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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.