Safari animals: the story of lions (and the best places to see them)

Few experiences in Africa live longer in the memory than the first time you see a lion. Lithe and ferocious, lions are without rival as Africa’s apex predator and carry on their body what one lion expert described as an “aura of impending violence”. The epitome of wild Africa, they are also the most sought-after prize on any safari to East Africa or Southern Africa for their combination of grace and grandeur, charisma and gravitas. Here we introduce you to the king of Africa’s cats, and tell you where’s best to see them.

Africa’s biggest cat
Second in size among felines only to the tiger, lions are easily Africa’s largest cat species. Males can be over 2.5m long, 3.5m if you include the tail. The heaviest wild male lion recorded weighed in at a rather hefty 272kg. Females generally weigh between 110kg and 168kg. Lions can eat up to 25% of their own body weight in a single session and, on such occasions, even male lions can appear pregnant, so swollen are their bellies.

Female lions can live up to 18 years in the wild; males have been known to live up to 16, but rarely make it past 12. Lions can live up to 27 years in captivity.

A social beast

There are 38 species of wild cats in the world, and the lion is the only social cat among them. Lions live in prides which can include more than 30 individuals, although many prides are much smaller, especially in areas where pressure from human populations is high, or in regions where prey is scarce.

A multi-generational sisterhood of lionesses forms the core of nearly every pride. Females born into the pride will, in many cases, remain with their sisters and mothers, aunties and grandmothers throughout their lifetimes. Together this formidable team of lionesses raises the pride’s cubs and inhabits a defined home range that can be as small as 35 sq km, or as large as 1000. They hunt as a team, defend their territory together against intruders, and raise cubs in a collective creche-like environment.

Lion pregnancies last between three and four months and, when they are ready to give birth, lionesses retreat to a secluded place where the cubs are born. The average size of a litter of lions is between two and four, but as many as seven have been recorded. Cubs cannot open their eyes until around ten days after birth, and mothers keep their cubs hidden until they are around eight weeks old. Despite the protection afforded by the pride, lions are particularly vulnerable during their first two years of life.

When they reach adulthood, which for lions usually occurs between two and four years of age, the young males will leave their natal pride and search for a territory of their own – this is nature’s way of ensuring that sexually mature males do not mate with their own relatives. They will often join with brothers or cousins to form a coalition and, largely nomadic, these dispersing males will wander until they can successfully challenge a resident male (or males) for control of a pride. Once in control, they will patrol their territory, sometimes remaining on their own with the other coalition male(s), sometimes hanging out with the pride females and cubs.

What lions eat

Lions are great opportunists and will eat springhares, elephants and most animals in between. Their favourite prey varies from one region to the next, but their diet often includes zebra, warthog, buffalo, wildebeest, impala, gemsbok, and warthog. One pride of lions even learned to hunt seals along Namibia’s northern coast. Lions also hunt giraffes – this is a particular speciality in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve. Lions commonly hunt elephants in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, especially late in the dry season (September and October); the weight imbalance between lions and elephants, which can weigh 3.5 tons, is the greatest disparity between predator and prey in the animal kingdom. Even one-tonne buffaloes can weigh more than seven times that of the adult lioness bringing it down.

Although lions are skilled hunters and can reach a top speed of 93km/h, they rely on short bursts of speed rather than stamina – a typical lion hunt requires that lions stalk their prey to within around 15m before launching their attack. And despite such skills, their recorded success rate as hunters can be as low as 15% and never higher than 38.5% – in other words, significantly more than half of all lion hunts end in failure. And contrary to popular belief, lions routinely scavenge a significant proportion of their meals.

Lions will also eat domestic livestock, especially cows, and donkeys. With human beings and lions living in ever-closer proximity, such killings are a major cause of human-lion conflict, with many lions killed in retaliation.

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