Family Life on the Serengeti
THE African lion is often called the king of beasts. It is understandable. His great mane is impressive. Big amber eyes gaze about with a serene aloofness. A majestic air surrounds him. And when he suddenly rises up and lets go with a deafening roar that can be heard five miles away, your spine tingles.a Surely this is the king of beasts!
But when you see him at home, well, his kingly image fades a bit. He sleeps a lot. He sits around a lot. He sometimes drapes himself over the limbs of a tree, away from the cubs that specialize in clambering over the adults. And he really loves to lie on his back a lot, with tummy turned up to bask in the warmth of the sun. This occupies about 20 hours of his day.
The other four hours? Well, when the females—who do the hunting—put meat on the table, he’s first in line. After all, he’s the king, isn’t he? He also fathers the children and fights other lions that trespass on his territory. So he’s a father, a fighter, a loafer, and a sleepyhead. And a king, for a while.
Actually, he’s not alone in performing these duties. Lions are the only species of cat that is social. The social unit of lions is the pride, usually consisting of two or three big males, five or ten females of breeding age, and numerous young cubs and subadults. Prides may be much larger, however—40 or even more. Each pride has its territory, several miles in diameter, and the big males keep intruders out.
The females do most of the hunting—usually at night. They are lighter (250-300 pounds) and therefore faster than the heavier males (400-500 pounds).b Even so, the females are after prey that runs faster than they can. Hence, it is advantageous for them to hunt cooperatively. Some hide while others circle the prey and chase it toward those lying in wait.
Lionesses are generally good mothers. A cub will live on milk for the first two or three months, then the mother leads it to an animal she has killed and introduces it to meat. But the cub will also continue to nurse until it is about eight months old, when the mother has no more milk. She hunts with her young for two years or more—they learn by watching her.
The family atmosphere is usually gentle. Lionesses may group together and baby-sit one another’s cubs. Hungry cubs nurse on any lioness that has milk. Cubs spend much time chasing and wrestling with one another. Sometimes a lioness will join in the play, twitching her tail as the cub tries to catch it and chew on it. Even the big males will tolerate, up to a point, the youngsters that climb over them and tug on their hair. The pride stays in its territory but not always together. But when they come together again, they greet one another by rubbing cheeks.
The pride is a long-lasting unit. Most of its females were born and reared in the pride and hence are related. After a few decades, there will be sisters, mothers, grandmothers, half sisters, cousins, and so on. The young males, however, when they reach three years of age, are driven out by the big males.
But they stay together as a group. There may be two or three, or five or six, and after a couple of years when mature and powerful, they may come across another pride, oust the resident males, and take over the females. When this happens, the new males kill the cubs. This means the progeny thereafter will be from the new males. It also means that the females will come into heat soon thereafter. The larger the group of males in a pride, the less likely another group of males will be able to oust them and take over.
Thus, it is an advantage for a male to have other males with him in the pride. While females are usually in a pride for life—about 18 years—males are usually replaced by a younger, stronger group of males in two or three years. Such ousted males have a harsh existence. No longer being in their prime, they are often unable to catch enough food. That is why it was said at the end of paragraph 3 that he is king “for a while.”
Fights over females by the related males of the pride are rare. The females in a pride often come into heat at the same time. The first male that comes upon a receptive female possesses her. The other males stay away. But since all the females become receptive at about the same time, all the males usually have females available for mating activities.
All of which leads to more cubs, which leads to more family squabbles, which are very exhausting, as every mother and father knows. So we leave our visit to the family circle of the Serengeti lions, and let Mom and Pop recuperate after the hassle of getting the kids to take their nap. Of course, there’s always one that can’t sleep and has to have an afternoon snack.
On this delightful note, we bid you good-bye from the Serengeti.
While animals such as the lion today prey on others for their food, apparently it was not that way in the beginning. (Genesis 1:30) The prophet Isaiah indicates that in the coming new world, “the wolf and the lamb themselves will feed as one, and the lion will eat straw just like the bull.” Yes, even “a mere little boy will be leader over them.”—Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:25.
a 1 mi = 1.6 km.
b 1 lb = 0.5 kg.