On Safari: Crater Lions

On Safari: Crater Lions

LionWithCub.640.apr14.mmichelAs she dragged the wildebeest from where it had been killed we could see that much of it had yet to be eaten, despite her belly which looked ready to explode.  She stopped often, panting and hyperventilating not from the exertion of the pull but from her insides trying to digest 50 pounds of unchewed meat.

She had to get a drink.  If lions don’t flood themselves with water after gorging themselves their gastro-intestinal system freezes up and they die.

The number of beautifully black maned lions that we saw in the crater today was incredible.   Like the leopard in Manyara they had done very well in the unusual dry period of the last several months.  That’s ended big time.  The crater was as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it, lots of pure white tissue paper flowers popping out of the thick grass, flamingos at last comfortable in Lake Magadi now that it was deep enough, and all the brooks including Muinge babbling uncontrollably.

In fact Muinge was raging and Tumaini thought a couple times before plowing our cruiser through it.  Piece of cake, although I think Adrienne and Neil thought their safari might have been turning into a failing cruise.

Interestingly, as beautiful and verdant the crater was today, there were fewer animals than when I was here three weeks ago at the end of a near drought.  I expect that before it starting downpouring about a week ago, they’d left for the Serengeti.  Hope so.  We’ll be there tomorrow.

But lions were everywhere.  The near mini-drought is like Thanksgiving for the cats, so many animals are weakened and easy to bring down.

Now that the rains have come there won’t be quite as many big bellies all the time.  The density of lion in the crater remains at an optimum, despite the serious decline in lion populations continent-wide.  So competition will increase, fights will ensue, prides will be broken up and reassembled.

That’s what I think we were seeing with the lioness dragging the wilde.

Both Justin and I first thought that she was part of a larger pride that had killed the wilde much earlier, and that the other lions had gone to drink leaving her to guard the kill.  It’s possible this is what we saw, but if there were males in her pride, those are the ones that usually stay behind not a female.

We stayed with her for some time.  Despite her hyperventilation and random pacing, she just wouldn’t leave the kill.  Then we watched her start to drag it.

Lions do hide kills from time to time, but she was out in the wide, wide open.  There was no way she was going to drag it far enough to hide.  There was a ridge she was headed for but that would hardly conceal it from the many jackals, hyaenas and vultures we’d already seen.

Dragging the kill revealed that not a lot of it had been eaten, at least not as much that would have been taken by a complete pride.  The flanks were still intact, little was taken from the neck and all the limbs were still attached.  This suggested she’d made the kill herself and eaten alone.

Then in a truly remarkable display after tucking the carcass under the ridge she backtracked to where the take-down had probably happened.  She started scraping the ground like a kitty cat covering her litter.  She followed the whole dragged path back to the wilde, stopping I suppose wherever there was blood or hair to scrape dirt over it.  She was definitely trying to hide her kill.

What does this mean?  We’ll never know for sure, but here’s a good possibility:

When the fat and sassy season ends, the competition and accompanying stress often breaks apart the crater prides that live so close together.  The pride master(s), the great males, move from pride to pride seeking the easiest life.  Females usually initiate the hunt and effect the take-down, but Daddy’s the first to eat.

When new males come into a pride they kill all the existing cubs.  This infanticide typical of many animals triggers the now childless females into estrus and allows the current male to dominate the new gene pool.

But this isn’t some prearranged ceremony.  Most females try to protect their cubs.  Experienced females sensing that new pride masters are ready to take over sometimes remove themselves and their cubs from the pride before it happens.  I’ve even seen a very large female fend off a male in a terrible fight and after wounding him, gathering her cubs and running quickly away.

The lady we were watching was very large.  She would have been experienced.  Before then going out to hunt alone she would have instructed the cubs to stay behind.  Now she wanted to drink then bring the cubs back to the kill, but being a lone mom she’d have no help protecting the kill in that critical interval.

To us the crater is one of the great paradises of Africa.  The rainbow of colorful wild flowers, the huge splashes of white and grey cloud that stretch around the undulating rim towering above a veld filled always with so many animals is like a little packaged bit of heaven.

But the crater’s no little packaged bit of heaven.  Its beauty may be unrivaled but its biomass is packed, pulsing with tension.

It’s not easy for a 250-pound lion to bring down a 350-pound wildebeest alone then have to walk away from the feast with so much still left.  But then it wasn’t easy to save those little cubs.  I hope she made it back in time.