Wednesday, 9 November 2011

African Lion Hunting Habits in South Africa

It is commonly believed that lions attack mainly sick, wounded or old animals: this is not actually the case, and animals in their prime are often taken, with the notable exception of buffalo bulls in their prime, or large male giraffes.
Lions are opportunist hunters, and, after a careful stalk, will take the closest animal regardless of its age, sex or condition: they do not test their potential prey for weaknesses, like other predators such as wild dogs do. Although Lions usually kill their own prey, they are known to scavenge food from other predators, and even eat carrion when unable to hunt.
If suitable prey is available, lions eat every 3 to 4 days, but can go without food for more than a week. They average about 5 to 7kgs meat daily, but can consume about 25% of their body mass if necessary. An adult lion will kill in the region of 15 animals per year. The norm is for African Lions to kill only enough to sustain themselves, but they have been known to kill excessively in the case of prey animals that are weak or young lions that go beserk.
As is the case with most of Africa's predators, hunting habits do vary from one population to another. In South Africa's Kruger National Park (home to aproximately 2500 lions) waterbuck seem to be the preferred prey species, but wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, giraffe and various antelopes also feature in their kills, as well as ostriches, small crocodiles and tortoises.
The seasons will influence the age of the prey taken: during the summer months when certain species experience seasonal birth peaks, more calves will obviously be killed. Most antelope have an adult sex ratio that favours the female, as males usually stand their ground longer, and are thus more vulnerable to predation. Young bachelor males and older males that have been ousted from territories are also more likely to be killed by lions, as they occupy less favourable areas.
African Lions hunt primarily by sight. Although visual cues will trigger the hunt, their sense of smell and hearing will assist in alerting them to the whereabouts of their prey. Herbivores are untroubled if lions are visible, but get agitated when they smell or hear them without being able to locate their position, or when being stalked.
Most hunting takes place under the poor light conditions of early evening or dawn, and during the night. During daylight when prey animals themselves are better able to see, the lion is at a disadvantage, as its hunting technique depends on stalking within range of its prey.
African Lion have little stamina, and will usually get up close to the prey before charging. In about 10% of kills, the prey is ambushed. The lion's final charge is usually made from as close as 10 metres, seldom exceeding 20 metres. Lions do not always hunt in a group and single lions account for about 50% of all kills.
Generally females kill more than males, but in the case of large animals, the greater mass and strength of the male is needed. The hunting technique is typified by: the pride either walks in single file, or fans out in a loose formation, searching for potential prey. Their body language is casual until prey is sighted: the lioness will then freeze or sink down into cover, and is emulated by the others. They then begin to stalk the prey, with one lioness leading: every scrap of cover is used, and the lioness will freeze and remain totally still if necessary. They then silently burst from their cover and launch at the animal, usually closely followed by the rest of the pride.
Lions are extremely powerful: by using only a grip on its rump, they can grab and throw a fully grown zebra. A heavy blow to the head of an antelope using a forepaw is sufficient to stun the animal. The lions most frequently used killing technique is a suffocating hold on the muzzle. Usually the kill is clean and quick, with little tearing or biting. Team co-ordination is important, particularly with larger prey: some lionesses may distract the prey while others bring it down.
The hunting technique for killing giraffe is highly specialised. The lanky animal is knocked off its feet and pulled down without getting in the way of its powerful front feet which will chop at the lion with dangerous accuracy. Lions frequently suffer injuries when killing dangerous game, and have been known to back down when the prey species stands its ground. A carefully placed kick from a zebra to a lion's face can break a jaw or remove an eye.
Lions do kill and eat porcupines, and many have ended up with quills embedded in a paw or a nose. If a lion is injured slightly, it will be allowed to feed off the kills until it recovers, and so is supported by the pride structure.
Lions often drag their prey, sometimes over considerable distances, to a sheltered spot before eating it, which allows them to eat in shade, and also helps keep the kill out of sight of vultures, whose presence would attract other predators. Lions sometimes eat the intestines, but hardly ever eat the stomach of their kill, and sometimes gut the carcass before it is dragged away.
Regardless of who makes a kill, the dominant male will have first choice of a meal. Lionesses and cubs begin feeding on the internal organs such as the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs, whereas the male will more likely start feeding on the hindquarters. Small cubs are usually kept away from the kill until the others have eaten, as feeding can be a hazardous time.
Lions are the only cats that habitually feed whilst lying on their bellies: other cats will sit, crouch or stand. Feeding progresses from the body cavity and hindquarters to the ribs and limbs, leaving the head and neck for last. In the case of a small animal most of the bones are consumed, with only the head, feet and part of the vertebral column being left as pickings for scavengers. Springbok or impala lambs are eaten hooves and all. A pride of lions may spend three or four days eating a giraffe, rhino or large buffalo.
It is rare for human beings to be killed by lions, and if this does happen, the lion is tracked down and destroyed. Old or incapacitated lions are usually the man-eaters.

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