Panthera leo

Why Africa’s wild lions need all the help they can get

Lions of the Sabi Sand Private Reserve: a case in point for the importance of organisations like the Lionscape Coalition

written by &Beyond guide, Josh van der Ploeg

Why do lions have the ability to capture our imagination? Is it their majesty, or social nature which entrances us? Or perhaps it’s the beautiful manes which male lions don so confidently? Whatever the reason, lions are always an enthralling part of anyone’s safari; however they are under real threat.

Lions used to roam all the lands from the southern tip of Africa to Europe, and across Asia to India. A century ago, there were only
200,000 lions left. Today, just 20,000 remain in small pocket-populations throughout Africa, with a 50% population loss within the last 20 years.

The Lionscape Coalition

The Lionscape Coalition – a joint initiative between the ecotourism industry and the Lion Recovery Fund – was founded in response to this crisis: an alliance of commercial competitors united for a greater cause. The founding membership of four, namely &Beyond, the Conservation Travel Foundation (established by Ultimate Safaris Namibia), Singita and Wilderness Safaris, has now grown to a collaboration of eight members, bound by the goal to double the lion population by 2050.

Conservation hurdles

Conservation is a rewarding yet challenging pursuit: many of the animals faced with extinction are in this situation not just because their habitat is shrinking, but because they have evolved in a past time without anthropogenic (human) pressures, and have never had to compete with people for space.

They have biological habits which have evolved in response to conditions as they were thousands of years ago, and it is these very habits that may prove to be a serious hurdle for these animals to overcome on their path to survival.

Lions are struggling in a shrinking world, with dwindling food resources, and conflicts arising between them and local people. Besides these issues, their basic population dynamics don’t help them much either.

Territorial competition

Male Lions often group in ‘coalitions’ of related individuals, and take over large tracts of land (or territories). Coalitions with larger territories often dominate multiple prides of lionesses. The prides compete between themselves for territory too, and the male lions move between the prides spending time with them, hunting with them and mating with the lionesses.

Prides consist of adult lionesses, sub-adult males and females, and cubs. A sub-adult lion means any lion under the age of about 4, and in the case of females, it means a lioness which is not yet sexually mature and therefore unable to bear cubs.

Genetic dominance

When male lions take a pride over, they kill the cubs and chase away any sub-adult lions.

Why?

Because killing the cubs will mean the lionesses can mate again very soon (and the cubs are offspring of previous males). The sub-adult lionesses cannot bear cubs yet, and so they simply present more competition for food – which the males can do without. As a result, prides of lions can lose many members during a male lion take over.

Once the take-over has been completed, and all lionesses are pregnant or have new cubs, the male lions will leave to search for new prides and new mating opportunities. They occasionally circle back to check on their territory and pride, but in reality they are driven by the desire to procreate and further their genetic line, if there are no lionesses to mate with, the males will shift their territory leaving the pride and cubs exposed.

The Sand River Pride: a case in point

One such pride which has certainly struggled over the past while are the Sand River Pride. They have been a resident group of lions and &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp concession for a number of years, and during that time, they have gone through may pride takeovers.

The Toulon reign

During the latter years of the Toulon males’ reign, the lionesses didn’t mate with the males – we can only assume that instinct told them it could be counterproductive as the Toulon males were getting old and would soon be overthrown by stronger male lions and the pride would simply lose the cubs later.

The Mantimahle reign

Enter the Mantimahle male lions, a coalition of 5 male lions who began extending their territory into our concession and took over the Sand River Pride. During this time the pride moved into the Kruger National Park, spending more time deeper within the new males’ territory where their cubs would be better protected. It would be 18 months before we saw the Sand River Pride again.

One may wonder…

What do guides mostly talk about in discussions with one another?

We speak of sightings we dream of and lion dynamics we wish to unfold! We had been dreaming for ages of taking our guests to the east of our reserve and finding this pride of lions.

One morning, when exploring the far flung eastern reaches of the reserve we came upon a large number of lion tracks – males, lionesses, sub-adults, and cubs – their tracks covered the entire road. We spent a heart-racing 30 minutes tracking these lions – could this finally be the return of the Sand River Pride?

We suddenly heard impalas distress calling. Ahead of us, we noticed the back of male lion melting into the bushes nearby. As we returned with our guests in the safari vehicle, there they were – 20 lions! 5 male lions, 4 lionesses, and 12 cubs. The lions caught an impala ram as we arrived and we were awe-struck as they demolished their prize – ripping, growling, clambering, fighting and living up to all the hype and expectations that we guides had placed on them.

Exit the Mantimahle

In the months following, we saw the Sand River pride once every 3 weeks or so as the cubs grew old enough to travel longer distances, and the pride began to utilise their old territory on our concession. The Mantimahle males disappeared, never to be seen again. The lionesses of the pride all had cubs, and it would be at least a year before any could mate again.

Exposed and vulnerable

The Sand River Pride became an unlucky pride who got left behind as the adult males pursued new ventures.

The pride was now exposed with no dominant males. Males don’t only keep other male lions at bay, they also provide indirect protection whilst feeding at kills – hyenas are less likely (if not completely unlikely) to approach a carcass whilst male lions are nearby, as a larger lion could easily kill a hyena.

With only the lionesses to protect them, a few cubs perished. Then the two older lionesses (15 years of age) disappeared, leaving only two adults. Soon the pride had only two adults and nine sub-adult lions left (males and females). If only the lionesses could keep the pride away from male lions until the youngsters came of age but it was not to be.

Enter the Avoca

The Avoca male lions took over the Sand River Pride and chased all remaining sub-adult lions away leaving only two females – and so the once mighty Sand River Pride was diminished from its peak at twenty lions to a vulnerable pride of two.

A pride of two

With only two lionesses, it has been much harder for them to provide the reliable protection which the cubs would receive in a larger pride. As a result, only a single cub from one of the lioness’ litter of four has survived so far, and the other lost her entire litter.

However, there is a light on the horizon – one of the sub-adult lionesses has rejoined the pride, and the dominant males seem to be comfortable with her. This is fantastic news! The addition of another pride member will improve the protection afforded to any new litters of cubs, and if the lioness can bear cubs herself, she could help rebuild this once formidable pride of lions.