I don’t want to go into too much of the physics here, so don’t expect talk of pitch and decibels and wavelengths. Although I suppose that these attributes of a lion’s roar I just mentioned would go a long way into answering some of the questions I’ll pose here, we can go into that another time. For now I just want to shoot the breeze about the vocal efforts of Africa’s apex predator.
For me, and I’m sure for many others out there, the number one African experience you can ever have the privilege of enjoying is being next to a male lion when he’s roaring. Better yet, a big coalition roaring together. One of the old Londolozi rangers once told me how about how she had all six of the Mapogo males arranged around her vehicle when they all began bellowing in unison. She thought the Land Rover was going to rattle itself apart at the rivets!
You don’t hear a lion roaring, you feel it. The closer you are, the more the vibrations tremor through your body, and believe me, if it’s your first time experiencing it and you are within 50 metres, you are left in gob-smacked, jaw-dropping awe! I have turned round many times on my vehicle to see my guests’ reactions, and nine times out of ten there are just a row of open mouths, staring speechless at the lion who is just tailing off to the soft grunts that inevitably follow a proper roaring effort.
Now, what we see in the wild and what we read about in the textbooks are often two different things. All sorts of facts and figures abound about various animals, and people in general are far too willing to accept the written word as gospel. I am in no way arguing that the books are always wrong, I am simply saying that books on animal behaviour often allow far too narrow a margin for deviation from the ‘norm’. There are tremendous variations between individuals and between populations, not just in lions, and to be able to adequately sum up a species in one chapter just seems a little unrealistic to me. Leopards, elephants, you name it, there are big differences between animals in the same species. Many books are based on studies conducted within a limited area, with a much smaller data set than ideal. Take leopards for instance; one of the definitive books on Southern African mammals had its leopard section base on a study conducted in the Kruger National Park, which only had a sample of 6 leopards as its data set. The current research being conducted by the Panthera organisation on the leopards of the Sabi Sands has over 1800 leopards in its data set!!! This is obviously not the total number living here now, but includes the historical record of every leopard ever viewed and recorded in this area. I stand to be corrected here, as these numbers are purely from memory, but from 6 to 1800 surely screams of more reliable data. Anyway, I digress, I mention all the above purely to make a point about how we shouldn’t always stick to what we read in the books.
Lions roaring, thats what we were talking about.
You’ll read that on a still night, a lion’s roar can be heard up to about 7 or 8km away. At Londolozi, we have heard lions roaring from 10km! I can say that with confidence because we have known where we are on the map when we heard them, and we have known exactly where the lions are at the same time, and the distance between those points is, well, pretty fixed. Okay arguing about a two kilometre distance between reality and what the books say is probably nitpicking, but try imagine yourself shouting loud enough to be heard two kilometres away… Not possible, right? Now add that distance to another 8km and try scream or shout that far! It boggles the mind that an animal can make such a loud noise.
Lions roar to communicate between members of the same pride or coalition and to advertise territory. That’s a given. And yes, it is a loud noise. Check. What is not often appreciated, or possibly understood, is how unbelievably accurately lions can pinpoint exactly where another roar is coming from, and know exactly what type of lion is calling on the other end; male, female, hostile, friendly…
When we hear lions at Londolozi, there is often some debate amongst the rangers as to where exactly the sound is coming from. Some of the senior trackers like Elmon Mhlongo are almost superhuman in their ability to tell exactly where a lion is calling from, but most of the time there is at least a little confusion, and usually about distance to the lion(s). Obviously the farther you are from a roaring lion, the harder it is to accurately tell his position, but the lions themselves have no problem. It’s almost as if they are looking at one of those giant maps in a war room and are able to stick a pin in the exact spot where their rival or coalition mate is vocalising.
This was highlighted rather nicely by the Majingilane males one morning, when three of them had been found in a thicket near the Maxabene, and the fourth male was somewhere a few kilometres away, I think with the Tsalala pride if memory serves me correctly.
The three brothers began to roar, and of course the fourth brother stuck his head up and answered from where he was. I think it was ranger Lucien Beaumont who was with him at the time, and his radio broadcast told us that the fourth male had begun to move. Every so often Lucien would update us on the fourth male’s movements, and from what we could tell, he was making a bee-line directly for where the rest of his coalition were. He drew steadily closer over the next 45 minutes or so, and the incredible thing was that none of the lions roared again. Neither the approaching male nor one of the three (who were by now fast asleep). The fourth male had had just one chance to hear his coalition and judge the distance and direction of their calling. Once he had started walking he never wavered, marching straight across roads he normally would have turned and walked down. And lo and behold, just under an hour later, he came walking sedately through the bushes to flop down in the middle of his three brothers and fall fast asleep. We were astounded. The group of three had not even been in an open clearing, yet the fourth male walked straight to them!
It always used to astound me how well the trackers at Londolozi were able to identify the different Majingilane males who were calling. I once lost a six-pack of beers to Oxide Ndlovu when he told me that it was definitely the Scar-nosed male roaring one morning. I figured he was pulling my leg and that he only had a 1-in-4 chance of being right (there were four lions in the coalition), but he got it spot on, and I was a six-pack down!
There is far more information conveyed in a lion’s roar than we are aware of. It’s not just a stand-alone noise. Lions respond differently to different calls. Within coalitions, I’m sure one call is purely a “Where are you right now?” bellow, whereas another might be a call for assistance.
How we will go about finding out what each one means, or whether that’s even possible, is anyone’s guess…