The lion has evolved to become the only cat to live in large groups. There are many reasons why this would have become more effective and efficient for the lions. Mainly living in open areas with larger prey, more individuals are needed to take down the abundant prey, more individuals means more to protect certain areas and potentially the best areas around the river systems. It is perhaps the success of their species that drove them to compete with the only real competitor they had that drove them into group living - themselves. Whereas most cat species are largely solitary apart from when mothers are rearing cubs and when coming together to mate. In recent years Amur Tiger males have been seen near a mother with cubs and it is very common place for cheetah males to form coalitions. The lion however is the only cat that grows up within a its own society and is as such very unique in this respect.
Living in groups gives the lion many advantages on the vast open plains in which they live. Because they hunt together they are able to take down much larger prey than a similarly sized tiger would, they are also able to share the rearing of the cubs communally and most importantly they are able to work together to keep their territory – possibly the most crucial element of group living. Together they are an army but the way they live is incredibly complex and always changing.
It is a commonly known fact that a group of lions is known as a ‘Pride’ but the true nature of a lion pride is very misunderstood and incredibly complex. The pride is a very changeable society and are consist of a different composition of males, females and youngsters. The core of any pride is the adult females. These are always related in some way and may be cousins, daughters, mothers and aunties. These will live in the same territory that their maternal ancestors have lived in for generations. Even if the prides split over time it is likely that lionesses will still stay in part of their home territory.
Any Pride will be ruled by a group of male lions known as a ‘Coalition’. These males are not core members of the pride and will come and go as they please, only really joining the lionesses if they happen to be in breeding season or if there is food around. These males protect their territory and their lionesses from rival males by patrolling the fringes of their territory. Invading males will attempt to come in to take over their territory, kill their cubs and mate with their females. Male lions are very well bonded to the other males within their coalition but will attempt to drive out or kill any male lion who attempts to take over their territory. Pride takeovers can be incredibly bloody affairs often ending in serious injury in death. Ultimately the coalition who remain the strongest after battle will continue or start their reign. Male lions differ from the females by their manes. The mane acts as an armour, protecting their most vulnerable area from fights with other males. A large mane will not only defend you but it will also make the lion in question look a lot bigger than they actually are, potentially dissuading other males from coming close to fight in the first place.
Coalitions are commonly made up of 2 to 4 lions (with 6 and 8 being recorded in the past as a rarity). A larger coalition has the ability to cover more round and control more than one pride area. As such male lions spend most of their time patrolling their territory in search for rival males leaving any time ‘with the family’ at a minimum. If more than one pride is controlled the males may split up at times to ensure all areas are patrolled. However when the males are in the same location as the females they can be very tolerant fathers and can be very gentle when playing with their young cubs.
A Safina Connection...
THE GENDER GAME - FEATURING OUR FUTURE KINGS PROJECT
Once they reach sexual maturity at around two years old the gender of the youngsters within the pride dictates what happens to them. The young lionesses will stay within their home territory either with their mothers and other female relatives as part of the pride system. The young males however will leave their birth pride at the same age, either driven away by their fathers or by new invading males as they will be perceived as potential competition and therefore a threat. Once out of the pride it is hard life as the young males try and find somewhere safe to live, they reach a nomadic stage where they will tend to follow the herds while trying to keep out of the way of the resident pride males. This tends to drive these young males to seek refuge in the unoccupied areas on the edge of prime lion territories closer to the local human community areas where they are less likely to be attacked by the older males.
While living on the edges of lion territories these young male lions are often drawn to community homesteads and will at times be found taking livestock. Cattle and goats are very easy prey and for these young males they are an easy meal. If they are constant reoffenders then retaliation has historically been more common as the community attempt to safeguard their livelihood. If these young male lions are killed it can be devastating genetically as it means that these new young males cannot take over prides and spread their genetics in prides further afield. Here at the SLCF we support two organisations that work to protect and monitor these young males by deploying GPS collars. These collars not only monitor the whereabouts of young males but can also act as an early warning system if they appear to be heading into areas with a high density of people and livestock. They can also let the conservationists know if the particular lion was to blame for the loss of cattle as their location is quick and easy to view, proving their exact whereabouts at the time.
On their own lionesses are able to take down wildebeest and antelope but by working together as a group they can take down much larger prey including buffalo, hippo and even young elephant or young giraffe. The lionesses are the perfect ambush hunters, their coats blending in with the African grasses whereas the male lions are a lot easy to spot with their manes. Because of this male lions are often scavengers, stealing food off smaller predators such as cheetah or jackals. If the male lions are with the pride they may take part in the hunt, but not until the prey is taken down, they will then use their brute strength to help take down the huge prey, the lionesses are ambush stalkers and the males are the brute strength. This is where they can take down the biggest prey. When it comes to feeding time the males will use their strength to take the first fill, it is often seen that they let their cubs feed with them and let the lionesses wait their turn. This allows the males to ensure the survival of their genetics, to them the lionesses enable them to do so but they are not as important as their own cubs. On larger carcasses the pride may all feed together and this is where the dominance structure is seen to work, the most dominant animals feeding first and the less dominant having to wait. The respect seen here allows the pride to function in a stable fashion.