and cubs residing in a territory. The males have territories of their own, and on average there will be three prides of females within their territory. Dominant males patrol the borders of their territory, scent-marking and roaring to advertise their presence. Contrary to popular belief, they hunt for themselves, though are certainly not averse to monopolising kills made by the prides in their area, should they encounter them.
The mane of the lion probably serves to increase its apparent size. Dominant males are usually found in coalitions; a single male will struggle to defend a territory against two or more other males. These coalitions are invariably litter-mates who have grown up together.
There are presently four prides and three male coalitions that we view on a regular basis on MalaMala, as well as other prides, coalitions and nomadic young males that come onto our property from time to time. Prides: Kambula, Eyrefield, Torchwood, Marthly, Styx and Fourways. Coalitions: Avoca males and Gowrie males.
The commonly accepted perception of a pride consisting of a number of females and a single male is therefore not accurate, yet this situation can pertain to the case of a male who has lost the other member or members of his coalition. It would appear that in this circumstance he will join a pride for the protection in numbers that it affords. This has recently occurred with the Sand River pride and the Toulon male.
Male lions are in their prime from five to eight years of age. Successful males can live for as long as 14 years, although rarely do. Unsuccessful ones might not even make seven.
Females whose cubs have been killed by newly territorial males come into oestrus again quickly. Females in a pride often synchronise their oestrus, so the litters of between one and five cubs are born at much the same time. The cubs are then reared communally and suckled indiscriminately by any female. The cubs weigh only 1kg to 2kg at birth and are as helpless as kittens, opening their eyes after three to 11 days. After four to 8 weeks the mother may lead the cubs to nearby kills, although they are only weaned at seven to 10 months. Cub mortality is high, especially if hunting is scarce.
Hunting is conducted almost entirely at night when their mostly monochromatic vision, which distinguishes between light and dark, gives them an advantage over their prey’s colour vision. Nights when it is full moon are not conducive to successful hunting.
Hunting is a group effort – whether there is any communication and tactics involved or mere instinct is debatable. Extensive observations at MalaMala show that when prey is detected, one lion will immediately lie down, while the other or others circle around. In this manner, when a lion eventually makes its move, there is a likelihood of the prey running into an ambush. Lions are, however, possessed of a degree of intelligence and are capable of learning from experience, so the possibility of deliberate cooperative hunting techniques arising in particular individuals cannot be discounted.
An extensive study by Butch Smuts in the adjoining Kruger National Park has given us accurate weights – he found that female lions average 125kg, and males 180kg. The largest male lion that he recorded weighed in at 240kg.