Panthera leo aka Simba aka Lion
Everyone’s favorite – mention out loud that you spotted lion at breakfast time and within minutes you’ll have crowds of people around your table asking where and when! Lion are known as the “king of the jungle” for a very good reason, they are apex land predators – that means they have no known natural predators.
In the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve there are about 120 lions. With so many you would expect to see them on a fairly regular basis, but it’s not that easy. The Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve is 960km2 in size, so that’s 1 lion every 8km2 – so, not favorable odds for visitors.
To make the stats sound even worse, lions are social, they tend to live in prides (why they do is something we’ll chat about later) and so you may have a situation of say 10 lions in one pride, and so all of a sudden you’re trying to find a pride of 10 lions in one spot in roughly 80km2 – near enough impossible.
So with those odds against us, how exactly do we find lions while on a safari in the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve?
First, you need to think about the terrain.
For the most part, the lions are situated in the Imfolozi (southern section) of the park. The terrain there is very suited to lion – wide open spaces, relatively flat, with loads of prey animals like wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and so on. Lions are notoriously poor hunters, a success rate of only about 4 kills per 10 attempts – they need all the advantages they can get, and that includes the ability to see their prey – more specifically, movement.
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It’s not easy finding lion in the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve, you need a fair amount of patience and a little local knowledge (this is where guides like ourselves come in) and more than a handful of luck.
The majority of lions are in the southern section of the park, so statistically this is where you should probably start (it’s where we usually head to). The Imfolozi section is far larger than the Hluhluwe section but with more open savanna, allowing visitors to scan the surrounding areas with binoculars.
During the winter months (say June through end of August) there’s not much in the way of rain, so your chances of spotting lions around water sources become a bit greater. This and the fact that the surrounding vegetation is less dense usually spells success in lion sightings. But of course, since the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve is not a zoo, there’s no guarantees.
Where do you look for lions?
Early morning and early evenings are usually when lions are active. Often they’re spotted on the move, or playing about, especially if there are young lion in the pride. They’ve spent the entire afternoon in the shade snoozing, so it’s time now to get prepared to hunt. Lions on the move are usually easy to spot (it’s a lion walking after all) and very often on the road itself!
In the late afternoons it’s not unusual to see lion lying on the road surfaces taking advantage of the residual warmth of the roads. Sometimes they are enjoying the late afternoon sun to such a degree that they refuse to move, meaning vehicles have to kinda drive around them (bad practice, so don’t do that).
During the heat of the day lions generally seek out shade – so check out the base of trees, or in thickets , anywhere that offers relief from the sun. If it’s a particularly hot summer day, don’t just look down, lions are known to climb trees – poorly but still. Another good spot to look for is along rivers where nature has provided natural air-conditioning, we’ve spotted large prides on more than one occasion snoozing peacefully near the water on the sandy banks.
During winter when the temperature is a little cooler and the suns rays fairly weak, lion may be out in the open, soaking up the midday sun, chilling out near to the road.
It’s worth remembering that lion will spend up to 20 hours in a day resting. This is no surprise, moving about burns energy, and if there’s no guarantee that your next meal will be anytime soon, there is sense in saving energy and only moving when you need to.
If you’re in the Hluhluwe section of the game reserve, that is the north – it’s a little more difficult and yet easier at the same time (I know right!). At the time of writing, the northern section had only one pride of lions, about 5 individuals (possibly 6). Roughly a third the size of the entire park means it’s statistically harder to find just 5 lions in the north.
However, more vegetation also means that the lions themselves must be more active, since thicker vegetation means prey animals can move without being seen, so the lions have to move to areas where they can see prey and begin a hunt – so it’s really a pro/con situation. This and the fact is there is usually more tourists in the north than in the south so chances are higher the northern pride will be spotted and reported.
An added bonus is that in this area (the north), there is limited places that the lions could be in – to be clear, it’s still a hundred square kilometers, but it does mean there are sites that we know to look for lions in.
What should you be looking for?
Movement is the quickest way to spot animals – after all, humans are predators and one common trait most predators share is that movement grabs out attention. So in the case of lions, ear twitches, tails moving about, lion shifting position – it’s all about movement.
