We ran a post last week discussing the question of whether or not lions were lazy.

The answer was no, and the assumption that they are was based more on a misunderstanding of their energy conservation efforts than anything else.

The next common misconception amongst those unfamiliar with African wildlife, is that male lions are particularly lazy and let the females do all the hunting, then steal their meal. And to be honest, there is a certain amount of truth in this. Not in the laziness, but in the fact that lionesses do hunt more, and the males do use their extra bulk and power to help themselves to the spoils of the females’ efforts.

Males will regularly help themselves to the kills the lionesses have made, often appropriating the whole thing for themselves. Sometimes the cubs object though, as evidenced by this feisty Sparta youngster, defiant even with a lethal claw only inches from his face!

There’s more to it than a simple abuse of power by the males though.

The bottom line is that the fundamental roles of male and female lions are different.

Male lions control the territory. They use their size and strength to protect an area in which the females they have covered can safely raise cubs, without rival males coming in and killing them. Their whole function as a male lion is one of protection.

THIS is why male lions don’t hunt as regularly as females. They are far too busy defending territory against intruders!

Females on the other hand have the job of providing for those cubs, hunting for and feeding them, and raising them within the territory which the male(s) have secured.

Understanding this goes a long way towards helping interpret lion behaviour.

The sexes’ respective builds are also suited for their particular roles, thanks to millenia of evolution.

Males have impressive manes to intimidate rivals, and their greater size gives them the raw power they need to defend their territory against interlopers. Unfortunately these two physical characteristics aren’t the most helpful when it comes to hunting. It is a lot harder for a male lion to conceal himself and his big mane, so stealth is not one of their strong points. Their added bulk will also make them slightly slower than the lionesses in a flat out sprint, so the chase also isn’t really where they shine. Having said this, their sheer strength makes them an invaluable addition to the hunting effort when it comes to tackling big game like buffalo and giraffes. Often in buffalo hunts the females work to either pin down or at least isolate a buffalo, and it is the male lion who moves in to finish the job.

The Ntsevu lionesses had pinned this buffalo against a waterhole, but it was the brute strength of the Majingilane male that was with them that took her down in the end. Photograph by Grant Rodewijk

The smaller, more lithe females are tailor made to be hunters. Their sleeker forms can be flattened to barely a foot above the ground in a stalk, and without big dark manes giving their position away, their tawny coats let them blend into the grass with ease. Lighter frames can reach top speeds of around 80km an hour when at full sprint, and the fact that they are usually to be found in bigger groups than the males means that they are more likely to be able to use teamwork to their advantage.

Can you spot the lioness? This is one of the Sparta females, who moved straight up this clearing over the course of 45 minutes while three other lionesses flanked the group of mixed herbivores in the background. A few minutes after this photo was taken they rushed in from different angles and caught a waterbuck calf. Ultimate teamwork.

While the females are out on the hunt, the males are usually patrolling territory. It is often mistakenly believed that each lion pride comes with its own male, when in fact the social structure doesn’t often work like this. Male lions will generally form coalitions, numbering two, three, four, and up to six or more sometimes (although bigger coalitions are generally quite dysfunctional and tend to split before too long). These coalitions will take over as big a territory as they can defend, which will often encompass the territories of more than one pride of females. The Majingilane for instance, had five prides under their control at one point in time. The territory size required to be dominant over five prides is enormous, and would be unsustainable for anything but a large coalition (the Majingilane were 4-strong at the time). Such a large territory needs to be patrolled and defended, and as a result you might find a male lion walking an easy 20km a night patrolling his borders. Scent marking, roaring, and expending energy the whole time.

Two of the Majingilane on patrol. In their heyday, these males would cover huge distances each night.

The females on the other hand, with their smaller territories, might hunt for a short while, only walking a short way, miss an opportunity, walk a bit more, sleep, try again, then pass out for the day. It is not uncommon to find a pride of lionesses only a few hundred metres from where they were seen the night before.

When lionesses do make a kill and the male(s) arrive, it might be at the end of a long, weary patrol, and being bigger, the males are able to simply move in and take the kill for themselves. Consider it just reward for keeping the territory safeguarded.

