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Hunting and feeding behaviour of the African lion

1 April 2014


Until fairly recently, lions were probably the large cat with the widest distribution in the world and included the American lion Panthera atrox which also seemed to have lived in prides. As little as a few million years ago, lions were still present in Eurasia and southern England. The African lion is the only living, sociable cat in Africa. While a pride of lions may be more succesful when hunting than a single lion, a carcass has to be shared among the pride members. This means the prides have to hunt more often than single lions.

Lions mainly hunt at night but they are opportunistic and will hunt at any time. Normally, they only move about for a few hours per day. The availability of stalking cover, season, ambient temperature, prey and the nature of the habitat will influence their hunting. Lions spend most of their time feeding and resting but where prey is less abundant they will move over considerable distances to hunt.

Because a lion hunts by stalk and ambush, suitable cover is crucial to allow a lion to approach possible prey to as close as possible. Such cover may consist of vegetation, termite mounds, gullies, riverbanks and other terrain features. There is some evidence that the closer that lions can get to their prey, the more successful a hunt will be. The hunting success of lions in the Queen Elizabeth National Park depends on grass height. Hunting by lions there is largely unsuccessful in tall stands of grass because it interferes with a coordinated attack by a pride. In the absence of suitable cover, most lion hunts will occur in darkness and the hunting success is greatest during moonless nights. Poor weather can also provide hunting cover and lions often initiate hunting when storms are imminent and it is excessively windy.

Lions usually search for prey by moving slowly through suitable habitat but they are always ready to react opportunistically to the presence of prey. Although lions usually make their own kills, they will scavenge the kills of other predators. Along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, lions have learned to walk as far as 50 km per day along the beach to scavenge the carcasses that float in from offshore seal and cormorant rookeries. In the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in Botswana, leopards and lions often hunt adult baboons, but this is less likely where antelopes are more abundunt. Therefore the lions in a specific region mostly hunt the prey that is most abundant there.

Lions use different hunting strategies for different types of prey and they will purposely hunt sick or injured animals that are more easy to kill. Lion prides often ambush their prey, during which time some members conceal themselves in tall grass or among bushes, especially near waterholes. Some lionesses then stampede the prey towards the hidden rest of the pride which includes an adult male or two. A stalking lion advances slowly with the head lowered, the ears down, the belly touching the ground and jutting shoulder blades. The final rush only starts when a lion is 30 m or less away from its prey, the closer the better. When attacking stampeding, large prey such as an eland, zebra or African savanna buffalo, a lioness will hook its front claws into the rump of the prey or will twist its neck to throw it off balance and bring it down. The prey is then throttled or killed with a bite to the back of the head. When a pride of lions hunt together, a member of the pride will seize the prey by the muzzle, nape or throat and the prey is then killed by the rest of the pride.

Single lions usually stalk their prey, while those that hunt as a pride may either hunt haphazardly or coordinate their hunt carefully. When hunting cooperatively, each lioness repeatedly occupies the same position in the hunting formation. In the Etosha National Park, cooperative hunting is the most successful strategy with a kill rate of around 27 per cent as opposed to 2.3 per cent when a lioness hunts large, fleet-footed prey alone. During cooperative hunting, the lions hunt in a wing formation, with lionesses on the wings initiating the attack and the lions in the centre ambushing the prey. Cooperative hunting therefore involves a division of labour in which the lionesses on the left and right wings circle and startle the prey, while the lions in the centre catch and kill the fleeing prey.

The prey is subdued based on its size, with small prey being knocked over, grabbed with both forepaws and killed with a bite to the neck or throat. Larger prey are knocked down with the force of the lion’s body and are then held by the neck, nose or throat to suffocate or strangle them. The neck is sometimes broken by pulling the head down while knocking the prey down. In the Kalahari the lions have learned to jump on to the rump of a gemsbok and break its back with a sharp jerk so as to avoid the sharp, rapier-like horns. There is some evidence that different prides learn to follow specific hunting regimes that are passed on to their offspring.

After a kill, individual lions may carry pieces of a small carcass to the nearest thicket before starting to eat, but a larger prey animal is usually eaten where it falls. Lions feed rapidly and a carcass such as that of a zebra may be reduced to nothing more than a skeleton within 30 minutes of a kill. Each lion eats where it can reach, but the viscera, thighs and the buttocks are usually eaten first. Sometimes the stomach and intestines are buried and are not eaten. Lions can eat enormous amounts of meat, with one male in the Serengeti National Park being known to have eaten 33 kg of meat from one carcass. The estimated feeding rate is around 20 minutes per kg of meat per lion, and lions will lie around a large carcass for several days until it has been eaten completely. It is rare for the remains of a large carcass to be buried.

Although lions are similar in their stalk, ambush and kill sequence to other large cats, the solitary big cats are not under the same intense pressure from scavengers as a pride of lions. Especially in open habitats, scavengers such as vultures, jackals and spotted hyaenas are aware of a lion kill almost as soon as it has been made and will descend on the kill and start harassing the feeding lions. This may be one reason why lions feed so rapidly. However, a pride of lions can defend most carcasses against spotted hyaenas and even hundreds of vultures. The presence of a large male in a pride is vital in carcass defence, and two large male lions can rob the kill of 25 spotted hyaenas. However, when only young male lions are present in a pride, four or more spotted hyaenas can appropriate the pride’s kill.



Sunquist, M and F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp 285 - 304.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma


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