The movies have lied to you, even the nature documentaries we grew up with as kids miss the mark. I won’t even mention a certain animated film and stage production.
Let’s start with their characteristic call. The roar. Ask most people what a lion sounds like and they answer with ‘rawr’, or a raspy imitation of the MGM Grand feline who announced our favorite childhood films.
Lions do go ‘rawr’ and ‘grrrr’ but this isn’t a true roar. These are minor vocalizations, often made while squabbling over food or as a warning to a nearby threat such as a jackal trying to sneak off with a morsel of meat.
The lion’s roar is much more magnificent, vastly more impressive. It is a great, heaving sound, a rhythmic boom and panting that can be heard as far as 5 miles away on a still night. If a lion is actually close to you and roaring it feels as though the earth is vibrating beneath you, you can feel it in your chest.
Lions roar for a few reasons, the primary one being territorial. A male lion will use this call to announce to any competitors in the area that this is his turf and his females. Females then often join in, in what is known as ‘contagious behavior.’ This is just as it sounds: an action in which a social group of animals participate en masse in order to cement bonds between them.
Scarily it’s when you don’t hear lions that they are most dangerous. For obvious reasons, when they are hungry and hunting they are completely silent.
Everyone knows lions live in a group known as a pride. A pride consists of multiple females, their young, and a male with a magnificent mane. Only this is just one of multiple configurations that a pride can resemble.
Male lions don’t always just have one group of females that they protect and service. Sometimes they enjoy the company of multiple clusters of females within their respective territories, moving between them depending on who needs protection from competitors and who is in season for mating.
The male lions that are usually most successful at maintaining a large territory with several groups of females are often not acting alone. The iconic solitary, lazy male lion doesn’t usually last long in areas with dense populations of lions and other large predators. To be successful he needs a bit of help, and for this he often turns to his brothers.
A coalition is a group of mature male lions, usually a pair but occasionally up to four, working together to maintain a territory. They are often, but not always, related, brothers from the same litter or from another litter in the same pride (so they would share a father), born at about the same time. When these cubs reach maturity they are rudely pushed out of the group by the current dominant male. They then spend the next few months to several years together, hunting on their own, watching and waiting for signs that they could kick out another male and take over their pride. Often this other male is their very own father.
This lion is one of The Killers, a coalition of four magnificent males that have patrolled the Serengeti for years. They have a reputation for brutality, claiming a massive territory near the area where the wildebeests give birth every spring during their migration.
When competing males meet either someone turns tail and runs, or a nasty bit of violence erupts till someone is the clear victor, the loser having retreated or been killed or severely injured. At this point, if the victor is not the current dominant male, he will brutally murder every cub in the pride. This causes the females to nearly immediately go back into estrus, ensuring the stronger genes are passed to the next generation. If the victor belongs to a coalition only the top cat will mate with the females. The others are sidelined while he takes his hard won woman into semi privacy and mates with her once every 20 minutes over 2-4 consecutive days.
A male lion with battle injuries. Masai Mara, Kenya
While it’s true that the males will boldly shove the females in the pride aside at meals, even when it’s the females who brought down the kill, it’s far from true that males don’t hunt at all. Tactics vary from pride to pride, mostly depending on their numbers and their intended prey, but some groups do tend to prefer macro-prey, the really big stuff like buffalo, giraffe and elephants. To take down something of this size involves a big risk with everyone’s involvement crucial. Most often the males will be in the thick of it.
Male lions spend a large amount of time on their own, first when they are young adults and looking to take over a pride and once they’ve established their own group of females they are solitary or only with their coalition while they patrol the area for the constant threat of other males. This cycle of constant battle with threats and solitary hunting is so taxing risky that the average lifespan for a male lion in the Serengeti is just eight years. In captivity this same cat could reach nearly 20. In the wild male lions rarely live out their old age in the peace of the savanna, instead they face a slow, cruel death due to injuries from fighting other males or from their prey fighting back. Sometimes they simply starve to death.
This male lion in the Masai Mara was panting from eating a very heavy meal of buffalo, whose corpse lay beside it. Most likely he had made the kill on his own. It was a powerful sight, made tragic once we saw him attempt to leave. He was dragging his rear leg, an injury no doubt sustained during the kill that would mean his eventual death by starvation.
This is why if I’m lucky enough to be in a situation where I am able to view a hunt I always cheer for the predators. Some feel badly for the charismatic zebra, and it’s hard to deny the awkward adorableness of a baby giraffe, but unless there’s a major natural catastrophe the herbivores don’t often tend to starve to death. Predators do. They also have to provide food for their young in a much greater capacity and for a longer period than their prey. Baby zebras are able to run minutes after they are born and can begin digesting grass within days. A lion cub is born blind and defenseless and relies on lessons from its mother for a year before it is self-sufficient. It’s tough to be a predator.