Other animals can also help. Antelope such as impala and baboon will often stand near to lions and give out warning noises (a barking sound in the case of impala and baboon) to warn others. Birds can do the same, with some species calling away frantically. So keep an eye out for animals that would otherwise be busy grazing or resting, if they’re agitated and all staring in one direction, have a good look around, it may be predators.
Keep glancing down at the road side every now and again (this is why we drive so slow in the parks, a lot to look out for) and be on the look out for lion tracks. Personally it has helped me find lions on loads of occasions. Also be on the look out for scat, it’ll help give a timeline as well, you can tell whether the scat is bone dry, and so old, or fresh and so new.
Some Facts About Lions
- Although lions can live up to about 25 years in captivity, in the wild they usually get up to around 10 or 13, dying from old age, disease, injury during hunts or fights with other males.
- Females will give birth to up to 4 cubs after a 110 day gestation period.
- Mortality of cubs is really high, around 80% before the cubs even reach 2 years old.
- After 6 or 7 months weaning occurs but it wont be until around 2 years of age that cubs will participate on hunts.
- An average body weight of around 200kg’s and a shoulder height of just over a meter makes these animals a force to be reckoned with!
Lions are fast becoming endangered.
Presently (well at the time of writing anyway), lions are listed as vulnerable. That means they are on their way to becoming endangered. The entire lion population is around 45,000 (or less) and dropping. This is because of human encroachment and hunting. As pressure mounts on land use in Africa, so the lion will be pushed into smaller and smaller reserves, leading to a drop in population numbers. There is a also a big call for lion bones in some (mostly) Asian countries, this is not helping matters either.
In the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve you may see some of the lionesses with collars. Researchers keep tabs on the lionesses through the use of radio collars, so if you see a researcher vehicle such as ACT, stop and ask politely if they’re looking for lion or have seen any, they are usually really friendly and helpful.
Lions live in prides for a very good reason
I’ve mentioned it before, that lions for the most part live in prides. They are the only of the African cat species to do so, and it’s all to do with their prey. Lions are pretty big, and as such tend to burn through a lot of energy, especially during a hunt.
If a lion is going to hunt, it stands to reason that it takes in more energy than is burnt during the hunt, that means actively stalking, chasing and finally killing a small bushbuck, duiker or similar sized animals is not going to help replace that energy but, a nice big juicy buffalo will!
Thing is though, that bigger animals are tougher to bring down and may even get away, so all that energy burnt for no good reason. As a result of this, lions have adapted to living in prides in order to cooperate in bring down larger game such as buffalo to satisfy the large energy requirement.
So basically, it’s because of the large game that lion live in prides. Clear right?
Lion have no sweat glands
Yup, it’s true. No sweat glands means running about during the heat of day is the quickest way for a lion to harm itself. And so most lions will spend the midday trying to stay cool, in fact, this sensitivity to heat goes a long way in determining lion behavior. Lions are more active at night because they run less risk of heat related injury. Very often they’ll also lay on their backs exposing their white belly to the sun, another trick to try stay cool. So if you’re looking for lions and it’s hot, keep that in mind.
Not all male lions have manes
Incredibly, there are male lions in some areas that do not have manes (not sure what this means for Disney’s the Lion King!). Still today there’s no real consensus on the purpose of a mane; beside making Simba look pretty damn majestic. Research has shown that female and male lions both react differently to manes, with females being drawn to darker manes, and male avoiding lions with longer manes – but there were enough variances to not result in a definitive answer.
There is a cost to a large mane as well, manes are usually dark, that means heat absorption, and for lions without sweat glands, this can’t be much fun at all. Research has shown that in warmer climates, the mane is far less noticeable compared to lions in cooler climates. In this age of climate change, as temperatures continue to increase, it may be that the cost to lions becomes too great and they loose their manes altogether!
Some have suggested that the mane functions as armor of sorts, that it protects the vulnerable neck around from injury. Problem with this idea is that it makes no sense to attack the neck area if it’s so well developed – and research bares this out with many injuries seen on the unprotected areas of the lions body – so rule that out.
There’s a good chance that the lions mane served a very real purpose 100’s of years ago, but that this need has over the years largely disappeared. Either which way, there’s no agreement on why the lion has a mane.
