The sun was beginning to set; it had been a hot day on the savannah plains with only a mild breeze coming from the south. The lioness rose her head, scanning her surroundings, the rest of the pride was still sleeping in the dappled light underneath a camel thorn tree. It had been three days since the pride had eaten, and there were cubs to feed. The lioness stood up and stretched, which aroused the other seven members of the pride, all adult females except for one sub-adult male who had not been expelled out of the pride by the dominant male yet. The lioness smelt the air however there was no sign of any prey around, due to it being the dry season, the pride would have to work harder than usual if they wanted to secure a meal.
Five members of the pride went in search of food while the other three stayed behind to protect the cubs. The hunting group made their way towards a drying up water pan a which had yielded a substantial fortune in the past, a group of zebra and impala had come down for a drink. The lions instinctively knew what to do and took their positions; the lead lioness assessed the herd to find any weak or old individuals. It was getting darker, and the herd was moving off back into the dense bush. Slowly and silently, she starts stalking an individual zebra, being careful not to give her position away behind the long grass. The stalking in no time becomes a full sprint. The zebra herd panics and scatters in all directions, braying loudly and running for their lives. The lead lioness continues chasing the zebra however her job is complete, and that is not the zebra they will be feasting on tonight. Away from the main chase, the other members of the pride have concealed themselves in the surrounding area waiting for their turn. A young stallion got separated from the rest of the herd, and within seconds a lioness attacks the zebra from behind, digging her claws deep into the zebra’s rump. The zebra cries in pain, alerting the other members of the pride to abandon their positions and assist with the kill. Moments later the sub-adult male leaps up and grabs the throat of the zebra, clamping down on its windpipe and all while pulling the zebra down to the ground with his strength and weight. The entire carcass is fed upon by the pride, including the dominant male. What’s left of the carcass was taken to the babysitters and the cubs. In a couple of days’, the whole process will be repeated.
Successful predation events occur in a particular sequence of six stages, namely- encounter, detection, identification, approach, subjugation and finally, consumption. It’s not all about sharp claws and canines. All predators are unique and are all adapted in different ways to survive and take down their prey.
Lion (Panthera leo)
The lion is the largest African carnivore were males weigh in at an impressive 190kg and females being 126kg. Their body colour is a unicoloured sandy or tawny on the upperparts and white underneath. Males are distinguished by having a hairy mane on the sides of the head and neck. These manes can grow up to 160 mm long. The front and back feet are equipped with sharp, highly curved retractile claws, like a fist full of flick knives.
Lions are the only cats that have a distinctive social living and hunting group. Pride sizes can range from three or four individuals to 30 or more. Females make up the core of the society and may include several males but only one dominant male.
Hunting strategy and Prey
Lions are mostly nocturnal and do the majority of their hunting at night, preferring to relax during the day. There are many accounts where lions have been seen hunting during the day. Lions are skilled stalkers, using the minimalist of cover to close in on its prey. Most chases are short and average about 100m – 200m. The final sprint over 100m maybe cover in six seconds. These cats mainly attack the rump or shoulder of its prey, where it is seized by the throat and killed by strangulation. Lions are very opportunistic hunters, and if an opportunity presents itself, they will surely take it. If another predator makes a kill nearby, the lions will bully the predator away and steal the carcass. Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) and Plains Zebra (Equus quagga) are the most preferred prey; however, it mostly depends on what species is available. At full strength, a large pride can take down an African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) or even a Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis).
Leopard (Panthera pardus)
The leopard is the largest spotted cat in Africa. The body is covered with a rosette pattern of which no two leopards are the same. Males weigh in at between 44kg -90kg while females are between 25kg- 60kg. Like lions, leopards are equipped with sharp, curved claws which are protractile. Leopards have small round ears in terms of its body size. These cats have predominantly long white whiskers, which help the individual avoid obstacles in the dark.
Leopards live solitary lives except for when mating or when a female is raising her cubs. Both females and males hold territories, which they guard against members of the same sex and species.
Hunting strategy and Prey
They are nocturnal hunters and hunt alone, even when accompanied by a subadult. Leopards are expert ambush predators, relying on stalking and pouncing. When leopards stalk, they crouch with their bodies close to the ground with their tail in a horizontal position. They are the supreme silent assassins, being able to move undetected to within 4 meters of its prey before starting a chase. This predator may cover vast distances in search of food, prey types are usually medium-sized animals consisting of species like, Common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), Common duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia), Impala (Aepyceros melampus), Chacma baboon (Papio ursinus), Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus) and Cape hare (Lepus capensis).
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
These golden spotted big cats are tall and slender, held up by long legs. Being the fastest land mammal on earth cheetah’s built for speed. Both male and female cheetahs weigh on an average between 40kg – 60kg. Their long tail is used for balance when manoeuvring through the bush at high speed after prey. Another difference they have to lions and leopards is the distinctive black band or “tear mark” connected to their eyes and mouth; this reflects the sun off their face. To maintain traction on the ground at high speeds, cheetahs do not have retractable claws.
Cheetahs are mostly solitary, with the two exceptions, the first being of a mother with her cubs and the other is when three or four males (usually brothers) form a coalition which makes hunting easier. Females give birth to an average litter of three cubs.
