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King of the Jungle

Over the past couple of years, I have been reading up on animals especially wild cats a lot. An interest sparked by the Animal Planet feature “Big Cats Diary”, it has been a very informative journey as every day I come across some new piece of information that I did not know. And even after so many years I still feel I know nothing about these wonderful animals. However, while talking to one of my friends recently, I realised that a lot of people are misinformed about cats no thanks to our myths and beliefs brought down through the ages and so decided to consolidate my little knowledge into one place for the benefit of my fellow beings. And what better family member to begin with than the king of them all – the lion.
The lion is one of the largest and most magnificent of all wild cats. It is also the most easily identifiable and to most people the very mention of the word lion brings into mind an image of a roaring male, a shaggy mane, teeth bared in all their majesty. The lion (Panthera leo) is one of the four big cats in the genus Panthera, and a member of the family Felidae. With some males exceeding 250 kg in weight, it is the second-largest living cat after the tiger. They also form one of the four roaring cats – the other three being tigers, leopards and jaguars. In fact, in a jungle, a lion’s roar can be heard even at a distance of 8kms and is known to whip up small sandstorms in the Savannah. What sets the lion apart from the rest is its way of life – the pride. All cats are territorial in nature and as a result solitary animals. While lions too are territorial in nature, the territory usually belongs to a whole pride of lions rather than a single animal. A pride typically consists of five to six related females, their cubs of both sexes and one or two adult males. However, prides even as large as 30 animals have been reported. Apart from this, adult males are often removed from their pride by the dominant male and roam the savannahs hunting and fending for themselves and attacking other pride lions in takeover bids. These lions are usually called nomads.

Lions chiefly inhabit the Savannah grasslands of Africa (African Lion) and a small region in the Rann of Kutch in India (Asiatic Lion). The Sasan Gir Sanctuary in India is, in fact, the only place in the world where the Asiatic Lion exists in the wild. Both the lion species are under threat. Unlike the tiger, which is hunted for its skin and body parts, however, the lion population is dwindling due to habitat destruction.

The Asiatic Lion is markedly smaller than its African relative. The anatomy of the lion is very much similar to the average house cat. Like all other cats, lions have supple spines allowing the animals to run very fast by alternately contracting and expanding the spine. This however takes so much energy that a lion has very low stamina. As such, it adopts the familiar hunting style of all cats, creeping up on its prey stealthily and then making the final run for it from close quarters. A pounce, a swipe and a bite are more than enough to fell even the largest of prey. Lions are known to hunt and kill even elephant calves. This gives rise to a constant feud where lions kill elephant calves for food and elephants kill lion cubs to avoid them growing up into lions and hunting their young one day. Only male lions have a mane. The mane usually grows when the lion is about 2 years old and is fully formed in about 2 years. Colours can range from brown to dark black. The thick hair of the mane have multiple purposes. First, they enhance the size of the male thus giving him a more fearsome appearance, a definite plus point in a head to head with a usurping male. Secondly, the mane also protects the lion’ s delicate neck region from attack by the teeth and claws of another male.

Lions in the wild live to an average age of only 10 years though there are records of lions that grew to be 15 years old. Usually males have a shorter longevity than females since they form the defence of the pride against marauding males and get injured, often fatally. The lion may be overthrown by a male from inside the pride or from a nomadic male. In either event, the matter is settled in a fight wherein the victor becomes the pride male while the loser is forced to leave the pride. Lionesses usually have longer longevity though they are also highly prone to getting injured in a takeover fight as often the lionesses also join the fight especially if there are many young cubs in the pride.

