I remember a story told to me by trackers that has sat in the forefront of my mind and filled my heart with pride every time I think of what it must have been like to witness it. Now the details of the story have changed from tracker to tracker over the years and it was before my time in the Sands but still a story I would love to share by their descriptions. But first, I have also added in my podcast of this very blog so give it a listen or continue reading for more.
It was a story of a male lion who was part of a coalition of 5 brothers. This is an incredibly formidable group and certainly not to be messed with. The trackers spoke about how the morning began and how one of the brothers had separated from the group to routinely mark his territory, check on the lionesses within his territory and keep an eye out for any other male lion intruders coming into his and his brothers prized territory. It was a standard male lion sighting as they watched the lion mark his territory and every so often let out a low contact call looking for females. However this somewhat peaceful morning exploded into immense violence within seconds as stunned onlookers watched another 5 lions come bursting out the bush in an ambush attack and started mauling the lone male. He somehow managed to fight back just enough, even though being grossly outnumbered, to run away as best he could. The other 5 males chased after him managing to catch him time and time again as he managed to fend them off time and time again. However things took an even worse turn for the lone male as he ran himself into a steep embankment where rain had washed away a steep and muddy bank and of course the 5 intruders quickly had him surrounded and trapped having stabs at the now exhausted and bloody lone male. Everyone looking was certain that this was the end but as a last attempt the lone male roared as did the intruders in a show of dominance. As the clock began count its last seconds for the lone male as second explosion of roaring came from behind the trapped male as his 4 brothers came thundering out of the bushes and with no hesitation began a full scale mauling of the 5 intruders. Apparently within seconds it was over and the unwanted 5 loins were out of there in a flash and the 5 dominant brothers began a low growl and head rubbing in their greeting and reaffirming their bond as the injured male walked away with just a few battle scars.
So when I get asked about lion coalitions this story sums it all up beautifully. In short, it is because there is strength in numbers. However as one could expect there is far more to it than that. In this write up I would like to use what I have been taught, what I have read and what I have actually experienced through out my conservation and guiding experience to explore everything we can about lion behaviour and in particular the coalitions.
Why group together as a coalition - the full story explained.
To understand why male lions tend to group together, better known as forming male lion coalitions, you not only need to understand the psyche of the male lion a little better, but also what it is they are destined to achieve. A male lion's entire reason for existing is rather simple and comes down to one, single thing.
Reproduce & protect their offspring.
Life for a male lion is tough! For the first 2.5 - 3.5 years of their life they have it relatively easy (compared to what's coming their way). They'll be a part of the pride and due to their size & brute strength, they tend to dominate some key aspects of life in the pride. Male lion cubs are larger & stronger than their female counterparts. This makes them more assertive at carcasses and they tend to stamp down their dominance whenever food is on offer. Interactions at kill sites are tense & there's no sharing whatsoever. As they reach the age of 2 they become intolerable around a carcass, to the point that lionesses won't bother getting involved, even though they would have worked hard to kill the animal for the young males. This is especially true if there's are 2, 3 or more young males in the pride. They need not work all that hard when hunting prey as they know the adult lionesses and very often, their own sisters, will do much of the hard work for them.
They don't get away with as much whenever their father is around though. The dominant male/s in the pride will be quick to educate the young energetic males on social manners, firmly putting them in their place & reminding them of their position in the pride. Pride males need to be more aggressive towards these young males. Without that authority figure in the pride the young males will become a force to be reckoned with and when the time comes to leave the pride, there won't be any dominant lions to assert this message.
This is where life becomes really, really tough for a young male lion.
When they really start showing signs of adulthood - larger manes, changes in testosterone - the pride males (and even females) will show the young males nothing but aggression. It's meant to drive home the signal that it's time to leave the pride and forge a legacy of their own. They are no longer welcome within the pride lands. Ideally, there's more than one young male in the pride. Being on your own in a foreign land is extremely challenging. Hopefully a couple of brothers or related young males can leave the pride together as a unit.
This, is the beginning stages of what could become a coalition of male lions, a brotherhood so strong in bond & friendship that nothing can separate them. They'll stand together through the harshest of times. The more time these young males spend together, the stronger the bond & the more chance of success they'll have at a later stage.
They typically leave the pride at around 3 years of age, give or take. There's no place of refuge for them. The moment they step foot out of their natal range they'll have big red flickering targets on their backs. In areas like Kruger National Park, the Masai Mara & the Serengeti, there's no place to hide from rival male lions. The lion population is simply too dense and every inch of land is occupied by a pride & territorial male lions. Male lions will go out of their way to protect their territories from these rogue young intruders. They'll hunt them down the moment they sense the invaders are moving around within their lands. They can smell them, they can see the odd carcass left behind, all clues that invaders are present and need to be dealt with. This is a massive challenge for young male lions kicked out of a pride - avoiding being killed by the landowners becomes their sole task & means of survival.
