Lions top many people’s lists of what they want to see when coming out to Africa. And for good reason. The apex predator of many of the continent’s more famous wildlife reserves, lions are deserving of the respect they are given and the awe in which they are held. One could fill a book with all the descriptive cliches about them, which we aren’t going to waste time doing here, suffice it to say that they are phenomenally impressive beasts. Most of the time.
It is important however, to remember that the documentaries and wildlife images that form the basis for most first-time safari-goers’ impressions of the species are essentially highlights packages peeking into the lives of one of the world’s most formidable cat species. Photographers and film makers wait hours, days, weeks, to capture that one moment or sequence that will wow an audience or get 100 000 likes on Instagram. Patience is required if one is really going to be able to appreciate lions, so we thought it would be a good idea to give you a little bit of an idea of what to expect if you are coming to Londolozi or indeed any other reserve where lions occur, and hoping to view them for the first time.
1. Lions Sleep. A lot.
Lions are certainly not lazy. We’ve covered this in a previous blog post, but the short version is that they are opportunistic creatures that save their energy (which – in the form of prey species – is harder to come by that you’d think) for the most profitable time, i.e. darkness, cooler conditions, or whenever the odds of a successful hunt increase enough to make an attempt worthwhile. Being the ultimate in energy conservers, they spend far, far more time passed out in the shade than they do out on the prowl, and it is not uncommon for someone’s first lion sighting to be something of a let-down, so inactive are the creatures. Long grass can hamper the view, and lions in reserves in which they are used to the game viewers will barely lift their heads if they hear a vehicle approaching.
But be patient. Lions won’t do anything until they are ready, and as evening falls and temperatures drop, they are likely to get active. Look for yawning, stretching and grooming as signs that they may get moving soon. If your ranger says “Let’s just wait a while” then trust him or her. An experienced guide will know when it’s worth sticking around. Hungry lions are an especially good bet to stay with, as they’ll be far more likely to go on the hunt than a pride that is full-bellied. When you think it might be time to leave a pride in the evening, always give it another 30 minutes just in case. Using this method, I’ve found the conversion rate from inactivity to a great sighting of a moving pride has been very high over the years!
2. They can be harder to find than you think.
Tracking and finding lions is not always a foregone conclusion. Londolozi’s tracking team is among the best on the African continent, but even so, conditions and the movement of a lion pride or individual(s) can dictate whether one is going to find them or not. A seemingly straightforward tracking exercise can quickly develop into a late-morning slog on the trail of lions that have moved many kilometres overnight, and the rising heat can drive you back to camp without even a glimpse of a tawny coat. Many is the time that trackers have stayed on the trail from morning until well into the afternoon or evening, doggedly following the trail that never seems to get any fresher. Far more often than not they are successful, but occasionally a pride can just seem to vanish into thin air. No more tracks are visible, no parting of the grass can be seen, and Africa’s biggest cats are presumed to have sprouted wings.
Persistence pays off however, and given enough time, if the lions are there, the trackers will find them!
3. Males aren’t always with the females
One of the first questions rangers get asked when arriving in a lion sighting is, “Where is/are the male/s?”. Although male and female lion dynamics are inextricably linked, they are often two completely separate things, and what the males are doing on any given day might in no way be related to the female’s activities in the area.
Males – either as individuals or groups called coalitions – attempt to take over an area when they reach maturity. This territory will ideally include one or more prides with which to mate and sire cubs. If no females inhabit the area a coalition is controlling, the males are really wasting their time, since their sole purpose is to breed.
Having established a territory, they will need to patrol it, often going on long territorial marches that cover a lot of ground, demarcating their area through scent-marking and roaring. Their territories often include those of more than one pride of females, and through a combination of the need to patrol and move between prides in order to follow up on any mating opportunities, it’s understandable that a male or males won’t always be with one particular set of lionesses. The amount of time males spends with females varies massively between areas and groups of lions, but it’s certainly not a given that if one finds a pride there will be a male with them, or vice versa.
4. They aren’t actually the king of Beasts
Despite the lion’s fearsome reputation, not every animal out there makes way for them. Quite the opposite in fact. Elephants regularly chase them, recognizing them as a threat to the calves, and rhinos will actively follow a lions’ scent trail, gently suggesting that they move on when they come up to them. When faced with either of these few-ton behemoths, lions will invariably seek life elsewhere, and the sight of a pride scuttling off with their tails between their legs after being chased by a breeding herd of elephants can be quite comical.
When it comes to hunting, lions don’t always have it their own way either. Buffalo regularly turn the tables on them, and giraffes and zebras with their powerful kicks have sent many a lion to meet its maker.
Lions are incredibly strong and resilient creatures, but they know when they have met their match.
5. When they do their thing, it’s like nothing on earth!
When all is said and done, there is nothing like a proper lion sighting to stir primal emotions in us. Fear, awe, joy, sadness… many and varied are the feelings that can be experienced when viewing one of Africa’s most iconic mammals. They may sleep lots, they may be hard to track sometimes, but when they are in full cry in a hunt or a fight or roaring full blast at your vehicle from point blank range, you will feel a sense of near inadequacy next to their utter magnificence.