Cubs watch and learn

The two lionesses featured in my earlier blogs were great mothers, as well as accomplished hunters. The lionesses gave birth to numbers of litters during their lifetimes. Their cubs learned valuable lessons from their moms, allowing many of them to survive and to become successful hunters as adults. Indeed, many of the lionesses’ offspring are still living and hunting in Chobe National Park and their daughters have given birth to offspring of their own.

Some of the most important lessons learned by growing cubs are how to hunt and how to deal with rival predators. When the cubs are very young, the mother hides them in dense scrub bush away from the pride and stays with them until they are old enough to be introduced to other members of the pride (around 1-2 months of age). After the cubs join the pride, the mothers will still hide them until they are old enough to follow in the hunt. If more than one female in the pride has young cubs, one lioness will often stay with the cubs to protect them. (see pictures below). After a successful hunt, the lionesses will retrieve the cubs and bring them to the kill to feed. Cubs are very vulnerable to being killed by other predators or male lions.

The main picture accompanying this blog features the lioness in my blog “My favorite lioness” on May 29, 2019. I am returning to this fight between the lioness and the crocodile as an illustration of how cubs learn by watching the adults in the pride. Notice how these cubs are paying attention to the competition between the lioness and the croc. They are learning as they watch the lioness struggle to pull her kill out of the water and away from the persistent crocodile. What are three valuable lessons that they are learning in this example? 1) How to prevent a rival predator from stealing your kill. 2) How to avoid getting hurt in the process. 3) Beware of crocodiles!!

The additional pictures below illustrate how lion cubs are hidden and protected when they are young.

Lioness “babysits” the small cubs at scrub bush den
These cubs could be the same cubs as in the previous photo because the photos were taken a year apart and in the same area of the Chobe National Park. The cubs here are waiting for the adult females to return from the hunt. The den entrance is behind them.

Protecting what is theirs

Lion prides face many challenges beyond bringing down their prey. After a kill, they must remain vigilant to prevent other animals, such as hyenas, jackals, and vultures, from taking away the entire carcass or pieces of it.

The two experienced lionesses, who were the subjects of my earlier blogs, had a number of strategies to prevent these opportunists from pilfering their unfinished prey. While eating, the pride kept a watchful eye (first picture) for any “would be” scavengers who might make a move toward their prey (like the vultures who had arrived…the next picture). After more than an hour of eating, one lioness began scratching the soil around the kill (third picture), much like a domestic cat scratches in a litter box. Perhaps by covering up the signs of the kill, lions make it difficult for scavengers to locate an unfinished carcass’ or by masking their scents or the scents of their kill, other prey animals won’t detect their presence in the area.

When the lionesses and their cubs had full bellies, one lioness grabbed the carcass by the neck and began dragging it toward some nearby bushes. The photos show the effort it took for her to pull it to the thicket in the hot afternoon sun. Panting heavily, she finally hid the remains of the dead prey under this protective cover, reducing the likelihood that scavengers would try to feed on it or steal it. The lions then settled down to give their full bellies time to digest their meal.

In my next blog, I’ll talk about how the lionesses’ cubs learn valuable lessons.

Vultures patiently waiting near lion kill
Patiently waiting vultures
Lioness scratching the ground to cover up signs of the kill
Scratching the soil around the carcass
Lioness begins moving sable carcass to hiding place
Beginning to move the carcass to the thicket
Lioness dragging the carcass as cubs continue to try to feed
Lioness dragging the carcass as cubs continue to try to feed
Lioness pants from exertion on the way to hide the carcass
Panting from the effort of dragging the carcass
Lioness stands by the carcass hiding place with three cubs
Remains of their prey are safely hidden
Full bellies are very obvious in resting lioness and standing cub
Full bellies and time to digest!

Lionesses’ Hunting Prowess

Two mornings after the waterbuck encounter between the lioness and crocodile, we returned to Chobe National Park and found that the two lionesses had successfully hunted during the night. They and their cubs were feeding by the river on a sable antelope. Lions have a hunting success rate of about 25% according to discoverwildlife.com. This pair of lionesses clearly demonstrated their prowess as hunters during this 2007 safari. Their hunting skills filled the bellies of their cubs on those two days. On this morning, they ate their fill and then relaxed on the banks of the river and in the shade. In the afternoon, we returned to the same site and found the lions still resting near the kill. It was then that I saw a behavior I hadn’t ever seen before. More on that in the next blog.

