The Serengeti in East Africa is a vast and wild region. Its name means “endless plains”. It covers almost six thousand square miles. It’s one of the world’s great wildlife refuges. Life here hasn’t changed much in a million years.
The plains teem with giant predators. Nile crocs patrol the river, leopard stalk the woods, and cheetahs hunt the open plains. But of all these great hunters, none compared to the lion.
Weighing up to 550 pounds, it’s the largest cat in all of Africa. A full-grown male can stand four feet high, and stretch 11 feet from nose to tail. These big fellas are built to intimidate, but oddly enough, their large manes make them easier to spot, which means males leave most of the hunting to their sleek female companions.
Females are leaner, weighing about half that of males, but they make up for their smaller size in power and speed. Sprinting up to 35 miles per hour, the lioness is the queen of the Serengeti. Alone, there’s no doubt they are powerful predators, but add a little teamwork into the mix and preys beware.
Lions are the only big cats that live together in what are called prides. The Serengeti is home to about 3500 lions, living in 300 prides, one of the largest lion populations in all of Africa. The average pride has four lionesses, a few Cubs and two males. But there is one pride, in the middle of the Serengeti, that is an exception. They are what’s called a super pride. There are 22 in all: eight adult females, two males, and twelve young ones.
Super prides are exceedingly rare. The perfect set of conditions has to be present. Prey has to be plentiful. The Lions live exclusively on meat and an adult lion eats 12 pounds a day. A typical pride might only need to kill big prey every couple of days, but in the super pride with 22 members they must hunt nearly every day to survive.
Zebras are a plentiful delicacy but zebras aren’t as dainty as they look. They use their powerful rear legs to kick friend and foe alike. Like lions, zebras can sprint up to 35 miles per hour but the zebra can outlast the lion. The lioness combines power and speed, but she lacks endurance. She can only run at top speed for about 300 feet. For success, she must get close, and use the element of surprise.
As May arrives on the Serengeti plains, the rains begin. These big cats don’t mind a little rain. Water means new grass, and grass brings over a million wildebeest and zebra to their hunting ground.
This is the largest mammal migration on earth. The herds leave the southeastern Serengeti and travel north following the rains and the new grass. Their annual 300-mile round trip takes them right into the heart of the super prides territory.
The 20 square mile territory is smaller than that of other prides, but quality matters more than sheer size. Every square mile here contains more food than other bigger territories. With plentiful food, each lioness stalks alone this time. The more lions per kill, the smaller the portions.
They will cooperate to take down bigger prey, but this is solo work. The adult wildebeest outweighs the lioness by over a hundred pounds but what the lioness lacks in size, she makes up for skill. She grasps her prey with powerful shoulder muscles. Inch long claws act like hooks, and four canine teeth penetrate two inches deep, anchoring her to the twisting prey.
Normally she would kill wildebeests by knocking it down and clamping its throat closed, but there are other times when the lioness has to employ another technique. Hanging onto her victim, she covers its mouth with hers. Her huge nostrils allow her to breathe, while the wildebeest suffocates.
The herd usually stay in the super prides territory. They will stay as long as the rains fall, and the grass grows. It seems like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the 22 lions, but the migration means more than just a big feast. More meat, means healthier more robust and more well-fed lions, preparing the females for the extra demands of pregnancy and motherhood.
Elsewhere in Africa, lions give birth at any time of year. Oddly enough, not here on the Serengeti. Most of these females give birth during the wet season.
As the lionesses gave birth, the Serengeti pride welcomes new cubs to their superclub. At barely two months old, they emerge from their den. They begin to learn their place inside the pride, but dad’s discipline is nothing compared to the dangers that await.
For a while though, ignorance is bliss. Keeping the Cubs alive is the ultimate goal. They’ll pass on the ruling lions genes across the Serengeti. If they die, the adults’ efforts will have been in vain.
Typically only a quarter of Serengeti lion cubs make it to adulthood. It is survival of the fittest. Disease and starvation can hit hard, and predators can sneak up when they are least expecting it.
To hyenas, a lion cub is a mouth-watering treat. There is strength in numbers though. Female lions join forces to protect their cubs, forming what’s known as a crash or nursery of sorts. The mothers in a crash share the responsibility of feeding, rearing, and guarding all the cubs.
