Yet the lion life is not an easy one. While wild lions face certain dangers, the lifestyle of lion prides also bring important milestones associated with the lion life cycle. Wild lions reproduce approximately every two years, producing litters after a gestation period of days. At sexual maturity, which occurs near three years of age, some female lions remain with the pride while others join another pride or become solitary. All male lions leave the pride at three years old. The lion lifespan is approximately eight to 10 years in the wild but can exceed 25 years in captivity.
Like all mammals, the lion lifespan begins with sexual reproduction. Female lions, or lionesses, have irregular reproductive cycles with fertile periods lasting three to four days. During that time, the lioness mates with one of the male lions from the pride as often as every 20 minutes. Once pregnant, lions gestate for approximately days and usually birth litters of two to four cubs, although a litter can include between one cub and six cubs. While lions in captivity may breed every year, wild lions only mate every two years or even less frequently. Lion cubs emerge completely blind and covered with thick fur with dark spots that disappear as they age.
Newborn cubs are dependent on their mothers and remain in their care for approximately two years. However, this maternal care is not very careful, and lionesses may leave their cubs alone for an entire day, resulting in a very high mortality rate among lion cubs under two years of age. They noted where the lions congregated, who was eating how much of what, who had mated, who was wounded, who survived and who died.
They described interactions at kills. It was slow going, even after they put radio collars on several lions in Following prides at night—the animals are largely nocturnal—he sometimes thought he would go mad. Still, they began to see how prides functioned. Yet lions band together without fail to confront and sometimes kill intruders.
Larger groups thus monopolize the premier savanna real estate—usually around the confluence of rivers, where prey animals come to drink—while smaller prides are pushed to the margins. He and Pusey realized this after scrutinizing groups of nursing mothers for countless hours. An alert lioness reserves her milk for her own offspring. During takeovers by outside males, solitary females lost litter after litter, while cooperating lionesses stood a better chance of protecting their cubs and fending off males, which can outweigh females by as much as 50 percent.
Surviving cubs go on to perpetuate the bloody cycle. Males reared together typically form a coalition around age 2 or 3 and set out to conquer prides of their own. Hard-living males rarely live past age 12; females can reach their late teens. As we crossed the plains one morning, the Land Rover—broken speedometer, no seat belts, cracked side mirrors, a fire extinguisher and a roll of toilet paper on the dashboard—creaked like an aged vessel in high seas.
We plowed through oceans of grasses, mostly brown but also mint green, salmon pink and, in the distance, lavender; the lions we hunted were a liquid flicker, a current within a current. The landscape on this day did not look inviting. Sections of the giant sky were shaded with rain. Zebra jaws and picked-clean impala skulls littered the ground. Packer and a research assistant, Ingela Jansson, were listening through headphones for the ping-ping-ping radio signal of collared lions.
Jansson, driving, spotted a pride on the other side of a dry gully: six or seven lions sitting slack-jawed in the shade. Neither she nor Packer recognized them.
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Jansson had a feeling they might be a new group. Jansson found what seemed to be a decent crossing spot, by Serengeti standards, and angled the truck down. We roared across the bed and began churning up the other side. Packer, who is originally from Texas, let out a whoop of triumph just before we lurched to a halt and began to slide helplessly backward. We came to rest at the bottom, snarled in reeds, with only three wheels on the ground, wedged between the riverbanks as tightly as a filling in a dental cavity.
Jansson stepped out of the truck, long blond ponytail whipping around, dug at the wheels with a shovel and spade, and then hacked down reeds with a panga, or straight-blade machete. Earlier I had asked what kind of anti-lion gear the researchers carried. Packer is not afraid of lions, especially Serengeti lions, which he says have few encounters with people or livestock and have plenty of other things to eat. He says he once ditched a mired Land Rover within ten feet of a big pride and marched in the opposite direction, his 3-year-old daughter on his shoulders, singing nursery school songs all the way back to the Lion House.
Packer never tried such a stunt with son Jonathan, now 22, although Jonathan was once bitten by a baboon. Packer and Pusey divorced in ; she returned to studying chimpanzees. Not being handy with a panga, I was sent a short distance down the riverbed to gather stones to wedge under the wheels.
I could not decide whether I should creep or sprint. As I bent to claw stones out of the ground, I knew suddenly, with complete, visceral certainty, why Tanzanian villagers might rather be rid of these animals. After more than an hour of reed-whacking, stone-wedging and wrestling with mud ladders placed under the tires to provide traction, the vehicle finally surged onto the far side of the ditch.
Jansson looked through binoculars, taking note of their whisker patterns and a discolored iris here and a missing tooth there. She determined this was the seldom-seen Turner Springs pride. Some of the sun-dazed lions had bloodstains on their milky chins. The first true lion probably padded over the earth about , years ago, and its descendants eventually ruled a greater range than any other wild land mammal. They penetrated all of Africa, except for the deepest rain forests of the Congo Basin and driest parts of the Sahara, and every continent save Australia and Antarctica.
