NAME: Lee Whittam
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CURRENT COMPANY: Essential Africa
Lion sightings can vary hugely, depending on the time of day and pride dynamics. This particular experience happened late one afternoon in the southern Serengeti, when we spotted two large lionesses lying at the edge of a waterhole. We approached them, and positioned our vehicle in a perfect place for close-up viewing. Shortly after we had arrived, they began to stir and yawn – usually a sign that they’re about to move. Sure enough, a few minutes later they stood up, stretched, rubbed faces and started to walk slowly up an ancient river valley that fed into nearby Lake Masek.
The two lionesses moved unhurriedly through the chest-high grass, stopping occasionally to sniff the air and investigate rustles in the bush. We followed at a respectful distance, and after about 20 minutes they entered a thick stand of scrub. Almost immediately, seven sub-adult cubs of about a year old burst out of their hiding place and pounced on the pair. These cubs were most likely waiting for their mothers to return after a successful hunt – unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, so they continued to stalk, pounce and generally play very roughly with the lionesses.
We positioned ourselves so that the pride would walk right past our vehicle, giving us some superb close-up moments with them, before they headed towards a large flat-topped acacia tree so typical of this part of East Africa. The lionesses glanced up into the branches, probably looking for some respite from the boisterous cubs. Leaping up into the tree, they both lay along the boughs comfortably, feet and tails dangling just out of reach of the cubs who tried but failed to climb up after them. The next best option for the younger ones was a game of stealth, stalking each other intently and pouncing to deliver the “killing bite” to the nape of the neck. This is always entertaining to watch, and from time to time they would leap skywards, cuffing with oversized paws, and sink back down into the lush grass to roll around and overpower each other.
During all this activity, the pride male had been lying a short distance away, watching the antics of the cubs and at the same time keeping an eye on a nearby vehicle that was bogged down in a marshy area. Its occupants were trying valiantly to dig the vehicle out but weren’t having much success! We stayed with the pride for the remainder of the afternoon, watching the younger ones expending their considerable energy before settling down at sunset. Leaving them, we returned to the lodge, and the following morning we heard on the radio that the lionesses had managed to pull down a wildebeest, and were now enjoying their rewards.
At this time of year in the southern Serengeti, the predators have it fairly easy as hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra flood the area. This makes hunting a relatively simple affair. For this particular pride, and others in the area, the time of plenty should continue until about March, when the herds swing northwest towards the Grumeti River and ultimately make their way to Kenya’s Maasai Mara. When this happens, lions turn their attention to remaining smaller game, like warthogs and impalas, and this is often when large prides split into groups to making hunting more efficient, giving them a better chance of making it through the comparatively lean times before the migratory herds return. One thing was obvious about this particular pride - the females were excellent hunters. All the cubs were healthy, well fed and full of mischief, which bodes well for their survival. It also provided us with some great sightings, and a real insight into their daily lives.