Lions are the only wild cats that raise their young this way. A clever solution by an awesome animal.
After about 18 months, the cubs will be ready for the wide-open African savannah all on their own. Until then, they depend on the crash, for food and protection.
It’s not an easy road to adulthood. Sometimes a cub’s greatest threat comes from their own: other lions. The super prides 20 square mile territory is surrounded by other prides. They must defend it ruthlessly. Trespassers cannot be tolerated.
At the edge of their territory, sometimes the super pride crash encounters other small cubs from neighboring prides. It seems that, while their mothers hunted, the Cubs wandered off and accidentally entered the super pride territory. Trespassing cubs are often killed on sight, but this time, the mothers hesitate.
Nearby, a lioness calls for her lost cubs. She is likely a former member of the super pride, an outcast. The super pride needs about eight adult females to defend their territory against other smaller prides. As they mature, surplus females must leave.
Several lionesses were driven out by their mothers. They formed what’s called a daughter pride on the edge of super pride territory. They and other daughter prides nearby, share the super prides’ DNA.
The bonds between mothers and exiled daughters disappear over time. The super pride mothers seem to sense something familiar about the cubs. They could be related. The lost cubs’ mother picks up their scent and follows the trail into terrible danger.
The super pride may have spared the cubs, but the mother is not welcome. The cubs are lucky to have escaped their ordeal alive and their good fortune continues. Their mother brings them to a fresh kill.
For the lionesses of the super pride, these border incursions don’t always end in violence. Each territorial skirmish is just one moment in a conflict that lasts generations.
But one threat is met with immediate force. Wandering nomadic males are one of the greatest dangers a super pride faces.
As young males mature, they’re seen by their fathers as competitors and are kicked out of their prides. They are left to fend for themselves in exile. Living on the fringes of other prides territories, they face harassment wherever they go.
A reliable food source is hard to come by without a pride in a territory, so, many nomads survived by following the migrating herds, but they’re secretly scheming and waiting to make their move. Their goal is to take over another’s pride.
The nomads’ main mission is to spread their genes. A lioness can’t mate if she already has cubs, so the male’s solution is simple. Kill the Cubs off and spread his own DNA.
With so many lionesses, the super pride presents a tempting target, but first, the nomads will have to get past the prides’ two males, and that is no easy task even for a buff bachelor lion.
As night falls though, the super prides males reveal their location. They’re much too far away to stop intruders. It’s time to make their move.
The lionesses hear the roars of potential cub killers. If this were a normal pride, the mothers might not stand a chance against this group of nomads, and the Cubs can be in mortal danger. But the lionesses of the super pride have the power of numbers.
Now they issue their own warning. They will vigorously defend their cubs and their turf. The intruders know they’re outnumbered. The powerful wall of sound seems to deter the nomads away before they can even mount an invasion.
The super pride males return at dawn. The scent of the intruders lingers everywhere. The males refresh their own scent marks and roar at full volume, but the danger has passed. The females in their crash came to the rescue saving their cubs and ensuring the super pride will live on, at least for now.
As the wet season draws to a close, and the plains quickly begin to dry out. A sea of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra resumed their annual journey to greener pastures.
For the past two months, they’ve helped the super pride thrive. Now without them, the pride faces much bigger challenges: the buffalo.
For the super pride, a buffalo is the ultimate prey. It weighs up to 1,500 pounds, providing enough meat to feed them all, but Buffalo fight back These fierce animals kill more lions than any other prey species. A herd of buffaloes is a fortress of horns and hoofs. A loner offers the best chance but even a single buffalo demands respect.
Unlike other prides the lions of the super pride have a special advantage. There is strength in numbers. Bringing down a buffalo requires the power of one of the big males. It takes several minutes to kill a male buffalo.
The lions must face the buffalo for the next nine months until the wildebeest return. It’s a dangerous and deadly proposition, but the combination of plentiful prey, strong males, and a large group of powerful females, gives them a greater than average chance. But as, mighty as it is, one day change will come.
The super pride, like all great empires, will fragment and fall. The cubs will eventually leave the comforts and care of their family and forge new prides of their own. The young females may form a daughter pride nearby, and one day they may even challenge their own mothers for their territory. The young males though, will probably travel much further from home. They will continue carrying the super prides genes across the Serengeti, and someday form a new super pride of their own to rule the Serengeti plains.