Lions are the largest and most feared predators in the African savannah. With flaming yellow eyes, vampire-like canines, a resounding roar, regal demeanour, heavy black or brown mane, sandy-brown fur (like the grass of the savannah), chiselled body, retractable claws and a ball of fur at the tip of its long tail, the 500-pound male lion (Mr. Panthera Leo, to be formal) evokes an air of majesty. BBC’s Big Cat Diary described these glowering panthers as nothing short of ‘stunning’.
Although smaller than its often-reclining counterpart, the female of the species (Ms. Leo) is no shrinking violet and it is she that does the hunting, often accompanied by other lionesses. Male lions don’t hunt because they’re too heavy to maintain a high-speed chase. They also don’t climb trees like other cats because even if they managed to go up, they couldn’t come down without slithering.
Lions are the most social mammals next to man and live in groups called ‘prides’. A typical pride consists of four or five related females accompanied by a couple of males. Probably related to the saber-tooth cats whose fossils have been found in Africa, the lion is a natural-born hunter. Like all big cats, lions usually hunt down prey much larger than themselves – zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, giraffe, elephant young. In fact, lions are the only African predators that can bring down a buffalo. Not only does the sharp-horned buffalo NOT die quickly but it is badly in need of anger-management therapy and will often charge at people for no reason. Human hunters branded this 2000-pound beast ‘the most dangerous game.’
Breeding season is a very interesting time for lionesses. To produce a single litter of cubs, the lioness may have to mate more than a hundred times in the space of about one week. She will also allow herself to be mounted by any mature male in the vicinity. This may sound like scandalous behaviour but it is actually a necessity. Firstly, the multiple copulations would be killingly exhaustive for a single male and, second, all the males will be kind to the cubs because any of them could be the father!
In lion society, it takes a village to raise a child. A cub – the cutest thing! – can suckle from any female with milk and is protected by all. Weaned cubs put extra pressure on the females to hunt and with an adult male lion gobbling around 75 pounds of meat at a sitting, these brave hunters have no choice but to roll their eyes, say a prayer to Diana - Goddess of Hunting - and step back into the killing fields. Although they’re often seen hunting during the day, they are largely nocturnal: like your domestic cat, lions can see pretty well at night, which gives them an unfair advantage over their prey. Between nocturnal and diurnal hunting, raising the cubs and keeping enemies like the African laughing hyena at bay, a lioness has no time to watch ‘Desperate Housewives’ or the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’.
At first sight, the male lion looks like the most spoiled creature anywhere. It shamelessly spends about 18 hours a day sleeping or otherwise lounging. It occasionally roars, snarls or brawls just to remind everyone who’s boss. In reality, the males do much more than mate, eat and sleep. It is their duty to protect the pride from danger, especially from other lions and from hyenas. A lioness may be more than a match for a single hyena but hyenas run in packs and constitute the largest threat to lionesses and their young. The sight of the larger, stronger, males usually sends hyenas flying in all directions.
You can’t stare a lion down – I’ve tried. Its unyielding yellow eyes inspire fear and – like an antelope or zebra – your first instinct is to run. A Discovery Channel narrator described the sensation as ‘the feeling that you are being sized up for the next meal.’ Humans are not normally on lions’ menu (thank God) but fair game is fair game and, unarmed, a person’s chances of overpowering a lion are between zero and nil. In fact, for many decades the most shocking story to come out of Africa was that of the man-eaters of Tsavo (a place near the coast of Kenya.) when U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt heard this bizarre story, he immediatedly sent for more information. It all started when Kenya and neighbouring Uganda were under British colonial rule. To boost trade and communication between the two territories (called ‘British East Africa’), the colonial masters resolved to link them with a railway line. As the natives were ignorant in railway works, platelayers were shipped in from India, another British colony.
Well, neither the colonialists nor the labourers knew what they were getting themselves into until the railway reached the danger zone of Tsavo. Huge, man-eating lions began coming down from the hills by night and making meals out of the workers. Over the next few months, so many Indians died in encounters with lions that the project stalled and was nearly abandoned altogether. One Indian died strictly from terror while 28 others were dragged out of their tents by night and spirited into the jungle to be fed on. In view of the peril, the, er, lion’s share of the Indians abandonded the project (now dubbed ‘The Lunatic Express’) leaving the colonial masters with just a couple hundred workers. Lieut.-Col. J. H. Patterson, a British railway engineer, eventually put an end to the madness by shooting two of the most notorious lions. One of them, an elusive male, had to be shot 6 times with a rifle before it finally succumbed. Its buddy, also male, was nearly 10 feet long. It took 8 men to carry the carcass back to camp as a trophy!
For a movie version of the feline terror, I highly recommend the Oscar-winning film, ‘The Ghost and The Darkness’
(c) Alex N Nderitu