Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Big Five – Part 5

The first of Africa’s Big Five animals that I wrote about was my favourite animal, the elephant – full of character, family oriented, with a great sense of humour. The second was my favourite cat, the leopard – beautiful, cunning, difficult to see, and a great tree-climber. The third was my least favourite of the Big Five – the African or Cape buffalo – a surly beast if there ever was one. The fourth was the rhinoceros – at risk because of human greed and stupidity.

This week, I end my little series with the King of beasts – the lion.

Once widespread throughout Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe, lions are now only found in parts of Africa and Asia.  They are regarded as vulnerable, as they can exist only in protected areas. 

The lions in Africa can get as big as 2.5 metres long (head and body) and 250 kg in weight (8 ft and 550 lbs) and 1.8 metres and 175 kg for lionesses (7 feet and 400 lbs).  The only cat that is bigger is the tiger.  In the wild, lions only live about 10 to 12 years – in captivity a bit longer.

The two things that stand out for me are the size of the paws – one swipe would take your head off – and the loudness of the roar.  The latter can cause everything nearby to vibrate.  To hear a lion give a full roar nearby at night is truly a frightening thing.  Even if it is a kilometer or two away, it sounds as though it is right next to you.

Photo: Aron Frankental

In general, there is little regal about the King of the Jungle’s day-to-day behaviour, which comprises sleep, sleep, and more sleep – up to sixteen to twenty hours a day.  Lionesses probably are a little less lazy, but they too don’t do very much most of the time.  

I suspect what gives it the royal moniker is both the regal bearing of the male and its power.
In many ways, lions are not very pleasant animals.  When a lion takes over dominance of a pride, it will sometimes kill the cubs, then have its own cubs with the various females.  I can think of a few human kings who have behaved in similar fashion.

Lions are reasonably adept hunters – lionesses doing most of the work, of course.  One of the most memorable times in the bush that I’ve had was in the Savuti area of Botswana’s great Chobe National Park. We were on a game vehicle a short distance away watching the ambush unfold.  A group of relatively young lionesses had set up an ambush – probably for wildebeest (I don’t remember now).  Four or five lionesses formed a line, lying low in the grass so as not to be seen by the prey.  Another one was to make a big circle around and behind and drive the herd into the teeth of the waiting ambush. 

Progress was slow as the lone lioness circled behind making sure she was not seen until ready to charge.  We waited patiently.  The lionesses in the ambush waited patiently.  Time passed.  More time passed.  We wondered whether the ambush was ever going to take place.  The same thing probably was going through the heads of the lionesses.  Eventually one of them couldn’t take it any longer.  She lost patience and stood up to see what was happening.  The inevitable happened.  She was spotted and the herd ran away.  All that time and planning wasted.  Another hungry day.

Successful hunt 

 Had the lionesses caught a wildebeest, the lions would have roused themselves from their sleep, wandered over, and taken over the carcass, eating as much as they could fit into their stomachs.  That’s always the plan – when there’s food eat as much as you can because you don’t know when the next food will be available.  When game is plentiful, you can sometimes see lions, gorged to the gills (to mix a metaphor), lying on their backs groaning.

Daddy on a dead buffalo
Bloated white lioness with sister groaning behind (Linda Ross)

White lion cub gets the left-overs (Linda Ross)
Hyenas clean up afterwards

One of the things that surprised me when I was young was how aggressive lions and lionesses get at a carcass.  Photographs of most lions show scars on their faces, often obtained in squabbles for food.

"It's mine." "No. It's mine."

Even though lions are pretty slovenly and not what we would call examples of good behaviour, a fully grown male with a big, dark mane is truly a wonderful sight.

So that completes my quick overview of Africa’s Big Five – a sighting target of most visitors.  Those of use who live in Africa or who visit it frequently are less focused on the Big Five – except perhaps for the leopard, which is always a wonderful sight - preferring to see different and often more interesting animals, such as the caracal, serval, civet, genet, honey badger, the several varieties of mongooses (mongeese?), as well as the hundreds of bird species.

Stan - Thursday

PS.  White lions are rare colour mutations of the Kruger lions 


  1. Hi Stan - my favorite statues in Europe are the old ones where they sometimes throw in a lion or two and it is painfully obvious that the sculptor had never seen a lion. Although I would love to see one when I come in March (not because I aspire to sculpturing) it is well and fine if it is through a lens of a very powerful telescope. Can't wait.

  2. The lionesses of the Serengetti changed my mind about cats. I preferred leopards until I spent some time watching them, guarding their cubs. Focused. Intention and determination incarnate. Sleek and beautiful. Strategic in the hunt. I look at the pictures I took of them and they inspire me.

  3. I sure wish I could come in March. I really do. As a consolation, I guess I could hang out with the lions in front of the New York Public Library because, from what you say, they move around about as much as the ones in the wild.:)