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Strange Lion Behaviour Defies the Textbooks

By Alistair Leuner The lion prides in the greater Kruger National Park have a habit of surprising people, but this time they really turned what we know about the species on its head. The textbooks tell us how lions should behave. But in truth, their expected actions are often completely disproven by what we see...

By Alistair Leuner

The lion prides in the greater Kruger National Park have a habit of surprising people, but this time they really turned what we know about the species on its head.

The textbooks tell us how lions should behave. But in truth, their expected actions are often completely disproven by what we see in the field. This is what happened over the last few months .

The Manyeleti Game Reserve, which borders the Kruger National Park in South Africa, has numerous prides of lions that come and go between the reserve and Kruger. There are two prides whose territories overlap in the area. These two prides are The Mbiri Pride and the Nharu Pride.

The Nharu Pride resides to the south of the lodge, and the Mbiri Pride to the west of the lodge. They have had many confrontations with each other, normally with the Mbiri females retreating with the younger cubs.

However, at a recent sighting with the Mbiri Pride, a lone lion was lurking about 50m away from the pride. The four Mbiri females were growling viciously at this lone lion. But we couldn’t understand which lion this was?

Looking closer, it was clear that the young male as one of the Nharu young males. Why was this young male lying near another competing pride, one that has a direct territorial advantage over another?

Stanger things

As the sightings of the Mbiri Pride went on, this young male moved closer and closer to the Mbiri Pride until one day he was feeding off the same carcass as the rest of the pride. It now looked as if the Mbiri Pride had now eventually accepted this young male. This is not something that you will find in textbooks about lion behaviour. It’s something totally unique.

Then, just last week, an incredible thing happened.

The Mbiri Pride and Nharu Pride were lying just 700m apart from each other. We were sure that the two prides would fight with each other during the night, as the Nharu’s were deep inside Mbiri territory. As we went to bed that night, we listened to the distant roars of the Nharu Pride echoing into the wilderness. But nothing came from the Mbiris!

The next morning, excited to see what we could find, we got up and went straight to where we had left the Mbiris, but there was nothing there! Then, as we got out to begin tracking them, we heard the distinct growling of lions. Who was this and what was happening?

We approached the area and found the incredible sight of 18 lions feed of a large male giraffe carcass. First of all, it is a incredible feat for lions to kill a giraffe, let alone a huge male giraffe. After some discussion with the trackers, it looked as though the Mbiri Pride had chased the male giraffe over the uneven and wet ground and the giraffe had slipped to its death.

But back to the lions; who were the 18 lions on the carcass?

Was it the hugely powerful Birmingham Pride from the north consisting of close to 20 individuals? No, it was the Mbiri Pride together with the Nharu pride feeding on the giraffe. How was this possible? Two separate prides, who normally compete viciously against each other, now feeding together on a large carcass.

This is the first time in my career that I have seen this happen.

Both prides had not eaten very much, and the large male giraffe was diminishing very quickly. After the first night, the hyenas began to move in on the carcass, making a lot of noise but not troubling the 18 lions that were submerged in the their giraffe meat.

The Males Arrive

The three Giraffe/Avoca males, who were lying approximately 5km from the giraffe carcass, must have picked up the scent of the carcass. It’s quite incredible that these animals can smell at such a distance.

The three males moved directly towards the carcass, and it took these males about two hours to cover at a walking pace. As they neared the area, they began to roar, and this roaring gave their position away. Luckily, this gave time for the other lions at the carcass enough time to run for their lives.

Why? These three males are not the fathers of either the Mbiris or the Nharus, and have already killed numerous Mbiri Cubs. The three males trotted towards the carcass, and took control of the third-hand giraffe. At this point, we left and headed home for dinner.

The Final Act

We woke up at first light to make sure we missed nothing of this incredible ordeal. On arrival at the carcass, to our amazement, we found 21 lions feeding on the carcass. The makeup of the lions on the carcass was 3 Giraffe/Avoca males, twelve Mbiris and six Nharus.

This was a sighting to behold!

Having just informed anyone who would listen that you would NEVER see the Mbiri pride and Nharu Pride together because they compete with each other, we had to swallow our words when these three males (that have killed five of the Mbiri cubs prior to this) started feeding on the same carcass next to these huge males.

How do you explain this? Some things in nature are truly stranger than fiction. When you study lions, you are told in no uncertain terms that different prides will always compete with each, and fight each other for that territory to the death. We were also told that different males who have not fathered the cubs, will kill any other cubs in the areas if they can.

But it did not happen this way in the Manyeleti.

It is funny how nature always defies what we think we know!

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Paul Steyn
Paul Steyn is a widely-published multi-media content producer from South Africa, and regular contributor to National Geographic News and blogs. Having guided throughout Africa for some years, he went on to edit a prominent travel and wildlife magazine, and now focuses on nature storytelling in all its forms. In 2013, he joined a team of researchers and Bayei on a 250km transect of the Okavango Delta on traditional mokoros. In 2016, he accompanied the Great Elephant Census team in Tanzania and broke the groundbreaking results on National Geographic News . Contact: Follow Paul on Twitter or Instagram