Lions of the Serengeti and Masai Mara

I’ve spent the last four months teaching photography at Klein’s Camp, Serengeti Under Canvas, Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp and Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp. Here are a few facts about lions I picked up from the guides along the way…

One of the male lions at Klein’s Camp

One of the male lions at Klein’s Camp

Klein’s Camp

  • The main pride at Klein’s Camp is the the Kuka or Black Rock pride (depending on who you talk to), which contains five male and seven female lions. The second, third and fourth oldest males may be from the same litter. There are also two other prides at either end of the valley called Buffalo Hill and (confusingly!) Black Rock.

  • The Kuka males can be recognised by the following features:

    • 1: Dark mane, circular bare patch in mane behind neck, crescent-shaped scar on shoulder 

    • 2: Black mark beside right eye, wound on neck in the mane, the mane is very close to the face

    • 3: No distinguishing features, no scars, darkish mane, but not a full one

    • 4: Deep, diagonal scar on face, scars on back, short mane (not seen since a fight with another lion, so probably dead…)

    • 5: ‘Bald’ on top, no scars

Lioness in silhouette at sunrise on the bank of the Maji Mbele pool

Lioness in silhouette at sunrise on the bank of the Maji Mbele pool

Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp

  • Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp is in the Grumeti pride’s territory, consisting of one male and a total of more than 50 lions.

  • There used to be a coalition of 12 brothers who used to hunt at any time of day - they were ‘killing machines’, according to Waziri, the head guide - but they haven’t been seen recently. 

  • There are three other lion prides in the area: Sabora (3 males, 5 females and 16 cubs = 24), Nyasirori (3+ males, 43+ total), Ranger Post/Kirawira (3 males - 2 dominant, 30-33 in total).

Three male lions take down a female buffalo in the Serengeti

Three male lions take down a female buffalo in the Serengeti

Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp

  • At Cottar’s, there used to be one pride called Henry’s pride, but it split into two - both the males being ‘shared’ between them. The rump of Henry’s pride has 15 lions (2 males, 8 females and 5 ‘teenagers’), while the other ‘Scotch’ (or ‘Scotch Rocks’) pride has 10 (2 males, 4 females and 6 cubs of 3-6 months). There are also three big males called the ‘Georges’.

Can you spot which of the Kuka males this is?

Can you spot which of the Kuka males this is?

Facts and figures

  • There are only 20,000 lions left worldwide (compared to 700,000 leopards!), and their range is now only 8% of what it was.

  • There are 3,000 lions in the whole of the Serengeti in Tanzania.

  • Females come in season at the same time to avoid males fighting for them and to raise the cubs together or because a new set of dominant males has killed all their cubs, leading them to enter oestrus at the same time.

  • Lions mate for around seven days, starting every 10 minutes and slowing down gradually to once every 20 minutes.

  • There are around 1,500 matings to every cub that survives.

  • Lions are trained to hunt by their mothers when they are 7-12 months old. At 12 months, they start to hunt on their own, but by the time they are two years old the male cubs have to be perfect hunters because that’s when they are kicked out of the pride.

  • A lion hunts whenever it has the opportunity, whatever the weather, and an ‘opportunity’ is when a zebra, say, is less than 60-70m away.

  • Despite what we’re taught at school, it’s not just the female lions who do the hunting - as you can see from the picture above!

  • Lions sometimes roll in the droppings of the wildebeest or other prey animals to mask their scent when they hunt.

  • When lions yawn, it’s a sign that they’re about to move. 

  • Lions sleep and walk on the roads to avoid the dew in the long grass. 

  • Lions’ manes only fully develop after 4-6 years.

Wildlife sightings

“Lies, damned lies and statistics…”

The only question that really matters when you’re on safari is “Will we see X?” Now, ‘X’ may be a lion, a cheetah, a kill or a wildebeest crossing, but the frustrating bit is that you never get a straight answer. Guides will tell you that “You never know what you’re going to see” or “There’s a pretty good chance” or “We might see that”, but they’ll never use statistics to give you a proper idea of the relevant probability. Fortunately, the manager of Klein’s Camp kindly gave me copies of the sighting sheets for seven months in 2018 and early 2019, so I was able to do a frequency analysis.

First, a couple of quick caveats about the data:

  • The records are not complete. Data are only available from July 2018 to January 2019, there were no game drives on some days, and the guides only started counting sightings of caracal, serval, aardwolf, migration herds and kills in October 2018.

  • The figures are for ‘sightings’, which means it doesn’t show the actual number of animals seen. A sighting of a lion just means that one or more lions was spotted.

  • Figures are for a given day rather than an individual game drive. At Klein’s, there are usually two game drives a day, one in the morning from 0600 or 0630 until lunchtime and another from 1600 or 1630 until sunset (1830-1900). Sometimes the evening game drive turns into a ‘night drive’ for an extra couple of hours. A ‘day’ therefore amounts to around nine hours in the bush.

Despite the limitations of the data, it’s possible to draw a few conclusions.

  • There were 1,135 sightings of the Big Five, cheetah, wild dog, serval, caracal, aardwolf, migration herds and kills in seven months (215 days), making an average of 157 a month or five a day.

  • Lions were the most common sighting (312), followed by buffalo (311), elephant (284), leopard (100), cheetah (68), serval (12), wild dog and caracal (both 11), rhino (10) and aardwolf (1).

  • Kills were very rare, with only five spotted during the four months when records are available.

  • If you divide the number of days when each animal was sighted by the total number of days in the period, you can get an approximate probability of seeing each one on a given day (see chart).

  • The chances of seeing a lion on any given day were 81% from July 2018 to January 2019 (from 52% in October 2018 to 93% the following month).

  • The chances of seeing any big cat were 85% (from 55% in October 2018 to 100% the following month).

  • The chances of seeing one of the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo) were 87% (from 58% in October 2018 to 100% the following month).

  • The chances of seeing all of the Big Five on the same day were vanishingly small, only 0.93%! It only happened on two days, 1 and 10 October 2018.