My favorite lioness (cont.)

The first time I saw my favorite lioness, she was walking down a hill in Chobe National Park with her young cubs and her sister. She had a tracking collar on and was leading the group at a slow pace. We watched them for a short time until they disappeared into the bush. The cubs turned to look at the safari vehicle several times, but the two lionesses ignored us. Even though this encounter was only for a few minutes, I had never seen lionesses and cubs in their natural environment before. It was thrilling!

When I saw the lioness again, several years later, she captured my imagination and admiration. We were in a pontoon boat on the Chobe River and saw the lioness, her sister and their cubs on the bank by the water. As we approached, we saw that she was attempting to pull a dead waterbuck onto the shore. Waterbucks utilize bodies of water to escape from predators and our guide assumed the lioness had caught this one as it was trying to escape. As we continued to move a bit closer we got quite a surprise. The lioness was in a tug-of-war for possession of the carcass with a medium size crocodile. The croc was pulling toward the water, while the lioness was pulling toward the shore. We watched this “tooth and claw” struggle for about 30 minutes. The lioness avoided being snared in the crocs jaws while the croc had very little leverage to pull the carcass away from the lioness. The cubs watched the tug-of-war with some interest, but didn’t participate. Neither did the other lioness who seemed relaxed a short distance away from the shoreline. We moved on before the encounter ended, but the lioness clearly had the advantage. Eventually, the lioness’ strength won the prize and we later passed by again when the waterbuck was completely on dry land.

The social life of lions is quite fascinating. Lionesses in a pride are related to one another – on average – as cousins. They share in hunting, care-taking for all of the cubs in the pride, and defending their offspring. Because the mothers are related, the cubs share common genes. Pride ranges are defended by male lions, who are often related on the order of half-brothers. The males form a coalition to defend a range and the female pride or prides within the range. The average size of a coalition is 2 – 3 males. As long as the males can defend their range, they father the pride’s offspring. The females in a pride may split up to hunt. The two lionesses in my pictures were often seen together but associated with a larger pride.

Another story about the two lionesses will be found in my next post.

For the love of animals

Sharing my favorite wildlife and nature photography gives me great joy. Growing up on a farm near Hershey, Pennsylvania, animals were very much a part of my childhood. From the herding behavior of the Hereford cattle in our pasture to a rooster named Dwight, who attempted to assert his dominance on a regular basis, the animals on the farm were a source of fascination and amusement. Our dog, Buddy, and our horse, Charlie, were wonderful companions who listened without judgement and enriched our lives. There is no question that the person in my life who most influenced my love and appreciation of animals was my dad. His relationships with the farm animals and his fascination with the lives of wildlife described in National Geographic magazine inspired me to study and explore the lives of animals around the world. As a zoologist specializing in animal behavior, I love observing animals in their natural habitat and trying to capture unique aspects of their behavior and social relationships in photographs. On my website, I will post some of my favorite pictures and give you some insight into the animals’ lives by drawing on my own observations and on the work of many well-known ethologists, sociobiologists, and socioecologists.

I will begin highlighting my favorite animals to photograph – the big cats in Africa. There is nothing as thrilling that having the eyes one of these magnificent creatures focus on the camera’s lens. I’ve had many opportunities to photograph African lions during annual trips to the Chobe National Park in Botswana. As a photographer, there are many advantages and disadvantages to returning to the same park on a regular basis. You have the advantage of seeing some of the same animals perhaps over a number of years. You also develop an understanding the environment and are better able to anticipate behaviors in different settings. By far the biggest advantage is returning to the same safari lodge, for me it is the Elephant Valley Lodge in Kasane, Botswana, and developing close relationships with a number of the fantastic safari guides that work or have worked at that lodge. The disadvantages are that some of the animals you get to know may disappear or were killed. One amazing lioness that I had seen over several years was shot by a local farmer when she moved outside of the park. In my next blog, I will introduce you to her, her sister, and some of her offspring.