March 21, 2011

African Lion (Panthera leo)

There are few humans indeed who will not recognize our next animal. It is a relative of yours truly, Mr. Hoo, and possibly the most famous member of the cat family. He is known as the king of the jungle, the king of beasts; an apex predator at the very top of the food chain in his native Africa. He is, of course, the lion.

The image of the majestic lion ruling over the savannah is a familiar one. Humans have used this image over and over again in everything from fairy tales to Hollywood movies. Medieval kings used the lion as the symbol of their kingship, comparing themselves to what they saw as their animal counterpart. If someone is considered brave and strong, they are said to be like a lion. Nothing else compares to the fearsome and regal King of Beasts.

Except for, perhaps, the queen of beasts. Lion prides are made up mainly of females and cubs, with only a few adult males. For as much as the male lion looks the part with his big fangs and flowing mane, most of the “dominating of the savannah” stuff is actually done by the females. The big male lions get all of the publicity, but as scary as a large male lion would be to a herd of zebra or wildebeest, a group of female lions approaching is much more frightening and much more dangerous.

This is because the female lions do almost all of the hunting, and they do it as a team. They work together to coordinate their attacks and herd the prey so that it runs exactly where they want it to go. A few females will chase the prey to where other females are waiting, hiding in the tall grass, to ambush it. In this way, the female lions provide for and feed the entire pride.

And what is the big strong male lion doing during all of this? Sleeping, probably. The males almost never help the females hunt; they just wait until the females catch something, and then they run over and take the first seat at the dinner table. This may seem rather selfish, and on certain level, it is. But there are other reasons for it. For example, the males, with their huge bulk and large flamboyant manes, would actually be a hindrance to the hunt. The females are sleeker and faster, and the hulking males are too bulky and brawny to chase down antelope and zebra the way the females can. The males also have a harder time concealing themselves in the grass…their size and their manes often give them away. So the females really have an easier time hunting if the males just stay home.

So, you may ask, what’s the point of being a huge, majestically maned lion if it hurts your ability to hunt? What good are they if the females do all the work? Well, the males do have one job, and it is a very important and dangerous job. The males are there to protect the pride…from other males.

You see, lion society is based on power and dominance, and the way young male lions get a pride of their own is by taking over another male’s pride. This is where the huge, muscular body comes into play. Resident males must defend themselves and their pride against attacks from outside males seeking to take their place. And it is serious business, because if a resident male loses a fight and is killed or driven off, the new males then go around and kill all of the cubs in the pride. They do this because they do not want to raise and defend another male’s children. They want to have their own. The females are too much smaller than the males to fend them off and prevent this from happening, so they depend on the resident males to protect them. So the stakes are high for the males, and to keep their pride intact, they always need to be the biggest and strongest lions around. The cubs that survive to adulthood are the ones whose fathers were big enough and strong enough to continually win these battles, and therefore the bloodline of the lions is the strongest possible, as all the weaker lions’ offspring have been killed off. It’s brutal, to be sure, but the life of a lion is not for the feint of heart.

Given this high pressure lifestyle, it is no wonder that lions like to spend their off hours doing…well, nothing really. When not fighting or killing something, lions like to sleep…a lot. They can sleep up to 20 hours a day. This may look like laziness, but it is actually a way to save up energy for the explosive bursts of violence that will inevitably come. Lions hunt the largest animals in Africa, and it takes incredible feats of strength just to put dinner on the table. So lions spend as much time as they can resting…except for the cubs, who seem to be in play mode 24/7…

With a beast this fierce it would seem that nothing could challenge its dominance, but lions are threatened. Lions don’t really have any predators, but they do have enemies. Hyenas seem to have a particular hatred for lions and will kill cubs or adult lions, if they can catch them alone. Hyenas are no match for a pride of lions, but a single lion, even a male, can be killed by a group of hyenas.

As with many animals you will meet here, however, the lion’s main threat is Man. Precisely because of their image as the fierce king of beasts, lions are hunted for sport. Many hunters like to kill lions so that they can later boast that they bested the fiercest predator in Africa…although, I don’t really understand why that is so impressive when they use a high powered rifle to do it. Silly humans. You pulled a trigger. Big deal. Take on a lion with a rock or your own hands, and then get back to me. If you can.

Lions are also considered a pest animal by cattle ranchers. The increase in cattle farms in Africa has greatly reduced the lions’ traditional hunting grounds, resulting in an increase of lions taking domestic cattle. Political strife can also affect lions (as well as all wildlife), as they do not understand political borders and fences really have no meaning for them. A lion pride’s territory may straddle lands in two different African countries, one where they are protected by law from poaching, and one where they are not. You can see how that will end.

Lions embody the spirit of strength and bravery, but for all their power and ferocity, lions are actually threatened today. Their numbers are decreasing as the real king of beasts, humans, spread out and take over. Can you humans learn to coexist with these animals that you venerate, or will the lion end up a relic in a museum or a cartoon in a picture book? I cannot say. I am but a mere tuxedo cat and, though very well dressed, powerless to affect the situation. Only you humans can do that. The power, and the consequences, are yours.