The lion’s jaws are extremely powerful. They have a set of four very sharp canine teeth that can bite through even the toughest skins while the musculature of the jaw allows the jaws to open very wide to allow the lion to even crack big bones to get at the flesh of the prey. Usually the lion kills it prey either by strangulation or by biting the neck and breaking the jugular vein, the common carotid or the spine. A lion, like other cats, has nerve endings in its jaw that allow the animal to detect when the perfectly spaced canines are placed exactly between the vertebrae of an animal to make the fatal bite. The hunting duties in a pride are shared almost exclusively by the lionesses. A half dozen or so animals quietly surround a herd of prey and slowly start drawing in the circle. Usually a weak animal is singled out – a youngster or an old or diseased adult. Lions are wary of attacking healthy adults especially males. This is because they chiefly hunt animals such as water buffalo, deer and wildebeests. These animals have deadly hooves and horns/antlers and a powerful adult male can actually injure or kill an adult lion when it fights for its life. As the circle draws in, the lionesses take care to always stay downwind not allowing their scent to reach the prey. When they are close enough, one of the lionesses charges out to herd the prey right into the mouths of her waiting sisters. The prey is swiftly brought down since a prolonged fight would not only result in loss of the prey but also casualties to the attackers. Four or five lionesses are usually sufficient to even bring down a water buffalo. The success of this extremely synchronised hunting technique however is also pretty low, the lionesses making a kill one in three times. Once the kill has been made, the hierarchy in the pride is very well defined. The lion who has up till now been watching from a safe distance, gets first right over the kill. He departs with, literally, a “lion’s share” of the prey, usually a choice hindquarter. A lion requires about 7 kgs of meat a day while a lioness requires about 5 kgs per day. However, lions can eat upto 30 kgs of meat in one sitting. The lionesses sometimes resist the lion but the strength of the male is enough to wrestle the prey away from even five or six females. Once the lion has left, the females feed on the prey. Only after the females have also eaten do the cubs get to eat. This results in younger cubs often dying of hunger since they are not capable of fighting for food. Contrary to popular belief, the lion is very tolerant towards his cubs and often is more likely to share his meat with his children than with the females of the pride. Lions, like other cats, don’t chew their food, instead swallowing it whole. They rest for long periods of time, an average of 20 hours a day. Though there is no set rule, lions are usually more active in the night since their heightened senses of sight, smell, hearing and touch give them a distinct edge over their prey. The tawny fur of the lion also helps them to camouflage with their natural surroundings. Having said that lionesses primarily hunt, one should not be under a misconception that lions cannot hunt. In fact, in their own right, lions are some of the most fearsome hunters. A healthy adult male on a hunt can single handedly bring down prey more than twice its size through sheer strength. Pride males usually do not hunt since they need to conserve energy for when they may be required to defend the pride from an attacker.

The family structure of lions comes in use not only for hunting but for reproduction too. Lions do not have a fixed mating season so lionesses usually sychronise their birthing cycles within a few days of each other. This helps in many ways. Firstly, since all cubs are of roughly the same age they grow up together so there is no problem of the bigger older cubs bullying the younger ones for food. Also. lions have a peculiar maternal system. When a lioness is about to give birth, she retreats to a cave or den. The birth is usually solitary and there may be one to four cubs in a litter. The mother shifts the cubs on a daily basis to protect them from predators, not unlike other members of the cat family. The cubs are assimilated into the main pride after they are about four to six months old. While a bit shy in the beginning, the cubs soon get used to the pride and often engage in games among themselves and with other adults. Most interestingly, lionesses share maternal feeding responsibilities. That is, all mothers share their milk among the cubs. This not only allows all cubs to have sufficient food (since a single mother with four cubs could run low on milk) but also allows the other lionesses to proceed with hunting for the pride while one or two lionesses stay back with the cubs.

Most misconceptions and myths surrounding lions are based on the male. For instance, the most popular – lions kill their young. The lion, in fact, is extremely protective about his cubs. The cubs enjoy a carefree life as all the adults in the pride actively protect them from harm. This increases the survival rates of these cubs though still on an average only half the cubs make it past the two year mark. Chief causes of this are starvation (since they are at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to feeding) and death due to predators or attacking males. When nomadic males overthrow the pride male, they usually kill all the cubs of the defeated male. This is done to ensure that the gene pool of the new pride male succeeds. Lionesses may defend their cubs but the weaker females are no match for a victorious male fresh from battle and usually all cubs younger than two years are killed. Often, young adults, male and female, are also evicted from the pride during takeovers.

