What can I say about lions? For starters, hopefully Daniel won’t be too embarrassed for me to admit that we spent about an hour a day while on safari singing songs from The Lion King, plus roughly another half hour per day on The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Technically I did most of the singing, although he was instrumental in providing lyrics for at least two Lion King songs. Speaking of which, some Lion King trivia for you: Simba is the Swahili word for lion. Hakuna matata literally means “no problem” in Swahili and people in East Africa actually do say it all the time, not just for tourists as I originally thought.
Anyway, on to some more relevant information. Lions really are the kings of almost any area that they inhabit. They have no natural predators. Their only real threats are humans (it is possible in some game parks to buy a license to hunt lions); their prey (or the parents of their prey), which may injure them in self-defense; and other lions (male lions will fight each other to the death, and a male lion that takes over another’s pride will usually kill all of the former leader’s male offspring and sometimes his female offspring as well).
Lions are the largest cats in Africa — females weigh 250 – 400 lbs, and males can weigh up to 550 lbs — and I think the loudest — a male lion’s roar is audible to the human ear from up to five miles away. They’re not the fastest, but they’re still fast — female lions can run up to 45 – 50 mph. They can’t sustain that speed for long, though, so their hunting method is usually to stalk and ambush their prey in groups. A lion can eat up to 60 lbs of meat in one sitting, but then can go two weeks or so without any food at all.
On safaris that I’ve been on before, we often haven’t seen any lions at all or have only seen them behind bushes or from far away. On Daniel’s first day and a half on safari, the closest we got to a lion was this print:
But then our guide got a tip from another guide and we discovered this lovely lady, taking the whole “king (or queen, as the case may be) of the jungle” thing pretty seriously on her hilltop throne:
She could give lessons on how to pull off the gazing-off-into-nowhere-majestically “candid.”
We also found her male counterpart hanging out in the grass on the other side of where we had parked to watch her. It was the closest I had ever gotten to a male lion and I couldn’t believe how much he looked like a furry stuffed animal. Except huge. Oh, and potentially deadly.
The following day, we were on our way out of Serengeti when our guide (who was blessed with superhuman vision) thought he spotted “something” in this tree:
“Something” turned out to be six lions, just chilling in the tree, which is actually pretty unusual — lions are pretty good climbers, but unlike leopards, they don’t typically prefer to hang out in trees or to climb them at all except when necessary.
Lion-palooza continued the next day in Ngorongoro. We saw a cub following its mom into the trees, and then watched two prides of lions relaxing in the grass. Lions usually sleep or rest for up to 20 hours a day.
The baby was making a noise that sounded just like a house cat meow-ing.
This guy was intently watching some gazelles grazing. They must have felt that they were at a safe distance, because they didn’t seem the least bit bothered.
Another male lion sauntered over, and they had this face-to-face confrontation where we thought they might fight …
… but it it turned out that they just wanted to snuggle.
More sleepy lions:
We were lucky to get really close to these ones when they started to wake up:
We were very, very satisfied with our lion-sighting record by this time, but we got treated to one more lion-surprise in Ngorongoro, which was seeing lions hunting a buffalo. Unfortunately I didn’t get great photos of it — a combination of the movement, being a little bit far away, and spending much more time watching through binoculars than taking pictures. But anyway, before I get into that, let me give you a little intro to the African buffalo, which I think doesn’t always get much respect because it looks kind of like a big cow. It is actually only distantly related to domestic cattle, and I think also not closely related to American or Asian species of buffalo. It is usually around five feet tall at the shoulder and up to 11 feet long from head to tail, with horns that can be over three feet wide. It weighs between one and two thousand lbs.
In person, the buffalo looks huge, but not that scary. In reality, buffalo are extremely dangerous when cornered or injured, and are also considered very unpredictable. They supposedly are known to charge without warning at times. They ordinarily travel in herds, and when one member is threatened the entire herd may attack. Although they look slow, they can actually run up to 35 mph.
We saw our first buffalo in Serengeti — a bachelor wandering around on his own.
In the Crater, we had been watching lions sleep for a while when our guide spotted one walking towards a group of grazing animals that included zebra, wildebeest, antelopes, and buffalo. As far as I could tell, she was just walking (and not particularly stealthily, from my perspective) — but he said, “she looks like she wants to hunt something,” so we watched.
As she got closer to the buffalo, other lions appeared on the other side of the buffalo (I guess that was the stealth part) and they were able to isolate one pretty quickly.
The next thing we knew, the lions were on top of one of the buffalo. Lions usually kill by strangling, either by grabbing the neck or by covering their prey’s mouth with their own, but they will bite and scratch and jump on the animal’s back to slow it down and / or bring it to the ground where it can be killed more easily.
The attack went on for several minutes, with the buffalo fighting back hard at first and then slowly succumbing. By the end, it looked like the lions had him (there were SO many of them!) — but then out of nowhere, he was reenergized and was able to break free and run away.
At this point, I would have expected (based on absolutely nothing) that the buffalos would have run away from the lions and the lions would have retreated for the time being. But instead, each group stood its ground for a while in a kind of epic-feeling lion vs. buffalo face off. Zebras, wildebeest, and antelopes just watched, apparently realizing that they weren’t going to be caught in the crossfire (or possibly just not smart enough to realize that they might be).
Then one of the buffalo charged into the pack of about 15 lions and started to fight them, I guess to send a message and protect the rest of the herd. This new fight also went on for a few minutes before the buffalo returned to the herd to engage in face-off part two.
It wasn’t until this point, when the best part was over, that it occurred to me to take video, but one of the lions generously decided to make one more half-hearted go at the buffalo and so I did get something on tape (do people still say that in the digital age?). For some reason, the video won’t upload so instead I’m posting a bunch of blurry stills taken from the video just to give you an idea. My quick description of what’s happening — (1) Lions, buffalo, and other animals are all standing around staring at each other. Wildebeest decides for some reason that now is the time to run away. Zebras follow. (2) Buffalo decide to run away as well. Lions follow half-heartedly. (3) Two lions actually start running after the various herds of animals. (4) One lion falls behind, the other starts seriously booking it (check out that extension!). (5) Serious lion overtakes zebras, then catches up to and overtakes buffalo. (6) Serious lion realizes that she is alone and stops; looks around as if to say, “really, ladies, no back-up?”
This is the injured buffalo from the original attack. From this angle, you can’t see the scratches on his back (which actually didn’t look that bad — buffalo’s skin can be up to two inches thick in places, and apparently that is pretty effective in warding off lion attacks) but you can see paw prints on his side.
Here’s the whole herd, after finally putting some distance between themselves and the lions.
And two of the lions, heading back to a resting spot after the unsuccessful hunt.
If you’re interested in seeing more lion vs. buffalo (with a little bit of crocodile action thrown in), this YouTube video is pretty amazing.