The most obvious consideration regarding the question of male lions hunting is the period in which they are nomads. Male lions are forced out of their prides anywhere from just over two years old, and go off either in a coalition as mentioned above, or as individuals. Until they are big enough to take over their own territory and pride, they have an extended time (usually two years or more) in which they are little more than vagrants, living from day to day, trying to avoid big dominant males who will want to kill them. During this enforced time in the wilderness, as it were, there is no pride to hunt for them, so they are forced to catch their own food, which they clearly do, else no males would survive to adulthood.

The nomadic Tsalala young males (who latest reports have indicated joining up with the Sparta females!) are the most recent young coalition to leave one of Londolozi’s prides.

I hope that paints a slightly clearer picture of the male-female dynamics in lion populations.

Dominant male lions don’t hunt as much because they aren’t meant to. And there you have it.

Filed under Lions 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 ...

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on Are Male Lions Lazier than Females?

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

William Riley

Really good set of papers on this done in the neighbouring Kruger is Funston et al 1998, and Funston, Mills and Biggs 2001. As you found with the Ntsevu lionesses and the Majingilane male, buffalo are the most important prey for male lions who hunted frequently and wildebeest / zebra / warthog for lionesses, due to the differences in size, speed and power. Great post and pics!

James Tyrrell

Thanks William,
I’ll try get hold of that paper!

Marinda Drake

Love this blog James. It realy help to understand lions better. Interesting fact that the males can walk 20km a night to patrol their territory.

William Julien

Enjoy reading your informative articles. Sounds like a lot of hard work to be a male lion. And there is always another competitor ready to chop (or eat) your head off.
Regards from Florida,
Bill Julien

James Tyrrell

Hi Bill,
Yip, out of a long list of animals to choose from out here, a male lion is actually one of the last I’d want to be. They don’t have it easy!

Mary Beth Wheeler

Well explained, James! Thanks. Have the Tsalala young males gone north?

James Tyrrell

Hi Mary Beth,
The opposite in fact; they’ve been seen in the deep south with the Sparta females!

Darlene Knott

Very interesting article, James, and clearly, the relationship between males and females is fairly standard and in no way resembles that of humans! 😃 Loved the photos too!

James Tyrrell

Hi Darlene,
Thanks for the comments!

Denise Vouri

Fascinating James. This explains quite clearly the dynamics of the male/female roles. In a way, it’s a society of entitlement- males defend, females provide the sustenance. Perhaps a win-win for both ?!

James Tyrrell

Hi Denise,
Exactly – neither would be particularly successful without the other…

Cynthia House

Thank you for the wonderful article about male lion behaviour, very informative and thankfully making it clear what the important role of male lions is.

James Tyrrell

Hi Cynthia,
You’re welcome 🙂

Eugene Dopheide

James, love your photos and well written articles, I just had to respond to this informative post. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of the African bush. With each article I read, I form a better opinion about the complex interactions of animals in their natural habitat, a habitat of Kruger Park and surrounding conserves, such as Londolosi.

James Tyrrell

Hi Eugene,
Thanks for the comments. Yip, the complexities of a wildlife system are far more intricate than we can ever begin to fully understand, which I guess is why it’s such a fascinating environment.

Tina Lemly

Well written and very informative! Thank you!

James Tyrrell

Hi Tina,
Glad you enjoyed it!

Leonie De Young

What an interesting blog on lion dynamics James. Thanks for sharing this information. All these things make sense when explained so clearly. This has changed my impression on the male lions. It has also confirmed my thoughts on the roles that females perform (I guess the saying “the weaker sex” comes to mind.) Thanks again.

James Tyrrell

Hi Leonie,
Yes, the roles of both are very different but equally as important when it comes to the success of the species as a whole.

Callum Evans

I have read a number of studies about lions that show adult males, even those with a pride, as being active hunters and even collaborating with the females to tackle agile prey like impala. It’s good to shatter those old stereotypes about lions.

Janie Hansen

Fascinating, well written article. Ok, I will stop lazy-shaming the male lions. Now I understand. Thanks!

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