| You probably knew what a lion looks like when you were five years, and have seen
it on television a number of times since, so describing its looks is hardly necessary.
In short, however, it is a very big and sturdy yellowish-brown cat with short fur and
lighter underside, which is faintly spotted (the spots are best seen on cubs). A mature
male has a hairy mane around its head and neck. At distance, or in poor light, a female
lion may be confused with a big leopard, but at closer range,
the lion is unmistakeable. It's the largest cat in Africa (and the second largest in
the world, second to the tiger of Asia) as well as the largest African predator on land.
Unlike other wild cats (of which leopard, cheetah, serval,
caracal, African wild cat and African golden cat can be found in East
Africa), it isn't solitary but lives in family groups, called prides. A typical
pride consists of two males, some five females and cubs, but constellations vary a lot,
for example depending on the availability of prey within the pride's territory and on
competition from neighbouring prides.
The members of a pride are not always seen together, but may form smaller groups, which
move independently within the home range and occasionally join with the other pride
Prides have a female core
The females form the core of each pride. They are generally related; they are usually
sisters. Unlike males, who are forced to leave the pride when reaching maturity, females
stay for life in the pride that they were born in. The young females are forced to leave
only if the pride grows to large for the amount of prey available.
The adult males rarely stay in a pride for longer time than three to four years. Not
that they choose to leave, but stronger and possibly younger challenges eventually show
up to oust them, or even kill them. The newcomers thus take over the role as pride males.
When doing so, it's not uncommon for them to kill any cubs within the pride, after which
the females soon come into oestrus, whereby the new males get a chance to mate and spread
their own genes.
Lions mostly hunt at night and in the mornings and evenings, when they can utilize their
good night vision to gain an advantage over their prey. They do hunt during daytime,
too, if conditions are favourable, for example if the terrain allows them to sneak close
to the prey or if a good hunting opportunity arises by chance.
Hunting starts with careful stalking, to get as close to the prey as possible. When
close enough, the lion charges and tries to catch the fleeing prey, which if caught
is killed by biting it's throat to suffocate it. A lion on its own may hunt prey sizing
from warthogs to zebras, i.e. prey weighing 40300 kg/90650 lb.
Lions often hunt together with other pride members, and may together face larger prey,
for example buffalos (up to 850 kg/1,900 lb) and giraffes (up to 1,800 kg/4,000 kg).
The buffalo is a popular prey, requiring the cooperation of a couple of lions, often
including at least one male. When prey are smaller, the male is often not taking part
in the hunt, but is quick to come to eat first of all after the females have done a
Lions are large predators and powerful killers, and should be considered dangerous to
They normally don't hunt humans, though, and have no inherent thirst for human blood.
Lions kill for food, and prefer to do so without unnecessary effort or hazard. Because
of this, prides often specialize in hunting the species of prey that are available in
its home range, and which the pride has experience from hunting. To most lions, humans
are an unknown kind of prey that, from the lion's point of view, might be difficult
or dangerous to hunt. In some areas, humans have also been aggressive to lions (for
example the Maasai,
who don't fear lions), making them less prone to contacts with humans.
Compared to a lion, an unarmed human is slow, weak and harmless, and it happens that
lions, usually old or sick ones, find out about this. Being unable to hunt their normal
prey, they have no choice but trying something new, and discover that a human is an
easy prey. After such an experience, it's not unlikely that the lion will hunt for humans
But man-eaters rarely live very long. Trackers, hunters and rangers soon start looking
for it, as they pose a threat to the local population or tourists. The newly acquired
knowledge, that humans are easy prey, dies with the lion.
The lion has few enemies. Some of the largest herbivores,
for example elephants, may show aggression towards lions, which may attack their calves
(and very large prides have been seen hunting adult elephants). Hippos and rhinos may
need to protect their calves, too.
The hyaena is the lion's worst enemy among the predators. A single hyaena can't face
a lion, but hyaenas in a group of four or five may chase a single lion away from for
example a carcass.
Given the opportunity, a lion doesn't hesitate to kill the cubs of other predators,
such as cheetahs and hyaenas. This is not done to eat them, but to get rid of a future
competitor for food.
Lions on safaris
Today, lions are mainly found in sub-Saharan Africa. There are also some small local
population in Asia. Formerly, lions were more widespread, and were even found in Europe.
Most safaris in Kenya or Tanzania
go to parks
where chances of seeing lions are good. The two best parks for lions are Serengeti
(Tanzania) and Masai
Mara (Kenya), which are parts of most safari itineraries. Other good parks
are Ngorongoro (Tanzania) and Samburu
(Kenya). It's not unusual to see lions in Tarangire (Tanzania),
Tsavo (Kenya) and Lake Nakuru (Kenya).
The lion is one of the five mammal species included in the Big
Five, and is an animal most safari-goers want to see. We have not been on,
or even heard of, any decently well-arranged safari in Kenya or Tanzania where lions
have not been observed.