Lions regularly spend time apart from their prides, either splintering into temporary small groups, females breaking off to look for males to mate with, or lionesses denning small cubs and staying in the vicinity of the den for days at a time – or even longer – not returning to the bulk of the pride at all.
We have been seeing that a lot recently in the Ntsevu Pride. The sub-adults are being seen on their own consistently – and not together but in small isolated groups – the lioness with five cubs has been alone a lot, and then the rest of the adult lionesses are regularly seen in groups of two or three.
But just how strong is the desire within the individual lions to return to the core social unit? Do they miss each other? Group living comes with some obvious benefits, especially for an apex predator: the ability to hunt as a unit, the ability to bring down bigger prey items, defending a territory more effectively, better defence of cubs… the list goes on. Having said all this though, the reality is that solitary living also comes with some benefits. Kills or scavenged meals don’t need to be shared, energy can be conserved in staying localised… but just how much does the social bond make individual lions – or small groups of them – want to reunite? Is that desire purely coming from a companionship perspective?
I’ve been sitting with lionesses who hear the calls of the rest of their pride and disdain from answering. Yet I’ve also sat with lionesses who upon hearing one of their relatives vocalise, offer an immediate contact call and go running in that direction, despite only having been separated for a few hours that we know of. As with most things in nature, the answer is not black and white, and there are a number of factors of which we’re not aware that drive lions’ desire to head back to their pride. Both push and pull factors will play their part; time away from the rest, how many individuals are involved, how young the individual is/are, how long since a meal.
A solitary sub-adult that has been split from her pride for four days will almost certainly be more eager to reunite than two lionesses who are hunting successfully together and don’t have much to worry about in terms of defending themselves. The question is probably less about the active missing of that social bond than it is about the immediate needs of the lions involved being filled. If a mother is hiding cubs in a riverbed, her first priority is to keep them safe and fed. That should supersede anything else in her life. If she has nursed them and stashed them in a hollow log or a thorn thicket, her priorities realign, and she can now think about feeding herself. Again, the immediate situation or need then plays a key role; can this lioness find food on her own or does she need the extra strength of the pride? Moreover, where is the pride? Would the energy expended in trying to find them be more than it would take to simply try and catch an impala by herself?
I realise of course, that all I’m doing here is presenting a whole bunch of questions, but as we’ve stated numerous times in this forum, it’s the not knowing that makes the whole thing so appealing.
I know in the past I’ve steered clear of placing human emotions on animals – or at least I’ve tried – but I think in this case, with a social creature like a lion, in which bodily contact is an almost daily part of reaffirming bonds, strengthening the unit, and making sure each member of the pride knows who’s who, for them not to have that would slowly but surely lead them to feel that there’s something missing, not matter whether they’re aware of it or not.
Seeing the very evident emotion with which they greet each other after even a short absence, and in the absence of a better label, I’m pretty sure that lions do miss their pride.
They just might not realise it themselves…