Lion dispersal is a fascinating behavior that scientists don’t yet completely understand. In this blog, I’m sharing some recent observations we’ve made in southern Africa that support my hypothesis that subadult and even non-territorial adult males gravitate to areas with a high presence of buffalo at key nomadic times in their lives.
The primary role of adult males in a lion pride is to defend the home space in which lionesses raise the cubs from intrusion by other male lions. These intruders want to take over the pride and would likely kill the cubs after doing so. Typically, a normal-sized pride of lions has two adult males who defend it. Sometimes the coalitions are larger than two and may contain three to several males.
When male lions reach subadult age, around three years, they have to leave their birth prides and strike out on their own. Brothers will stay together and lone males will typically search for another lone male to bond into a coalition with before seeking a territory to rule. These male coalitions will roam the landscape for about two years until they are strong enough to challenge other males and take over a pride of their own.
September 1 was a significant day in our research into lion dispersal as we witnessed the movements of the Mudumu Males (represented on Map 1 by pink dots). These lions were collared two months ago by Lise Hanssen of the Kwando Carnivore Project and finally crossed the Kwando River west into the Kwando Concession. The brothers were born and raised in the River Pride (represented on the map by red dots) in Mudumu National Park. Now they have struck out on their own with their first official dispersal movements!
The relatively few pink dots on Map 1 indicate the most recent movements of the Mudumu Males crossing into Botswana on September 1. You can see them moving away from their mother’s pride, The River Pride, represented by red dots. Crossing the river, the Mudumu Males entered an already congested area of the Kwando Concession. This area belongs to the two four-year-old lions known as the Malombe Males (represented by blue dots) and their fathers, the Angola Males (represented by gray dots).
Both the Angola and Malombe coalitions moved south into the Kwando Concession in Botswana out of Namibia in the last two years. The Angola Males, fathers of the Malombe males, came to take over a new pride while the Malombe Males continue wandering in the dispersal phase of their lives. Why they are so close to their fathers is a mystery. The most likely explanation is the presence of large herds of African buffalo in the area, a magnet for dispersing lions that hunt them preferentially.
Other recent dispersal activities support my hypothesis that subadult and even non-territorial adult males gravitate to areas with a high presence of buffalo at key times in their lives when not resident with a pride. Interestingly this is seemingly not only a factor in the dispersal phase of subadult lions; we have also recorded adult males moving to new areas ripe with both buffalo and possibly new lionesses to mate with. Seems like a very male plan, fatten up on buffalo and impress the ladies with your build!
Lions from our study area along the Kwando River in Namibia typically disperse either south along the Kwando and Selinda River systems into Botswana, or north into Angola roughly following the Kwando and the Luiana river systems, which are rich and prosperous areas for buffalo but unfortunately not for lionesses.
Map 2 shows similar dispersal patterns for nomadic males in the region. The grey dots represent recent movements of an eight-year-old, Steve le Male, who has been hunting buffalo and searching for mates along the Kwando River. The red dots represent the subadult coalition known as the Horseshoe Males- two young lions that have dispersed into the prey-dense area of Angola along the Luiana River. The yellow dots represent a group of lionesses including the mother and sister of the Malombe Males that we tracked earlier (see Map 1).
On September 9, the dispersing Horseshoe Males, born in Namibia, reached the Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) that Panthera is responsible for patrolling and securing alongside our Community Game Guard program in the Mbambamgando area of Angola. At one point, they were a mere 9km away from our base camp! This is exciting news because it shows us thatby creating safe zones, wildlife can return. We know that lion prides hold varying sized territories across their range generally determined primarily by the amount of prey available in the area. While prides can hunt and kill extra-large herbivores like giraffes and elephants, more commonly, they feed on species like buffalo and zebra.
In our area we have been observing lions searching far and wide for buffalo prey and lionesses. An area rich in both would no doubt provide the best chance for them to breed successfully, which is ultimately part of the definition of dispersal. We can only hope that this will help drive the recovery of lion populations in these areas that have been depleted over the years due to over-hunting and poaching. We look forward to continuing to study these lions and watch their populations grow.
Stay tuned for more news from the field about lions and all other wild cats!