“Age is just a number” – a saying familiar to most of us.
Sometimes humans would prefer to forget how old we are and many of us would rather limit the discussion of ageing to animals only. During my most recent stint at Londolozi we were fortunate enough to see a few different lion prides with members of various ages and that begged the same old question amongst those on the Land Rover: “How old is that lion?” Therefore, I have undertaken the task of providing a brief summary of how one can estimate the age of a lion.
The job of determining a specific lion’s age from the Land Rover is not an exact science (unless you know when they were born, which we are lucky to do in most cases among the local prides).
However there are a few things to look for that can help one make a fairly good guess. When trying to determine the age of an adult lion, the main things to look at are;
- Mane development (in the case of males) – the mane takes roughly five years to grow to full length and a male lion’s age is reflected in the stages of mane growth.
The mane tends to thicken and darken a bit over time even beyond five years.
- Facial Markings – cuts and scars on the face acquired over the years indicate fights for food, and the more scarred a lion is, the older it generally is.
- Nose Pigmentation – in many cases lions start life off with either a pink or a light grey nose that is unblemished, yet it becomes more freckled over time, usually turning completely dark by around eight years old.
- Teeth – with age, a lion’s teeth will turn a pale yellow and will show increased wear and tear, sometimes even breaking off completely.
When it comes to cubs, we have to use different indicators to gauge the approximate age. Lion cubs are able to walk properly about 3 weeks after birth and after 6-7 weeks they will no longer be carried by their mothers – forcing them to practice walking – or at least waddling – longer distances. Lion cubs are born with their eyes closed and it will take just over a week for the eyes to open. Once open, a cub’s eyes will be a blue/grey colour for about 2-3 months before turning brown. In terms of nose pigmentation, a very young lion cub will have little if any pigmentation and the nose is usually a uniform pink or light grey at about three months. In addition, young lion cubs are covered in little spots that fade with age and by five months old the spots are only noticeable on the cub’s legs.
Another fairly reliable way to figure out a lion cub’s age is to look at how tall it is. A two month old cub will come up to the bottom of its mother’s chest. At four months, the cub will be as tall as an adult female’s elbow. At six months, the cub will be roughly halfway between the top of an adult female’s shoulder and the bottom of her ribcage. Lastly, a year-old cub will reach about half of the female’s shoulder height.
On the behavioural side, there are also a few things to look for that can help one figure out a lion cub’s age. For about the first three months of its life, a lion cub will drink milk exclusively. After that the cub will be introduced to meat but will continue to suckle until around 8 months old. This weaning process links to the young cub’s introduction to its pride. For the first month of its life, it will only see its mother and immediate brothers and sisters and will spend most of its time hidden away from danger. After a month, the mother will begin to introduce the cub to the rest of the pride in a series of short interactions; for example, taking the young cub to a kill where the rest of the pride is feeding and then leaving the cub hidden while the rest of the pride moves off. Over time, the cub’s visits will become longer and more frequent until it is a fully fledged member of the pride.
Attempting to figure out the exact age of a lion cub is certainly not the easiest of jobs but with a bit of practice one can get a fairly decent approximation. Hopefully you will be able to use some of these tools over the coming months to track how the cubs of the Ntsevu, Mhangeni and Nkuhuma prides are progressing.
Stay tuned for for the next instalment of “How Old is that Lion?”