In honor of Valentine’s Day, we thought it would be fun to write about the love lives of lions, one of the most fascinating felines to be found on safari. African lions are the only big cats that live in family groups or prides, leading to complex social dynamics. A typical lion pride averages 10 to 15 members and it comprises multiple generations of related females, their cubs, and a couple of males who protect the pride and mate with the females. Lion prides are matriarchal and lion politics involve a lot of drama, with sex, power struggles, and murder being part of everyday life. Read on for more fun facts about the love lives of lions!
A Male Lion’s Life: Nasty, Brutish and Short
While pop culture glorifies male lions as “king of the jungle”, the reality is that lions don’t live in jungles, and life is TOUGH for males. Lions are incredibly territorial and there is intense competition between males to control a pride and it’s territory. By age three, male lion cubs are forced out of their pride to seek out new territory and establish a new pride. Life is dangerous for these guys, as they are a threat to other adult males yet they no longer have the protection of their natal pride. Young males will often team up with other, usually related, males to form a coalition, finding safety and strength in numbers. If coalition members survive to full adulthood, they grow bigger and stronger over time, eventually overthrowing another male or males and gaining control of a pride.
It’s not the years, it’s the mileage
However, the story is not over - once male lions take over a pride their reign is under constant threat from other, competing males. One of the most interesting things about encountering adult male lions is seeing the battle scars on their faces and bodies, testaments to the constant fight for survival. A male lion will typically live only 8 - 12 years in the wild, compared to 10 - 15 years for females, and many male lion lives end in a literal fight-to-the-death.
One of the most memorable lions we ever saw was this 17-year old male in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. This ancient beast was rail-thin and had the shriveled-up appearance of a 100-year-old man. I will never forget the feeling of awe and admiration that I felt in the presence of such a magnificent being, imagining the stories he could tell and the adventures that he had lived.
Lions Are Deadbeat Dads
Once a male lion gains control of a pride, he assumes breeding rights to the females and wastes no time getting after it. If females have existing young cubs, a newly-dominant male will murder the cubs in order to put the female into estrus so he can mate with her and sire cubs of his own. One of the most amazing, albeit heartbreaking, safari sightings we ever had was finding three freshly-killed lion cubs during a morning game drive in the Timbavati, South Africa, victims of a nascent coup overnight. Our guide, who was clearly saddened at the discovery, gave us the option of whether we wanted to see them or not, and as hard as it was, we chose to view the cubs’ bodies and fully immerse ourselves in the darker realities of the circle of life.
A female who has lost cubs will soon go into heat and be sexually receptive for two to four days, during which lions will mate up to 20 times per day. Each session lasts only about a minute - lions are better known for power than stamina! Once the cubs are born, male lions take no role in caring for cubs, other than offering protection from other males to the entire pride.
Lionesses are Supermoms
While male lions are deadbeat dads, survival of the species ensues because female lions are supermoms! Several females within a pride will often give birth to cubs around the same time, with litters ranging from one to four fuzzy, playful, and spotted cubs. Lionesses are loving mothers who demonstrate communal care of cubs, with lactating mothers allowing any cub to suckle. Females employ a cooperative model of child-rearing, with one female staying behind to watch over the cubs while the other females hunt. One of the coolest lion sightings we ever had was hanging out with a “nanny” lioness and multiple cubs in the Serengeti, watching three other females stalk and chase a bushbuck on the savannah below. It was astonishing to watch the high-level collaboration among creatures that cannot talk, and it was fascinating to see the cubs watching and learning how to hunt from a safe vantage point. Once a kill is made there is a definite pecking order within a pride, with males getting to eat first, followed by females and then cubs.
Where Are the Best Places to See Lions?
Seeing lions in the wild and feeling chills run down your spine while listening to a lion’s roar is a highlight of any safari. There are many great places to see lions in the wild throughout Southern Africa and East Africa. Some of our favorite places have been in Kenya’s Maasai Mara (where we saw over 50 lions in 8 days the last time we were there) and in Tanzania’s Serengeti. There are also the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. If you are visiting Southern Africa, check out the desert-adapted lions of Namibia or track lions on foot during a walking safari in Zambia. We’ve also had great sightings in the Okavango Delta of Botswana where abundant water means abundant prey.
Your friendly feline fanatic,