In the Grotte Chauvet, the cave in France whose 32,year-old paintings are considered among the oldest art in the world, there are more than 70 renderings of lions. Sketched in charcoal and ocher, these European cave lions—maneless and, according to fossil evidence, 25 percent bigger than African lions—prance alongside other now-extinct creatures: mammoths, Irish elk, woolly rhino. Some lions, drawn in the deepest part of the cave, are oddly colored and abstract, with hooves instead of paws; archaeologists believe these may be shamans.
The French government invited Packer to tour the cave in This was somebody who was viewing them in a very cool and detached way. This was somebody who was studying lions. Prehistoric human beings, with their improving hunting technologies, probably competed with lions for prey, and lion subspecies in Europe and the Americas went extinct.
Other subspecies were common in India and Africa until the s, when European colonists began killing lions on safaris and clearing the land. Though devastatingly poor, the nation is a reasonably stable democracy with huge tracts of protected land.
But the Serengeti is the exception. The use of lion parts in folk medicines is another concern; as wild tigers disappear from Asia, scientists have noticed increasing demand for leonine substitutes. The central issue, though, is the growing human population. Tanzania has three times as many residents now—some 42 million—as when Packer began working there. The country has lost more than 37 percent of its woodlands since In the s, as Tanzanians plowed large swaths of lion territory into fields, lion attacks on people and livestock rose dramatically.
Kissui said five lions nearby had recently died after eating a giraffe carcass laced with tick poison. A month earlier, lions had killed three boys, ages 4, 10 and 14, herding livestock, but that was in a village 40 miles away. As the number of people increases, we take the land that would have been available to the wildlife and use it for ourselves.
Africa has one billion people now. Think about what that one billion implies in terms of the future of lions. We are heading into a very complicated world. Young men from pastoral tribes no longer care to tend cattle, Kissui says. Packer and his students have shown that lions tend to target livestock tended by boys during the dry season. Packer, Kissui and other scientists are experimenting with ways to keep people and lions safe. Special funds repay herders for lost livestock—if no lion is harmed.
They have suggested that corn farmers in southern Tanzania hang chili peppers in their fields, which repel the bush pigs that lions relish, or dig ditches around their crops to keep the pigs out. And Packer is assisting Kissui with a program that subsidizes herdsmen who want to replace their bramble-enclosed paddocks with fences of metal and wood. In Manyara we visited Sairey LoBoye, a study participant.
He was attired in stunning blue blankets and talking on his cellphone. LoBoye is a member of the Maasai tribe, whose traditional culture centers on safeguarding cattle: teenagers spear lions as a rite of passage. LoBoye said he simply wanted lions to leave him alone. Packer argues that the Serengeti, like some South African parks, should be surrounded by an electric, elephant-proof, heavily patrolled fence that would encompass the whole wildebeest migration route and keep the lions in and the poachers out. The idea has little support, in part because of the tens of millions of dollars it would cost to erect the barrier.
Packer and Susan James, a former business executive he married in , founded a nonprofit organization, Savannas Forever, which is based in Arusha and monitors the quality of rural village life. The hope is that improving the standard of living will bolster local conservation efforts and give lions a better shot at survival. I feel like I owe this country something. So years from now there will still be lions in Tanzania. Before I left the Serengeti, Packer took me to see a fig tree that had served for decades as a lion scratching post.
As we drove across the savanna, graduate student Alexandra Swanson fiddled with a radio scanner, searching for signals from radio-collared lions, but we heard only static. The tree was on a kopje, one of the isolated piles of rocks in the grasslands that are popular lion haunts. Packer wanted to climb up for a better look. Lulled, perhaps, by the silence on the scanner, I agreed to accompany him. He pointed at a shadowy crevice beneath the fig tree, about 20 feet away. Then I saw one tiny, yellow, heart-shaped face, and then another, bright as dandelions against the gray rocks.
Golden eyes blinked at us.
Young cubs are almost completely helpless and can starve or be eaten by hyenas if left alone too long. One of the cubs was clearly horrified by our presence and shrank behind its braver sibling, which arranged itself in a princely fashion on the rocks to enjoy these strange, spindly, cringing creatures. They were perfect fleecy things. Their coats had a faint tiled pattern that would fade away with time. That night we camped beside the kopje, Swanson and I in the bed of the Land Rover and Packer in a flimsy tent.
I kept thinking of the cubs in the crevice. Their mother might return while we slept. I almost hoped she would. Subscribe or Give a Gift. Sign up. SmartNews History. History Archaeology. World History.
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