Lions are terrible hunters
So a little bit of an overstatement, but as amazing as that statement may sound, it’s pretty true. Lion are successful about 4 out of every 10 attempts. This is actually not surprising at all. Most prey animals don’t stand about waiting to be eaten, they’ve adopted tactics such as camouflage, speed and herding to avoid becoming a meal. This, as well as the problem of overheating in a land that’s typical hot, means the lion is already handicapped.
Lions are not above scavenging, if fact to survive they can’t be fussy eaters at all, I have personally seen them scavenging an giraffe, rhino and elephant carcasses, none of which were killed by predators but by other reasons.
They are also opportunistic hunters, that is if a nice juicy warthog, baboon, wildebeest or any other animal walks past a lion without seeing it, there is a good chance they’re lunch. A few years ago I watched as two females brought down a wildebeest that had got too close to their resting place – the exertion was so great they went back to sleep and only started feeding from the carcass many hours later.
Lions are also big, with small hearts in relation to there body weight, this translates to a slower top speed (around 60km/h) for a short duration, around 100 meters or so. With these limits, it means that a lot of possible prey animals are not really beneficial to lion if there’s a long and protracted chase and kill.
Lions have to get within 50 meters of their prey
Sort of. This idea comes from the fact that lions have limited stamina at top speed. So as a result they need to get as close to their prey as possible before being spotted. This figure is usually quoted as 50 meters (I still hear guides using this figure). I can’t comment on this I definitely haven’t seen enough stalks and kills to comment, but I can confirm that in my experience, if a lion is spotted within about 30 meters or so, they seem to break of the attack. I should point out that this is during daylight hours – the cooler nights may give rise to totally different behavior in this respect.
Both male and female lions hunt
This is an area I can comment on. I’m not sure where this idea comes from, but I’ve heard it said that only female lions hunt – this is simple not true. I can only think that this idea comes from the fact that when lions are spotted on the hunt, you usually see the females only.
The problem is, that although the males hunt, they may not be as evident as the females. It seems that females have their preferred places on hunts, like on the flanks and so they tend to get seen the most.
Males do hunt, they have to – in the case where males get displaced (as in a pride takeover) or where a lack of prey animals are created pressure, the male lions have to move and hunt while on the move. Often males in prides will also leave the pride for a short time, during this period that hunt as well, though their prey will be smaller in terms of body weight than before.
In both the Hluhluwe section and the Imfolozi section I have seen single males on the move and on two occasions, seen them on kills of warthog. They can and do hunt.
The lions at the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve weren’t all born at the park
It’s not common knowledge, but not all the lions you see in the park, were actually born in the park; some were brought in from other parks. A good is example is the lions in the Hluhluwe (northern) section – they were introduced.
The sad fact is today we have to have reserves to protect these animals – the problem is that the reserves are fenced off, meaning no lions (or other animals) can stroll out. These causes some unique issues, one of which, is the possibility that as your lion population grows, so does the chance that a lion may mate with a blood relation.
In order to try keep the gene pool as pure as possible, lion are moved about some. A few years ago two female lions from Tembe were introduced (and thereafter known as the Tembe girls) and three males from the Kalahari were also introduced (the Kalahari boys) – all too the Hluhluwe (northern) section. Three years later the move has seen some success, with the two females introducing their own litters – but the boys sadly have no survived, all three having been died from one reason or another.
*Update – I’m told that actually only 2 of the original 3 males have died, the third is still surviving happily.
Tips at a lion sighting
With any luck at all your patience will be rewarded with a lion sighting and you’ll get to enjoy watching these amazing animals feeding, playing or simply snoozing away. There are a few thing you need to be aware of though.
- I can’t believe I have to say this, but STAY IN YOUR VEHICLE! Can you believe I’ve actually seen people get out their vehicles to take better pictures or get a better view at a lion sighting. Besides being against the parks rules, it’s enormously dangerous, don’t do it!
- You can’t always see all the lions in a pride. That means if you found lion on the left hand side of the road, close all the windows to the right hand side of your vehicle. Lions, like other cats are curious, they have been know to investigate cars – you wouldn’t want your window down when that happened!
- Keep doors locked. Again, building on the fact that lions are curious, if they decided to chew on a car door handle, they could inadvertently open your car door – that’s going to ruin your day!
- When you come across a lion sighting, enjoy your view, take your photo’s but be mindful that you are not the only person at the sighting, others may also want to see so please, lets all be friendly and help one another ok.
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