Long-time Londolozi guest and friend Michael Klauber recently posted a question asking about the identification of individual lions; whether there is a system or not, and if so, does it differ from that used in the differentiation between individual leopards?
Those who have visited our leopard website and who follow this blog regularly will know how we try to keep an accurate record of which leopards are which, where they are moving, what kills they are making etc. With lions it’s the same thing, but slightly more complicated. Yes we try to differentiate between individuals, but given that they are social animals, with the success of the pride ultimately contributing the most to an individual’s longevity, we tend to focus our interest on the group as a whole rather than on the individuals therein.
Identifying males is usually fairly easy. Big manes of differing colours are often the first thing we go on. Take the Majingilane below:
Each of the four males had/have their own unique characteristic(s) which differentiated him from the other three. I’m not going into the details, as they should be evident from the names in the caption. Suffice it to say that there was never any real trouble in telling them apart.
The Birmingham males, relatively new onto Londolozi, resemble each other a bit closer in appearance, although I suppose we haven’t been seeing them together enough to really be able to them apart that easily yet.
It’s the lionesses that give us the headaches, especially in the larger prides.
Sometimes it’s a no-brainer, as in the case of the Tsalala Pride. One had a tail, the other didn’t. If you got that wrong, you probably had to get yourself checked.
When you start getting four, five and six lionesses or more in a pride, with most of them looking pretty similar to each other, it can get quite confusing if you don’t have a strict identification system in place from the get go, and if you don’t slot each individual into that system early in her life.
Cubs further confuse the issue. Keeping track of lineages only works if cubs continue to be identified as belonging to a certain female. This may sound elementary, but if there are two or three litters in a pride, before long it can really confusing knowing which cub belongs to which lioness. Feeding time doesn’t always help as cubs don’t necessarily have to suckle from their mothers. When the pride gets moving you will usually find cubs naturally migrating to their own mothers to get groomed, but this also isn’t set in stone.
Take the Mhangeni pride. I’ll be happy to admit that I don’t have a clue which of the current sub-adults belongs to which adult female.
Lineages aside, telling one lioness from another isn’t actually that difficult. Their bodies tell stories of fights, incidents, run-ins with buffaloes, and a hundred and one other trials that have altered their appearance over the years. Tears in ears, gashes on legs, things like that all help differentiating them.
Facially, one can look for the same things that one does when identifying leopards.
Just above the top whisker line is a collection of spots in a unique pattern. This pattern tends to look a lot more scattered than a leopard’s but it is there nonetheless.
Using cuts and scars to identify individuals isn’t usually a good idea unless the scars are prominent and well-established. Lions have remarkable healing powers, and what can look like an appalling gash when first inflicted can be almost invisible in a few months time once a scar is formed and it’s hidden under thick fur.
There you have it. Lions can be told apart from one another, but I’d be lying if I said we currently have a comprehensive ID kit for the Londolozi lion population. It is in the pipeline though, so watch this space…