Two lionesses lay panting in the heat of the afternoon sun. Sprawled beside a shallow watering hole, their heaving bodies rose and fell against the cracked earth in short, ragged bursts. A family of three Hippopotamus wallowed nearby and a mangy Jackal lapped quietly on the opposite bank. It is afternoon in the African Lowveld.
As late as 3 in the afternoon, the heat was still stifling; shade sparse and breeze non-existent. Most predators are lethargic in such a climate. They rest, conserving their energy for nocturnal hunts when the air cools and their night-vision lends them further advantage over sleeping prey.
These two sisters were no different until one of the pair spied a herd of grazing Impala passing above the crest of the watering hole’s bank. Her attitude changed immediately, ears erect and neck extending as she peered to observe the Antelope. Whilst her sister dozed, she sat to better her view and then, belly low to the floor, slunk to lie poised beneath the nearby shrubbery. Hot, yes, but an opportunist, always.
With a wealth of plentiful food source and no natural predators, it seems logical that Disney cast the Lion as King of its ecosystem. Lions rule seemingly unchecked across the African plains where herbivores find safety only in numbers, falling foul to injury, sickness and attack.
And yet, when a Lion hunts alone in daylight it is only with a success rate of around 17%-19% percent. This increases with the number of hunters but even with a full pride pursuing its prey, the percentage peaks at 30%. Cubs are killed by other carnivores and even a solitary Lion can find itself victim to a pack of aggressive Hyenas. Rival prides tear one another apart when their territories clash and a dominant alpha male cannot remain so forever. Whilst the dry season aids Lions, reliably funnelling prey to water sources where they become easy targets, the arrival of the rains leads to new challenges for procuring a decent meal.
During a recent visit to Africa, it was therefore fantastic to witness one Pride in particular flourishing. The Zebeneen pride consists of two sister Lionesses and a young male and female cub. The sisters are protected and intermittently visited by a pair of mature brothers who are dominant over three prides in the surrounding area. Joining the Zebeneen Pride after a successful Buffalo Kill, these two brothers spent time refamiliarsing themselves with the cubs. Whilst one brother clearly exhibits a more prominent mane, denoting him as the alpha, until recently the younger male had been the dominant of the two. The paternity of the cubs is therefore unsure, both males having been likely to have mated with the mother. Their respective interaction with the cubs left the question of paternity even more uncertain, each being tolerant to the point of affectionate with the playing youngsters.
The two brothers will stay with the Zebeneen Pride until a kill is made by another of their prides elsewhere. For such young males, this dominance is incredibly impressive. Although whilst they are currently thriving, it of little surprise that a threat lies just beyond their boundaries where a coalition of five males rule over four additional females and may one day move too close.
In the last three generations alone, the population of African Lions has plummeted by nearly a third. Their habitat has been fragmented by human civilisations and those who find themselves crossing into our terrain meet with conflict and violence. In the recent BBC series, Dynasties, we even witnessed the Lioness, Charm’s pride be poisoned by human laid meat. With only around 20,000 lions remaining in the wild, the animal Kingdom’s ruler has now officially been classified as ‘vulnerable.’ Their rule as King of the Beasts does not come without its costs, and to maintain their crown Lions too must overcome impressive daily hardships.