Statistics are not always the best lens through which to examine a predator community. We’ve written before how populations vary and individuals within those populations vary, so a textbook or field-guide that describe the standard behaviour of a species needs to be given context: where the data was accumulated, the type of study, how long the study took, how many individuals were studied, etc. A book on the leopards of the Kruger National park might be almost irrelevant when dealing with the leopards of the Aberdares in Kenya, so much do the respective habitats – and therefore potentially the habits – differ.
The statistics pertaining to male lion survival rates say that only about 1 in 8 males makes it to maturity. I regret to say I haven’t kept track of male vs. female cubs in the last while, especially in those litters that haven’t survived very long, so I can’t speak with any authority on this over the last few years at Londoz. What I will say though, is as depressing as that figure might read for a male cub, the reality behind his chances of actually succeeding as a male lion are significantly slimmer…
The last decade at Londolozi has been fairly turbulent as far as male lions go, as at least 8 coalitions have moved through and attempted to stamp their mark on the reserve; Mapogo, Majingilane, Selati, Styx, Fourways, Matimba, Matshipiri and Birmingham, to say nothing of various interlopers and vagrants like the Kruger males, Talamati males, Ottawa male and others.
I may well be forgetting one or two as well.
Simple presence counts for nothing in the greater scheme of things though. As a male lion, you have failed unless you sire offspring, and have managed to see those offspring through – or at least facilitated their being raised by the lionesses – to independence.
Now my memory is often faulty when it comes to this type of thing, but as far as I can recall, only three coalitions have sired offspring that have made it to independence on Londolozi since (and including) the Mapogo.
Starting with that notorious group of males, the only effective breeding males after them have been the Majingilane and now the Birmingham males. I initially wanted to include the Matimba males on this list, as they definitely sired cubs with the Tsalala pride, but come to think of it, none of those cubs survived, which means they don’t qualify. I’m not too sure of what cubs they have sired elsewhere, but on Londolozi they effectively have no legacy.
Three groups of successful males in close on a decade? That’s not many. And I’m still wary of using the word “successful” to refer to the Birmingham males, as they have a long way to go before their current crop of cubs reaches independence. As impressive as 15 young ones is in a pride is, they aren’t out of the woods by any means, and with one of the coalition in a bad way, they may have their work cut out for them.
You will read about how high the mortality rate is among lion cubs. You will read that young nomadic males are regularly killed by dominant territorial males. In fact most works on male lions will state emphatically that they have only a very slim chance of even making it to adulthood. 1 in 8, as stated above. That’s 12.5%.
What you don’t often read is how slim their further chances are of actually acquiring a territory and holding on to it for long enough to be considered genetically successful.
If we look at all the coalitions above, the one thing the reproductive ones had/have in common is their size. I’m talking about numbers, not individuals. The Mapogo were 6-strong originally, and both the Birminghams and Majingilane were 5-up when they entered the reserve. Almost all the others were pairs, with the occasional group of three. And none of them stuck around very long. The Matimbas probably lasted the longest out of the duos.
Larger coalitions are more likely to survive adolescence. They are more likely to be able to overthrow a territorial male or coalition when they approach maturity. They can cover oestrus lionesses while still (as an entity) patrolling and defending territory effectively.
Taking this into consideration, it looks as though the genetic lottery needs to massively be on your side as a male to be born into a pride along with a number of other males of similar age. These brothers and cousins will nearly always be the coalition that you end up becoming nomadic with. If you are surrounded by female cubs and there are only one or two males to eventually head out into the big unknown with, good luck!
If we run the numbers on the listed Londolozi coalitions above, we’re only looking at around 9 males that successfully sired cubs in the last 9 years.
Two from the Mapogo (the others were in the western sector at the time), 4 from the Majingilane and 3 from the Birmingham males (the male who died was gone before helping sire the current Ntsevu litters).
Add in all the other males who failed, and we have a total of about 22 (excluding vagrants), and I’ll throw in the deceased Birmingham male as well as he still helps make up the numbers (although dead, his brothers are reproducing, so I guess he can technically be considered a success if the Ntsevu cubs make it).
9 out of 23 is about 40%.
If you have only about a 12.5% chance as a male lion of making it to maturity, and then only a 40% chance of securing your lineage, you are looking at around a 5% chance of passing on your genetic line.
Wow! That’s one in 20 male lions that are born that will actually go on to have their progeny make it to independence.
Remember, these are all rough calculations based solely off Londolozi’s lion population. What coalitions have done elsewhere I’m not too sure of (I know both Majingilane and Birmingham have fathered cubs in the norther sector of the Sabi Sand, as did the Mapogo in the western sector). I’m simply using localised data and observations to highlight just how high the odds are stacked against you as a male lion.
I may well have forgotten litters or males that have come through, and I may have even got the paternity wrong in a few instances.
I’m simply trying to stress the point that if you’re born a male lion, you’ve got a 95% chance of not contributing to the furthering of your species!
Reincarnate me as a dung beetle rather; life’s probably less stressful!