I held my breath and my heart stopped beating as the lions walked no more than 10 feet (3.048 meters) from Joan’s truck, just ambling past up the road. The lion is the second largest living cat in the world after the tiger, and we were in a Toyota at Kruger National Park.
Panthera leo evolved in Africa between 1 million and 800,000 years ago.
Sunrise R531 East, Mpumalanga
It rained a little the night before entering Kruger National Park. The air smelled a clean green like no other than Mpumalanga Lowveld, a low subtropical woodland region with thick scrubby trees and dense thickets of thorn bushes with grassy undercover between.
First two females walked past, one stopping to call for cubs with her gentle yet insistent “cha…cha…cha” voice, like “it’s all clear.” Females can mate throughout the year with a 110 day gestation period then typically birth 3-4 cubs. Lions live on average 10 to 15 years in the wild, longer in captivity.
Next five cubs strolled past with the confidence of youth in numbers. Young cubs are vulnerable to predation by hyenas, leopards and black backed jackals. They begin hunting at about 11 months and stay with their mothers for two years. Lion populations are untenable outside of designated reserves and national parks primarily due to habitat loss and conflicts with humans.
The males sauntered in behind and promptly plopped down on the warm tarmac/asphalt. Males can weigh in excess of 550 pounds (250 kilograms) and boast impressive manes of a long hair fringe that encircles their heads.
They were patient with the cubs and appeared to be brothers, almost like regreeting each other after time apart. Fiercely protective of his pride, or family unit, male lions patrol a vast territory normally covering about 100 square miles (260 square kilometers).
Finally, an old female carrying her long life scars brought up the rear. Female lions are the pride’s primary hunters. They often work together to prey upon antelopes, zebras, wildebeest, and other large animals of the open grasslands. Many of these animals are faster than lions, so teamwork pays off. They normally eat about twice a week yet many lion hunts are surprisingly unsuccessful because they lack stamina and even though they can run up to 35 mph (60 kmh) they can only sustain it for awhile.
They all moved like no one else was around, not a care in the world except to enjoy the warmth radiating up from the pavement while several car loads of visitors stayed in their cages and watched in amazement clicking as many photographs as possible. Myself included.
Lions are the only cats that live in groups called prides, a family unit that may include up to three males, a dozen or so females, and their young. All of a pride’s lionesses are related, and female cubs typically stay with the group as they age. Young males eventually leave and establish their own prides by taking over a group headed by another male.
They can sleep for up to 24 hours a day.
I had no concept of time or how long we sat mesmerized. Eventually I remembered to take some video. Have to admit I’m no cinematographer, and hope at least a small clip will download.
Both male and female lions roar, and that roar can be heard over five miles away.
Lions weren’t the first wildlife seen on this first day in Kruger National Park. We saw all the Big 5, plus more.