Another very popular myth is that the lion is very lazy. Far from it. Lion prides usually have a huge territory and the pride lion’s main job is to mark it off and defend it. Every day the lion walks around his territory, marking it off through scent and by scratching the bark on trees. He also looks for signs of trouble in the form of attacking nomads. Apart from this the lion hardly does anything, instead preserving its energy in case the lion is called upon to defend the pride anytime. In fact, even lionesses rest close to 20 hours in a day. The entire pride usually finds a shaded spot under a tree to rest in the hot afternoon Savannah sun. Cubs usually play around among themselves as well as with the resting adults. Females are pretty tolerant towards the cubs especially if they have cubs of their own. Lions are a bit more unpredictable. While often a cub may play with the lion’s mane or tail without being reprimanded on another occasion the lion might show his displeasure by simply batting away the erring youngster. Lions usually are very aware of their strength around their cubs. Mothers, while lifting their cubs with the scruff of the neck, are careful not to injure the young. Similarly at playtime the adults always keep their claws retracted since the razor sharp claws can easily rip a young cub to shreds.

Lions express themselves to each other through physical activities. Most commonly, the adults as well as the cubs nuzzle and rub against each other as a mark of greeting and to gain familiarity. Like all other cats, lions hate to stay dirty and often engage in communal cleaning where they groom each other by licking the fur. All cats have large and extremely rough tongues. These act as combs to clean the fur as well as to lick the flesh off bones or while drinking water.

Before I close, one last myth that I want to dispel about lions – that they cannot climb trees. This myth was born out of the fact that unlike other members of the cat family, lions live in grasslands which have very few trees. So obviously, no one has seen them climb trees. The fact is that even lions are expert tree climbers and will often climb into lower branches of trees to rest and get respite from the blazing sun of the grassland. Often, the lions also climb onto trees to steal prey that a leopard may have hidden there. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the king of the jungle is a thief. But then who are we to judge? After all, desperate times bring out the worst in all of us.

I hope I have been able to do justice to this magnificent animal through this post. I invite the readers to comment on this post and/or ask questions. I honestly feel that these beautiful cats deserve to be understood better and this is my first attempt in that direction.

Coming up next – the Tiger.

Categories: Random Stuff
  1. 8 April 2010 at 11:43 IST

    That was one revealing post about the magnificient beasts. I am not a connoisseur of wildlife, but the way this has been written is very interesting, even to a lay person. I always used to wonder at the motion of lions when they run; now I know that it is because they contract and expand their spines! Wow!

    and I love the touch of philosophy: …. the king of the jungle is a thief. But then who are we to judge? After all, desperate times bring out the worst in all of us.

    Looking forward to the Tiger story.

    Btw, have pity on an my single working eye! 😦 is there some way i can increase the size of the fonts while commenting? Perhaps I should copy and paste them. But then, I like to go back to the text and comment on things I like.

    • Siddharth
      8 April 2010 at 12:24 IST

      Thanks for the comment Ma’am. To be honest I wasn’t expecting anyone to comment on this post since most people are either unaware of the fascinating fauna around us or simply apathetic towards it… As long as I get my roti, kapda, makaan (and mobile….ummmmm and internet 😉 ) i could not be bothered about whether the lion lives or the tiger dies… Guess we would only realise it when these apex predators are gone and our civilised lives are overrun by deer and the like, the populations of which these animals help keep in check… and by my reckoning that day is not very far off… With larger vote banks at stake the government is really not concerned about wildlife conservation… and the lay man is too busy trying to keep his life together to even care about whether wildlife survives or not. The handful of people in the world who really give a damn are so few and far apart that inspite of their best efforts it seems like they are fighting a losing battle. 😦 Unfortunate!

  2. 8 April 2010 at 19:15 IST

    What about my eye? Pl. take note and make some settings changes.

    • Siddharth
      8 April 2010 at 22:14 IST

      Unfortunately, it seems that one cannot adjust the font size in WP blogs hosted on WP.com itself… its theme dependent

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