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.

Majingilane three

Three of the Majingilane on patrol. A large coalition like this was often separated, and roaring was one of the main ways they stayed in touch.

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…

Majingilane Causeway

This male had stopped to listen to the calls of the rest of his coalition. Often when our human ears detect nothing, lions are still hearing their brethren calling clearly.

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!

Londolozi_labels_black-copy

The group of three males in the story above were at the red dot and the single male was at the blue dot. The solitary male stood up and walked on a direct line from blue to red, not deviating once, after having only heard one bout of roaring. That tells of an incredible ability to judge distance and direction.

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…

Filed under Featured Wildlife

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

View James's profile

15 Comments

on A Lion’s Roar: Let’s Discuss

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Kevin
Guest

Elmon, maps and Majingilane? 😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍
GREAT blog! Thanks!

Jill Larone
Guest

Hi James, and thank you for an extremely interesting write-up. My reaction, while following one of the Majingilane one morning with Mark and Lucky in Sept. 2013, and hearing him calling to his brothers, was exactly as you described — I was astounded and sat open-mouthed and gaping in complete awe. It was the highlight of my 5 days at Londolozi and an experience I will never forget. There is, in my opinion, nothing more majestic or powerful than seeing a male lion in the wild. I had no idea though, of the distance that their roar could carry or be heard, and I’m astonished at their ability to find each other over such a long distance, especially when only hearing one roar. Absolutely incredible!

Mary Beth Wheeler
Guest

I have been one of those jaw-dropped-open guests on many occasions! One never gets used to it…a sound one feels inside, down to the bones! And there’s nothing quite like waking to the sound of a roaring lion! Thanks, James

Tom Bradley
Guest

Thank you for this explanation and story. When I visited in 2013 we spent a few times with the tailless female so I was glad to have a update on her this recently. She was being followed by a male who we referred to say ‘Wishful thinker”. Tom Imeri our guide told us that she had been searching for her sister who she had not seen in quite a few months. We parked quite close to them and she began to call. Softly at first but then with vigor. I am lucky enough to have several shots of her calling but the most impressive ones came a from deep down. She almost coiled for lack of a better word and let out a strong and long call. It truly came from her toes as the saying goes. Happily for her and for us as well, she received a response and she was quickly up and headed for a family meeting!! We were told that they did indeed meet later that day. One of my partners has it on video and audio. It is spectacular and unforgettable. My best to all.

James Tyrrell

Hi Tom,
Glad to hear you had such a great experience. The tailless female hasn’t been on Londolozi for a few weeks now, but is still going strong with the fours sub-adults of the pride to the east of our boundary.
When are you next coming for a visit?
Regards

Donna
Guest

Great Blog and very informative.
I always look forward to reading your blogs, the information and knowledge that you provide.
Thank you James

Dave Mills
Guest

Perfect, James. Perfect. Thanks.

MJ
Guest

Thank you for a great blog, James! I am so happy for the research that is going on now.. Panthera with the DNA data bank being started and the information being gathered on all of our wonderful leopards.. I know there is another place doing leopard research also but not in the Sabi Sands.. Ingwe Leopard Project headquartered in the Thabo Tholo is doing some wonderful work also. I enjoy blogs of this nature, it is always a pleasure to learn as well as experience.

James Tyrrell

Thanks MJ.
I agree, the research currently being conducted is fantastic, and the literature going forward is going to give us a far better understanding about all big cats hopefully…

Guy Redman
Guest

Dear James
That’s for a great article. It’s spot-on in terms of the experiences that I have had with lion Roars. Some time ago I studied the temporal roaring patterns of lions and as part of this study came to experience lion Roars in close range. I cannot explain the feeling. Really makes you feel small and insignificant because of the fear but exciting at the same time. Thanks for the article. Much appreciated.

James Tyrrell

Thanks for the feedback, Guy.
There’s nothing quite like being right there; it never gets old!

Kim Beasley
Guest

SO interesting!!! I’ve learned some things about lions, thank you so much!!!

Dawn Phillips
Guest

Your descriptive has left me with goosebumps. I am excited beyond words to be visiting Londolozi, and experiencing the magic that you share. Thank you for your articles, they make my day.

Patrik Hutter
Guest

Thanks James, very interesting blog, different of the normal ones, and that is good. I was very lucky to hear Dark Mane and Golden Mane roar together one night when at Londolozi. Unforgettable sound!

Kit Boey
Guest

It was in Londolozi that we had one of our best experiences. it was nightfall and Sandros had us parked infront of two sleepy male lions. suddenly, one of them started roaring. then he got up, and walked, roaring all the way. and we followed until he came towards the vehicle, while roaring, went under us and then next to the vehicle. the vehicle rattled like crazy. wow. that was all we could say over again and again.wow. and i love how you talked about them being able to pinpoint each other so accurately. they are such a smart species.

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