Hunting strategy and Prey
Cheetahs are mostly active during the day, sitting on termite mounds or other high vantage points scanning for prey. These cats are sprinters reaching a speed of up to 105km per hour; however speeds of 85km per hour are more common. These speeds can only be maintained over short distances and so a combination of both speed and tripping up the prey is used. Cheetahs like to attack stragglers on the edge of the herd. Prey size is usually small to medium antelope such as Nyala(Tragelaphus angasii), Impala(Aepyceros melampus), Reedbuck (Redunca arundinum), Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) and Cape hare(Lepus capensis).
Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus)
It has a shaggy coat with patches of black yellow and white, broad ears and a white-tipped almost fluffy tail; this is how Wild dogs are characterised. Weighing in at a mere 27kg with males being slightly heavier. The average height of these dogs can be compared to that of a Germ shepherd dog species.
African wild dogs are very social, cooperative breeding animals with close bonds. Their packs consist of a dominant breeding pair, their pups and other non-breeding adults. Pups stay at the den with a babysitter while the adults go and hunt, on return food is regurgitated back up for the pups. This provision is extended to the babysitter, sick or disabled members of the pack.
Hunting strategy and Prey
The African wild dog can be likened to that of a Roman legion. Organised, tactile, strength in numbers and stamina. The pack will close in on its prey with a casual trot or walk and will only engage with a chase at the last moment. These dogs may also use tactics as described in the opening story and have a hunting success rate of about 70 – 80 per cent. These canids, unlike the big cats, do not use the stranglehold to suffocate their prey; instead they use evisceration, which means they eat the prey while it’s still alive – brutal. The dog rarely scavenges and prefer their meat fresh. Their prey includes Impala (Aepyceros melampus), Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), Waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnusk), Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus) and African buffalo (Syncerus caffer).
Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
Spotted hyenas are solidly built with a substantial front body sloping down towards its back legs. They have impressively strong jaws in which to crunch bones and tear meat. The body is a yellow and brown colour with spots. Females weigh more than the males; however, the average weight is between 60kg to 70kg.
Spotted hyenas’ social structure is formed on a matriarchal system of clans based on hierarchy. Females form the nucleus of the clan, and the males are subordinate. These clans usually consist of 4-18 members. Females remain in the clan, whereas males are kicked out once reaching puberty, the females also have a false penis.
Hunting strategy and Prey
Spotted Hyenas have a well developed sense of smell, vision and hearing. They can hunt during the day and at night, and members of the clan don’t always track together. Upon popular belief spotted hyenas do more hunting than scavenging, saying this they still take full advantage of a free meal. Similar to wild dogs, hyenas also eviscerate their prey. Prey include Springbuck (Antidorcas marsupialis), blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), Zebra (Equus quagga) and Gemsbok (Oryx gazelle).
Predators are under threat worldwide; this is a concern as they control herbivore species as well as limiting the spread of diseases. In regards to these African predators, Lions and Leopards come into conflict with humans regularly due to these predators killing and eating their livestock. As a result, the farmers lay traps or shoot these predators. Another threat to the Lion population is canned Lion hunting and selling Lion bones on the black market to China and Thailand. Wild dog and Spotted hyena have lost vast tracts of land due to habitat degradation and agriculture.
Consequently, Wild dog numbers have plummeted and are now an endangered species with only 6,600 individuals left in the wild. Other factors leading to their decline is persecution from humans, diseases like rabies and distemper when coming into contact with domestic animals and genetic inbreeding. Cheetahs are classed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red list with numbers decreasing. Cheetahs are quite temperamental breeders in the wild, and it’s even worse trying to breed them in captivity. Other organisations in South Africa have legitimate breeding and conservation programmes for cheetahs and wild dog such as De Wilt Cheetah Centre. Another problem Cheetah’s face in the wild is competition from other predators because cheetahs are the smallest and lightest of the big cats, they can’t protect their meals from the bigger predators like Lions and Hyenas. Due to smaller conservation areas, predators come into contact more often leading to conflict. If Cheetahs are always getting their kill stolen, they cannot stay healthy or reproduce.
“Conservation programmes have been set up in around Africa to help limit the lion killing and their conservation. “The High Court of South Africa recently declared the annual export quotas for lion bone in 2017 and 2018 “unlawful and constitutionally invalid,” because the government had ignored the welfare of the animals in captivity. The judge ruled in favour of the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), a South African animal welfare organisation that has documented incidents of alleged cruelty in captive lion facilities”.
Take home message
These predators have been around for thousands of years and have overcome the harsh elements of nature. Although humans have destroyed their habitat and controlled them for capital gain, there is still hope for these fantastic animals. By leaving them alone in their natural habitat and watching them at a distance, they can truly be admired as being built for the kill.
Skinner, J.D. & Chimimba, C.T., 2005. The Mammals of the South African Sub Region. Cape Town: Cambridge University Press.
Stuart, C. & Stuart, M.2015.Stuart’s Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa. Struik Nature, Cape Town
Stuart’s field guide to mammals of southern Africa …. https://www.bookdepository.com/Stuarts-Field-Guide-Mammals-Southern-Africa-Chris-Stuart/9781775841111