Then there's another massive hurdle for them. The very real threat of starvation.
While they were a part of the pride, the bulk of the hunting would have been done by the lionesses and on occasion, the adult male lions. They would have been a part of hunts. They'll know what to do and perhaps they've even played more crucial roles in killing prey. But, now that they are completely on their own and self-sustained, the game of hunting & finding food is far more challenging.
If they hunt in prey-dense regions they are bound to bump into other territorial lions intent on doing the same, a type of conflict they need to avoid in all earnest. This leaves them to find meals in less-populated areas and this is no easy task. You'll often hear of lions killing cattle on the outskirts of national parks. More often than not these young nomadic males are responsible, cattle presenting a far easier meal than fleet-footed impala. It does however come with serious consequences as many will be persecuted for killing valuable livestock, the only outcome being death.
They also don't know the lay of the land. You'll be surprised to learn just how much lions make use of their knowledge of the land in order to hunt. Key prey species such as wildebeest, zebra and buffalo have specific areas they favour - perhaps nutritious feeding grounds or specific areas where they like to hunker down for the evening. Knowing the land and knowing the habits of the prey occupying it is key to a successful hunt. Even seasonal changes bring about different movements within prey populations, and the resident lions know this well.
The young males on their own however have no clue and constantly find themselves on the back-foot when hunting. They'll be in foreign territory and without key knowledge on the area & the movements of their prey, will be left in trouble more often than not. They'll very often scavenge from old carcasses or steal kills from other predators such as leopard, hyenas or cheetahs. Any meal will be considered.
This will be their life, under constant pressure, always threatened, always under cover until they reach the age of 5 years old. This is when they enter their prime and when things start to change.
That's a long way off though and most young males will not make it to the age where they can compete for territory against larger, more dominant males.
Are members within male lion coalitions always related?
This is an important question to ask. Mistakenly, many people think that male lion coalitions are always related - brothers or cousins. This however is not always the case.
Think of the story of a single young male lion being kicked out of the pride and destined to fend for himself with the goals of eventually becoming a dominant pride male. The odds are set against him, especially in a region as lion-dense as Kruger, Serengeti, the Delta and the Masai Mara. A single male lion will often face adversity in the form of neighbouring male lion coalitions, and seldom have success at defending their territory when they are mostly outnumbered. It makes far more sense to be a part of a group of males - both to survive the few years after leaving the pride & also to be more successful at defending the territory they may one day possess.
For this reason it's not uncommon to see lone young male lions teaming up with other lone males, or even being accepted into a young coalition. It makes sense both for the young male and for the emerging coalition. The young male gets to be a part of a group with better chances of hunting success during those early years, and a better chance of taking over a territory of their own. The coalition benefits from allowing a single male to join, in order to bolster their numbers for the same reasons as just mentioned.
What are the benefits of a coalition?
- As a large group of male lions, you have the ability to drive off single male lions or even smaller coalitions and in so doing, you are able to take over territory much sooner in your life, from as young as 4 years old. This means you can get going earlier with the only thing that matters for a male lion - reproduction & claiming territory.
- During the early years (pre-territory), you are more successful at hunts, an important aspect of survival once you leave your pride. You can also defend yourself more effectively against rival other lions.
- A larger coalition of lions like this can also kill larger prey like buffalo, giraffe & hippo. This creates more suitable meal opportunities and allows you to grow strong, readying yourselves for the time when you take over prides and territory. You need to be in top condition when you begin to take territory and this certainly helps.
- A larger coalition will eventually rule over a larger territory. This means they'll have access to more than 1 pride of lionesses giving the males more mating opportunities. This is especially true in areas where lion numbers are high - East Africa and Kruger come to mind. Most large coalitions reign over 2 or 3 different prides at the same time.
- Large coalitions will be more challenging to topple. A single male lion or coalition of 2 or 3, will have a hard time breaking up and dethroning a group of 5 or 6 male lions. The larger coalition is favoured and they tend to hold territory and mating rights for much longer. It's a massive advantage. It means there's less competition & less fights. In turn this means a longer life for male lions in a large coalition.
What are the negatives?
On the flip side, there's gotta be some negatives to being in such a large coalition. Although the benefits are big & worthwhile, there are 2 serious challenges that come along with this arrangement.
- As the size of the territory increases, so does the workload in defending it all. It's impossible for male lions to be everywhere at all times. Why is this important? Rogue male lions and cross-border competitors will always be a threat. It may not threaten the coalition of males directly, but their prides and more importantly cubs may be left alone & unprotected. To protect a territory encompassing 2 or 3 prides is a massive task. The Mapogo coalition of males from the Sabi Sands had a territory over 70 000 hectares in size. Massive & impossible to fully protect at all times and very vulnerable to infanticide.
