The literature talks about the low percentage of successful lion hunts. 15-25%. At a push. Lions can and do go a long time without food. A week without a solid meal is not unheard of.
Yet five out of the last six times I’ve sat with the Ntsevu pride after dark, they have hunted successfully. And multiple times after these sightings, we have found them the very next morning with full bellies that indicate another successful hunt during the hours of darkness.
Granted, I do tend to specifically pick the nights I will sit with lions. Conditions must be as dark as possible (new moon, cloudy), and the lions must ideally have empty bellies. They will therefore want to get going earlier to give themselves more hunting time. The darkness swings the odds massively in their favour, and the hunger gives them an urgency, a purpose. The success rate I’ve witnessed is therefore not a true reflection of how often they’re actually bringing down prey.
Yet if we look at it from the other angle, the days of new moon with no clouds, on which we could happily walk through a clearing and spot a lion coming from two hundred metres, skew the stats wildly against them. A herd of 100 impalas in an open clearing with 200 eyes and 200 ears and 200 nostrils are probably going to detect the danger coming.
So the success percentage drops significantly.
Then there are the nights and days after a big animal has been brought down. A buffalo shared between three females. Full stomachs and the accompanying lethargy. Even after the lions drift away from the kill and spot potential prey, they aren’t really too interested in a full on stalk-and-chase. Because they don’t need to be.
I don’t know the exact deterioration rate of a lion without food (it certainly won’t be an exact rate, and will depend on age, prior condition, stress and many other factors), but what I have observed and should make a lot of sense is their hunting commitment rises in proportion to their hunger.
The whole “circling their prey to chase them down onto the other members of the pride” is real as well. This isn’t simply an imagined lion playbook. Last night I sat for thirty minutes as some of the Ntsevu females stood motionless, waiting in the blackness, for two of their sisters to complete an encircling far out to the flanks of a spread-out impala herd. The impalas knew there were lions there, and kept up a continual snorting of alarm, but in the darkness they couldn’t pinpoint where the lions where or their numbers. Which ultimately cost them, or at least one of them.
Suddenly there was a quick crashing of bushes, the sound of impact, a distress bleat, and the sub-adults and a Birmingham male (who was typically waiting at the back), charged in to claim their share.
A single impala doesn’t go far between twenty lions, but this morning the pride were found on the Londolozi airstrip with full bellies, indicating they had killed something big later in the night (we suspect an injured zebra who had been seen in the area the day before).
A pride killing twice in one night (that we know of), regularly?
That’s impressive, but again, it’s circumstantial. With so many young lions in the pride that aren’t contributing to the hunt, the adult Ntsevu lionesses have to hunt more. It’s a simple numbers game.
As in almost everything in the bush, it’s case-specific.
The stats do not apply to the individual.
Female leopards usually don’t raise more than a couple of cubs to indpendenc in their lifetimes, yet the original Mother Leopard of Londolozi successfully raised 10 litters.
Some lions hunt successfully in winter, some more so in summer. Some prides eat mainly impala (plentiful, easier to catch) whilst some focus on buffalo because that’s the main prey species in their territory, (buffalo are harder to bring down, so hunts are less likely to end in a kill).
It’s up to us to decide when the conditions point towards a greater chance of success, and then when it happens, stick with the pride, because it’s one of the greatest shows on earth.