Masai Mara – space for lions

It is estimated that around a hundred years ago there were as many as 200,000 lions living wild in Africa. In 2012, National Geographic reported that only 32,000 lions remained out of 100,000 roaming Africa in the 1960s. Recent surveys put the number of wild lions at around 20,000. Around a third of African lions are thought to have disappeared in the past 20 years due mainly to hunting, illegal poaching/wildlife trade, human-lion conflict and loss of habitat.

“With roars that rend the African night, lions have captured our imaginations since the dawn of humankind.”~ Craig Packer

According to the National Geographic, the lion species has disappeared from 94 percent of its historic range across almost the entire African continent but is now limited to less than 660,000 square miles. Lions are extinct in 26 African countries and are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which determines the conservation status of species.

“…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

The Serengeti-Mara ecosystems covers 24,000 km² from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya and is home to one of the highest densities of lions in Africa.

Most lionesses reach sexual maturity between three and four years of age. Female lions can go into estrus (a period of fertility) at any time of the year and that period can last four to seven days. The male lion will stay close to the lioness during the mating period where mating usually occurs approximately every 20 minutes for the first few days though the frequency will slow somewhat in the last two days of the mating period.

Male lions, like all cats, have spines on their penis which cause minor trauma to the vagina upon withdrawal. The resulting pain triggers ovulation.  This probably also explains why females bare their teeth at males during mating.  

The odds are already stacked against a female lion bringing a cub to term. The gestation or pregnancy period for a female lion is between 105 – 110 days and the lioness usually produces a litter of between two and four cubs. A female lion has only four teats, so in litters larger than four, a number of the cubs will not survive.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” ~John Muir

Just prior to the birthing of her cubs, the heavily pregnant female will move away from the pride and give birth in a well-hidden den usually in a thick section of reeds in a marsh area, or a dense thicket in the savannah or hidden in a secluded section of a rock outcrop. The mother will keep the cubs hidden for one to two months allowing them to grow strong enough to survive the robustness of the pride. During this isolation period, the lioness will regularly move her cubs from one den site to another to prevent the concentration of scent so as not to attract other predators such as hyaenas.

Newborn cubs weigh between two and four pounds. Their fur is spotted and they are born blind. The new born cubs typically open their eyes when they are between three and 11 days old and can walk after around two weeks and run after four weeks.

Overall, somewhere between 60% and 70% of the cubs will die within their first year, and even fewer—about 1 in 8 —live to adulthood (lions mature around two years old). The cubs that don’t make it either die from starvation, or are killed by other predators or are killed by other male lions looking to take over the pride.

“It seems everything in nature that has beauty, also has a price.
Let the value of our planets wildlife be to nature and nature alone.”

~ Paul Oxton

Once the cubs have been accepted by the pride, all lactating females will suckle the cubs. After six weeks, the mother leads her cubs to an animal that she has killed to give them their first taste of meat.

The cubs are weaned off their mother’s milk after they are six to seven months old. The females tend to stay with the pride as they mature but the males usually leave or are forced out of the pride to fend for themselves by around two to three years of age and spend a few years building their strength and knowledge before they can look for their own pride.

A valuable method of aging lion cubs is given in the Livingwithlions.org. Assuming the lioness and the cub are standing, the two month old cub’s front shoulder is about two inches below the lioness’s belly. The four month old cub’s shoulder reaches around three inches above her belly and the six month old cub shoulder comes to mid-torso or midway up her shoulder. The 12-month old cub’s shoulder is a few inches below the back line of the adult lioness. Most of the lion cubs shown in this post look to be around two to three months old.

Lions are considered apex predators, meaning they are at the top of the food chain with no natural enemies and as such play a pivotal role in sustaining the natural balance. By weeding out the slow, weak, and dying animals, apex predators serve to keep prey numbers in check and are key to the health of an ecosystem. They maintain the balance between prey species and the rest of the system. Without them, everything gets out of balance, leading to cycles of population explosions and crashes, depleted lands, stunted forests, and flooding rivers.

“Perhaps the most poignant image of our time is that of Earth as seen by the space voyagers: a blue sphere, shimmering with life and light, alone and unique in the cosmos. From this perspective, the maps of geopolitics vanish, and the underlying inter-connectedness of all the components of this extraordinary living system – animal, plant, water, land, and atmosphere – becomes strikingly evident.” ~ Richard Benedick

Once we understand the lion’s role in the ecosystem, human interference in the natural balance becomes obvious. In particular, indiscriminate trophy hunting taking out pride males below six years of age destroy the balance especially for the one predator which operates cooperatively in a pride.

“Hunting is an integral part of Africa’s conservation history and its approach to wildlife management. To disentangle hunting from modern African conservation will require a realignment of conservation policy, entrenched since colonial times and embraced and supported by African elites and political interests. But as civilization has the ingenuity to put people and machines into space, split the atom, and routinely send unimaginable amounts of information through the ether, surely we can think of a better way to save the wild animals we love besides killing them.
~ Andrew Loveridge

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

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