I was fortunate enough to spend ten days in the Serengeti with three old friends and two new ones as part a CNP Safari in mid-March. We were based in the Western corridor at the Grumeti Tented Camp, which is sited on the banks of the Grumeti river, about 50 kilometres from Lake Victoria. The main Wildebeest migration was still down in the south-western part of the Serengeti but the huge herds were slowly making their way North following the rains. The migration herd was led by Topi, Eland and Zebra. March is usually the last month that visitors can get around in the western corridor before the heavy rains, which start in April. Once the rains start in earnest, it pours and the black cotton clay becomes impassable in many areas by vehicle.
“To witness that calm rhythm of life revives our worn souls and recaptures a feeling of belonging to the natural world. No one can return from the Serengeti unchanged, for tawny lions will forever prowl our memory and great herds throng our imagination.”
~ George Schaller
On our first afternoon, we went west into an area of relatively long grass. This was an ideal environment for Lions as their coats blend so well with the colour of the grass. When Lions lie flat on their sides in the knee-high grass you would not know they are there but for the odd flick of a black tipped tail. We found a pair of mating Lions only because our ranger, Waziri, knew the general area in which to look. As we approached this Lioness raised her head.
With the female getting up, this was the male’s cue to get into action.
This mating pair were part of a pride of 50 Lions controlled by a coalition of three male Lions. This large pride had split into two groups presumably because the hunting was more difficult outside the migration period. In this particular area we found one group, which was a sub-pride of 26 Lions. This pair had moved away from the pride to involve themselves in their courting rituals.
The mating process is not all about snarling and biting and can be quite tender in the early phase with the male licking and stroking the female’s neck and head.
“…few can sojourn long within the unspoilt wilderness of a game sanctuary, surrounded on all sides by its confiding animals, without absorbing its atmosphere; the Spirit of the Wild is quick to assert supremacy, and no man of any sensibility can resist her.”
~ James Stevenson-Hamilton
Lions mate every twenty minutes of so and seem to be oblivious of the passing parade. This Zebra saw the Lions once the male got up to begin mating.
The penis of a male lion is covered with tiny barbs, made of hard protein called keratin. These barbs tear at the female’s uterus wall during mating which is painful for the female. This process allows the male to remove previously inseminated rival male’s sperm and thereby minimise sperm competition. Stimulation by the barbs also induces ovulation. Source: Animal Behaviour Chapter 6 by Zenobia Lewis.
Lion mating is often accompanied by snarling, biting, growling, and threats.
Each mating is a brief coupling lasting usually less than a minute. Sometimes the female turns and swats the male during dismount (most likely as a result of the pain invoked by a barbed penis).
A male Lion often bites the female’s ear or neck at the end of mating to distract her from the pain of the withdrawal of his barbed penis. Like all felines they have short penises and the barbs helps secure it long enough for ejaculation. Despite his attempts at distraction the Lioness inevitably ends up trying to give him a swipe with her large paw.
“If I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa.”
~ John Hemingway
During his dismount the male makes sure he turns his face well away from the potential paw slap.
You can see from the condition of this male Lion’s teeth that he was young and in his prime.
Our mating Lions were lying in the long red oat grass in the warm sun of the afternoon as heavy cumulus cloud were forming.
One of the rules of the bush is to ensure there is sufficient distance between you and your enemy to make your escape. This small herd of Zebra knew where the mating Lions were and gave them a wide berth, outside attack range.
“Africa has her mysteries and even a wise man cannot understand them. But a wise man respects them.”
~ Miriam Makeba
Within the pride, the territorial males are the fathers of all the cubs. When a lioness is in heat, a male will join her, staying with her constantly. The mating itself is a quick affair lasting not more than a minute or so and often ends with a roar from both parties. Both parties then promptly rollover and rest or sleep. This process can go on every twenty minutes to half an hour for days.
When you look at a pride of Lions, and it is clear that there are more females than males, usually a ratio of about two or even three to one. Considering that male and female Lions are born in equal numbers, the question arises: What happens to the missing males? Only about 1 in 8 male Lions survive to adulthood, according to Dereck Joubert.
The genesis of new life under African skies.
Lionesses have a gestation period of three and a half months (about 108 days). Lions live up to about 18 years old in the wild but the males do not usually get past 10 years due to fights and being deposed from their pride.
All lions face high mortality as cubs, for a variety of reasons, including injuries, lack of food, illness and being killed by adult lions. When male Lions begin to reach sexual maturity around two years old, the dominant males within the pride kick them out. After being kicked out, the young males roam the savannah on their own or in small bands, often with their brothers or cousins, negotiating the “no-cat’s” land between territories of other lions. If they stray into these territories, they are likely to be attacked and killed. A majority of male Lions die during this time. The territorial male you see mating has therefore been through the “fire of life” to have his own pride and the right to mate and represents the best of the best.
“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just home.”
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.