I think we can all agree that lions are pretty amazing creatures. Huge, majestic, fearsome and gorgeous – you always get a rush when you see them in the wild – whether it’s your first or your 200th time. Granted, they can be a little on the boring side given they sleep upwards of about 20 hours a day (isn’t that the life), but if you have ever watched an uncle Dave doco (or any lion doco for that matter), you may have realised there’s more to them than (a LOT of) sleeping.
Often when you are on safari or self-driving in Kruger you bump into lions for a few moments – or even hours – but usually you don’t get a good idea of their history or the pride dynamics. Particularly because they were probably sleeping for the whole time you were there (lazy bastards). If you have the opportunity to spend a bit more time with the same pride, or to speak to someone who knows a bit about the pride, it’s a great way to learn more about lion life. And what a soap opera life it is (hence the title of this blog… named after the one and only Bold and the Beautiful… just in case you didn’t already figure that out)!
We recently had the privilege of spending a couple of weeks in Mashatu game reserve in Botswana while working with EcoTraining, and while there we spent some time with a pride (or part of a pride) of lions who live mostly within the EcoTraining concession. While there we saw two male lions and one female (well, we saw a female lioness a few times and assumed it was the same one). We heard how these two male lions had ousted another male lion the year prior. He was older and bigger, but I guess it’s pretty hard to win when it’s 2 vs 1. At the same time as this great battle took place, two lionesses who had cubs ran away to prevent the new males from killing their cubs.
Unfortunately this is common practice amongst lions – when new males take over a territory, they kill any young cubs so that the females will go back on heat and mate with them to make new cubs (that carry their genes). Pretty brutal. Naturally a mother’s instinct typically kicks in and they try to prevent this in any way they can – whether that is joining the fight against the invading males, or as with the case in Mashatu, running away.
This apparently left three females behind. We saw one of the females hanging around by herself on various days and wondered whether she was hiding cubs somewhere, as lions had been mating in the river bed at the end of 2016. It seems that was not the case, as a week later we found her mating with one of the males. As we followed them for a little while one morning, the other male came strolling down from one of Mashatu’s famous rocky koppies, much to the annoyance of the other brother. The brother that didn’t have mating rights looked a bit pissed off – and also bigger – than the other. As he came close, the ‘lucky’ male made it very clear he wasn’t interested in a threesome and sent Mr unlucky lion on his way.
Mating is quite the tiring affair for lions. They mate every 20 minutes (give or take and sometimes they take longer breaks) for up to four days. Thankfully it typically lasts for less than a minute each time, but you can imagine how tiring it would be having to perform that much for that long!! Worse still, in a very strange and disturbing biological joke, lions have a barbed penis. Yes, you read that correctly. As you can imagine, it’s not the most pleasurable affair – particularly for the female! That’s probably part of the reason why mating lions often display signs of aggression towards each other during and after they do the deed. Or maybe they just like S&M? Perhaps I should have titled this article “50 shades of lion”.
Things got even more interesting the following day, when the anti-poaching team reported they saw the other two lionesses returning to the area, and we found the two lions mating again. Except I realised that it wasn’t the same male lion – it was his brother! Obviously he had been tagged in, or had taken advantage of his brother’s post-mating weakened state to forcibly take over. Or maybe our lioness decided she wanted to improve her odds of getting pregnant so seduced them both?
Either way, it’s clear lions are a bit more interesting than they seem when they are busy lying around for most of the day. It’s also clear that a lion’s world is still very much a man’s world. Females do most of the hard work – hunting, rearing the young etc but the men get to dominate the pride, steal the food and decide whether cubs get to live or die. One thing is for sure, it must be pretty rough having to mate with the same guy that killed your last litter of cubs. Not to mention the whole barbed penis thing… What a crappy life our poor lionesses have.
The good news is we can all hope to see some little lion cubs running around near the EcoTraining camp in a few months!