- There are more males per each reproductive lioness. This presents a challenge as there's more competition for males to reproduce, so less mating opportunity. It typically works on a first-come-first-served basis. Males tend to respect "the first one" although they'll keep a close eye on the courting pair. A male lion will start guarding a female at the very first signs of oestrus and therefore if you're a day or two late, it means you'll have very little chance of mating. Your only hope as a male that's lost out on an opportunity, is to hang around and wait for the male in charge to lose interest. They sometimes do so before the lionesses's oestrus period has ended, and this gives another male up to 20% chance of siring cubs, even though he was second in line.
There are other challenges that face male lion coalitions but these 2 mentioned above are key and most noteworthy. If your sole purpose in life is to reproduce and sire cubs that'll take forth your bloodline, it's important to protect those cubs at all costs. If you fail to do that, all is certainly lost.
Infanticide Explained & Pride Takeovers
As you will have read in my previous question, it's common practise for male lions to kill the cubs of other male lions.
A first example of this would be the time period within which a new coalition of male lions establish themselves. It's a tense period and filled with all sorts of behaviour (protective, defensive, confusion) both from the new rogue males to the lionesses on the receiving end of it all, and most importantly the young cubs.
It all starts with new male lions moving in to a territory and displacing the current territory owners. In the example of the Mapogo male lion coalition, they moved into the Sabi Sands and eventually took over 8 prides. A crazy figure. An almost larger task than securing the territory is getting the lionesses to trust you and embrace you as their new pride males. This is no easy task and extremely stressful.
Every pride member will be safe, with the exclusion of the following.
- Any young lion under the age of 12 - 18 months will either be killed or chased off. It's an estimate age but the next statement will explain.
- Lionesses of reproductive age will likely be spared. The new male lions have no intentions of raising cubs from a previous ruler. There's no point. Why would you want to invest energy into siring the cubs of a different lion. So if a young lioness is of mating age she'll likely be spared the onslaught and accepted.
- Any young male lion in the pride will be killed or chased away, irrespective of age.
I have seen & it's been documented that lionesses with young cubs will often hide their cubs from the intruding male. They'll keep them well isolated & out of harms way. This however does not guarantee the safety of the young cubs. With new pride males out to kill all cubs and with no hope of returning to the pride, it's an uncertain and short-lived future. A lioness might remove herself from the pride completely but this separates her from the pride support and puts her in no-mans land. Also a less than ideal situation for her. The new males can keep the lionesses within the pride so busy that it could take days and even more than a week before the mother with young cubs can return to them to feed them. In this case it's often too late.
A better idea would be when some of the lionesses with cubs split from the pride with their cubs, and form a new pride over time. This has been done and I have seen it take place with success.
There's no way around the hardships a pride will face when new males take over. If they have cubs in the direct line of fire it'll disrupt the pride structure in an immense manner, far from ideal for a social cat that enjoys structure and stability.
Male lions are incredible beings. For me, they represent the ultimate symbol of strength, of dignity, of honour. They will fight to the death, no hesitation or concern for self. They give all that they have and that's inspiring to say the very least.
The male lion coalitions will come & go with time, an average tenure of male lions within a territory being 2 - 4 years. Their role, however short lived, should not be forgotten or underestimated. A stable coalition of male lions will safeguard the pride & the stability means young comes will be raised to adulthood.
Its tough being a male lion. All the more reason to keep your relationships strong and your enemies out. There is a lot at stake and much to fight for, even die for. This is another reason why they are known as the 'king of the jungle'.
I hope this gave you a really good insight into the struggles and hardships of lions. Check out the links below for the best safaris to view lions and coalitions and join us to witness their lives unfold first hand.
If you have any questions please shout :) Otherwise take care fro now.
Masai Mara's Great Migration, Kenya
The deadly river crossings are tough but lions lurk in the long grass as the wildebeest fight for survival. Watch the lion prides and structures adapt to the harsh environment of the East African savannas.
Mala Mala, Mashatu, Southern Africa
In these areas there is a large density of lion among other cats. This means lots of competition and the fight for territory and defending young has just gone to a new level. Join us to view these coalitions defend their prized lands.
Best Of Mana Pools, Zimbabwe
Watch the lion prides fight it out in the famous Zambezi valley.
Sabi Sabi Wildlife Photographic Seminar
How about trying out your hand at learning the top techniques in how to capture the best male lion shot? How about doing it in the incredible Sabi Sabi with our top Wild Eye guides?