ePostcard #15: Watching Lions at Sunset (Etosha National Park, Namibia)
The sublime joy of spending a sunset evening watching a pride of African lions is a profound gift. These kinds of opportunities are usually only possible in parks and preserves where both predators and prey are habituated to having people observe them from vehicles, wildlife blinds or in designated areas located at a considerable distance from where animals predictably gather at sources of water. Much like the social distancing advised during the COVID-19 pandemic, playing by the rules and being patient offers multiple rewards.
Water sources on the Okondeka salt-pan are a magnet for life at both dawn and dusk, and this magical setting is host to its own resident pride of lions. On this particular evening the shimmering heat that transforms the pan by day had crystalized into a wash of golden light. A typical pride of lions consists of a group of closely related lionesses and their cubs, and a group of young males that may be related to each other, but are not close family of the lionesses. The lionesses are the stable element of the pride, while the males change every few years. Hunting is mainly carried out by the females, who usually focus their attacks on medium to large ungulates as prey. A lioness gives birth away from the pride and may move the cubs around for 6-8 weeks before rejoining her pride. All lactating lionesses in a pride will suckle each others’ cubs, which are weaned at about 6 months. Female cubs stay with the pride for life, while males disperse or are expelled between the ages of 2 and 3.
Play among cubs and among cubs and adults, as you see here, is an important part of learning how to hunt. It also enhances social cohesion among members of the pride, giving cubs a subtle way of establishing the pecking order in the pride. Cubs spend a great deal of time stalking each other, play-fighting, and mounting mock-attacks, building their adult skillset for hunting their own prey. It is difficult for me not to ascribe feelings to animals when I observe intimate interactions similar to our own. For a more profound perspective on this subject, I recommend reading or listening to Carl Safina’s excellent book “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” (2015, Henry Holt & Co. New York, NY). Trust your intuition.
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