First lions, reprise

We’d seen two lionesses near a kill, and watched until one crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the thicket on one side, while the other disappeared into the low palm forest on the other. The show was over, we concluded. Several vehicles left. Anthony took us in a little circle, trying to spot whether there were any other members of the pride nearby. There weren’t. As we were trying to leave, FONT said “She’s back.” “What’s that in her mouth?” The Family asked. In moments it was clear: a cub. We spotted two more in the grass. The mother carried one in her mouth and urged the others along, to cross back to the kill.

“How old do you think the cubs are?” I asked Anthony. He said “Maybe two or three months old.” I didn’t know that cubs are not introduced to the pride till they are several months old. The two cubs which were following the mother lost confidence once they were out of the grass, and started mewling. The mother came back and carried them across the road one by one in her mouth. In the period before the cubs join the pride, the mother moves them frequently from one den to another so that predators do not get to locate them. This looked like part of such a move.

After crossing the road, the mother again picked up one of the cubs and then beckoned the others to follow her by many backward glances as she moved forward. The other two cubs followed for a while, mewling all the time. They hadn’t quite got back their confidence, so the mother had to rotate the cub that she carried. With much divided attention and cajoling, she managed to lead the cubs towards the kill. The other lioness had come back in the meanwhile. She’d clearly been to drink water, because her muzzle was no longer bloody.

The mother let go of the cubs just as she reached the hummock which guarded the kill from the road, and nudged all three cubs forward with her nose. If these cubs were indeed just two or three months old, then they were not yet weaned. While the family crossed the road I’d noticed that the mother was still lactating. The cubs did not seem to be interested in the kill as the two lionesses greeted each other, and then settled down to finish their meal. The kill was fresh; there was no smell. So these two lionesses, one pregnant, the other lactating, had eaten a whole zebra in a reasonably short while.

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First lions

Strangely, the first time I saw a lion there was no sense of excitement. Later, when I thought back to it, it wasn’t boredom as much as the sense that this had happened to me a hundred times. The trouble wasn’t with the scene, but my mental focus. After all, there are less than 40,000 lions left in the world, and the IUCN red list calls them vulnerable. This means that unless we are successful in protecting them, they will slide down to extinction soon enough. No, the problem is TV. You cannot escape the numerous documentaries showing lions chasing buffalos or antelope and bringing them down, thereby giving you the false impression that, first, lions are common, and second, that the most interesting thing about them is the chase and kill. Now, when I look at this photo of the first lion I ever saw, standing with a bloodied muzzle over the zebra it had killed, looking at the distance with cloudy yellow eyes, I wonder why I wasn’t as excited as The Family.

After skirting Lake Amboseli I was still looking at birds, but Anthony, and, very soon, The Family, realized that there was a cluster of vehicles looking at something up ahead. Father of Niece Tatu was suddenly animated. As we neared the area, The Family was already saying “Lion.” It took me a few moments to find where she was looking. FONT and MONT had already spotted the kill by the time I saw the red ribs of a partly eaten zebra sticking up behind a slight rise. Lion? It was hunkered down, and a little bit of looking was needed to see movement, and a tawny hide. Now and then it would shift its weight as it gnawed. A single lioness with a whole zebra? Slowly the oddness struck me. Doesn’t the pride usually hunt together? Where were the rest? When the lioness stood up Anthony pointed out that she was pregnant.

As I was thinking this, MONT suddenly said “Another one.” Indeed, out of the thicket of palms another lioness had emerged. She walked steadily across the little patch of grass which separated the vehicles from the kill, crossed the road near us, and disappeared into the thicket on the other side of the path. I read later that in the dry season very often a pair of lionesses will hunt together. Systematic observations showed that their intake of food was smaller when they hunted individually or in larger groups. So perhaps this pair of lionesses had hunted together because at least one of them needed a lot of food.