In conjunction with Disney’s release of the live-action film The Lion King, we are pleased to introduce a new blog series delving into the lives of lions beyond the silver screen and how Panthera and our partners are working to #ProtectThePride. Our first blog takes a closer look into a worrisome emerging social dynamic among lions: the disruption in normal pride structure and activity.
While working in Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park over the past eight years, Dr. Kristoffer Everatt, a Program Manager with Panthera’s Lion Program, became acquainted with seven distinct lion prides. Each originally had a typical structure for lions in that region: two males, three to four lionesses and a handful of cubs. However, as lion poaching accelerated across the landscape, Kris observed that the structure of these prides slowly began to change. One by one, these healthy prides grew smaller until they were either completely killed off, or left with only a few surviving individuals.
One of these prides, named after its matriarch Maleni, provides an interesting and still evolving case study on the impacts of poaching on pride structure. Between 2015 and 2016, Maleni lost her entire pride. Two of Maleni’s sisters and the two pride males were killed by poachers—some trapped as bycatch in bushmeat poachers’ snares to die a slow, cruel death; others directly targeted by poachers seeking lion parts to sell on the black market. Eventually, a roaming lone male joined Maleni briefly and with him she had a single cub. Unfortunately, without the support of her sisters, she could not provide for nor protect the cub and it too died.
Explains Everatt, “Lionesses form the very fabric of the pride. The mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts within a pride all work together, hunting and raising cubs communally, ensuring the pride’s survival. Without other lionesses, a singleton female is likely not only to suffer from loneliness, but will be unable to care for her cubs, defend her territory, or catch suitable prey to sustain herself.”
NATURE’S PERFECT TEAM
Lions are unique among the cat world in that they form prides. Lion prides normally consist of four to eight related females accompanied by a coalition of two to four males. The females form prides in order to work collectively to raise, feed and protect their cubs. Female pride members are almost always related and usually stay together with their mothers, aunts and sisters for life.
Male lions, on the other hand, leave their birth pride between two and three years old. Related brothers will form coalitions and live the rest of their lives together, while singleton males will form coalitions with other singletons. These male coalitions will roam the landscape for years until they are strong enough to eventually challenge other males and take over a pride of their own. The coalition will stay with the lionesses in their pride for up to four years, just about the time it takes for their cubs to grow strong enough to defend themselves from being killed by other males looking to take over the pride.
While we often picture lions as roaming in large groups through the African savanna, these iconic images are indicative of a social structure that may be changing. In fact, it is only the few best protected national parks that are now home to these large prides. Outside of these areas, across most of their remaining range, lion populations are being devastated by a variety of threats, including conflict with people, poaching of their prey and direct poaching. As their numbers decline, it becomes harder for normal prides to form. Instead, scientists are observing lions living in small, loosely knit groups. Often, both male and female lions live as singletons. These unusual social dynamics are raising questions about how lions—so dependent on their prides for survival—will adapt.
Maleni, the last of her pride, now roams her territory in Limpopo all alone. Everatt says he has often heard her calling dolefully for her pride at night. What will become of her? She might attempt to find a new pride, but migrating to new areas is extremely difficult for adult lionesses. Poaching has wiped out many neighboring prides, making a journey long and dangerous. Even if she were to find another pride, she might be killed by the other lions outright as an intruder. Moreover, between Maleni and the nearest lions are rural communities that raise cattle. Given that she is likely malnourished, taking a cow would be very tempting. She could be killed by a farmer looking to protect their herd. Alone and trapped, Maleni’s chances for survival are slim.
Sadly, Maleni’s plight is not uncommon. Under heavy persecution, pride structures are changing in Limpopo, according to Everatt. Fewer coalitions are forming. Single males are ruling each pride and staying with them for less time.
Panthera’s Southern Africa Regional Director Dr. Paul Funston has observed similar signs of pride structure collapse in places like Kafue National Park in Zambia and Bwabwata and Nkasa Rupara National Parks in Namibia.
WITH HELP, SIGNS OF HOPE
However, we are also seeing signs of hope. In Namibia’s Mudumu National Park, where the Mudumu Pride was almost completely wiped out just a few years ago, a new pride appears to be forming in the wake of increased efforts to reduce human-lion conflict in the area.
Lions are remarkable and formidable creatures, determined to spread their genes and survive. We look forward to bringing you their stories.