Friday, May 6, 2016

King of the Jungle

King of the Jungle

(Odin, our own male lion, surveying his kingdom.)

Lions (Panthera leo leo) are well known for their command of the sub-Saharan African plains.  As the largest predator in their habitat (reaching almost seven feet in length), the lion sits comfortably at the top of the food chain. Especially the dominant male lion, as he is rarely the one to take down prey but is always the first to eat. The lions social nature- unique among large cats and solely represented by the lion, allows them to form a hierarchy within the pride with the dominant male lion seated on top as king. While the females, almost always related within the pride as mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, cousins, etc., are the best hunters- the males are larger and stronger and therefore, are relied upon for protection as the leaders of the pride.
(A pride of lions in sub-Saharan Africa.)

Lionesses do not exhibit any social dominance over one another, that is, not one female is the leader of the other females. Each lioness plays an important role in the social structure of the pride, each has her place in the hunt, and each takes a role in mating. The females who refuse to participate in mating with the dominant male lion may be chased out/banned from the pride, or killed. Lionesses will care for each others young, cross-nursing them, as they tend to all give birth around the same time.  This strengthens the females’ bonds to one another, ensuring the safety of their young against any would-be invading male lions.

     (One of our Lionesses, Nala, relaxing on her perch.)                (Our other Lioness, Shauna, making a silly face.)

Male lions, on the other hand, are pushed out of the pride as they approach maturity, usually with their brothers or other male cousins born around the same time. This ensures no competition for dominance within the pride, increases genetic diversity among all lions, and prevents inbreeding causing genetic mutations. There can be several male lions within a pride, but there is always one that is most dominant above the others. The king of the lions is the largest one with the most pronounced mane. Although, there are some prides which have formed coalitions, being ruled over by two-to-three dominate males, spanning vast distances, and being comprised of a few prides together.

(Odin’s mane, now that he is three years old, is very full and reaches down to the center
of his back, he would certainly be a more dominant male in the wild.)

What many people do not know is that this beautiful giant not only roams on the African plains; but also in the Gir Forest National Park of India. When once lions roamed all over the Asian, African, and European continents- now only a small population (several hundred) of Asiatic Lions (Panthera leo persica) remain to call this national park home. A dominant male asiatic lion may just be the true “King of the Jungle” as their habitat would imply. These lions are reportedly larger than their African counter-parts, reaching lengths of up to nine feet. However, while still maintaining the social skills common to all lions, Asiatic lions divide into prides much differently than those seen on the African plains. In India the lions are separated into two prides- one male, and one female. The two prides come together only during mating season each year. After their four-month gestation period, cubs arrive, and true to lion pride etiquette- the females stay with the female pride, and once the males are mature enough to go out on their own they are sent to find the male pride.

(Shauna and Nala, left to right respectively, both know how to relax in the summer heat… Nala maybe more-so.)

African lions are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Due to the threats they face from hunters, habitat loss, and diseases- their numbers have decreased by almost half in the past two decades alone. In 1975 there was an estimated 250,000 wild lions in Africa, today those numbers have dwindled down to approximately 30,000 individual African lions. Asiatic lion are listed as “endangered” by the IUCN’s Red List, however, their numbers in recent years have been steadily increasing. There were an estimated 177 Asiatic lions in 1968, 359 in 2005, and most recently their numbers have been estimated to be around 523 individuals in 2015. Hopefully these numbers, as well as those of their African cousins, may steadily increase well into the future giving these gorgeous giants a chance at surviving alongside our human populations, instead of fighting against them.

(Shauna, Odin, & Nala all deserve to be represented by their wild relatives well into the future!)

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