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Majestic Male Lion: Birth to Dominance

Brendon Jennings
Kariega Lion Antelope Brendonjennings

One of the privileges of working as a field guide in an area for an extended period of time is the intimate knowledge that you accumulate about specific animals. On International Lion Day I find myself reflecting on the dominant male lion that currently resides at Kariega Game Reserve. I have had the privilege of observing this majestic male lion's life through the lens of my camera, from his birth to the dominant lion he is today.

This blog is a visual celebration of this male lion's life, but also his species that has earned the reputation of "King of the Jungle". Like so much of earth's wildlife, lions are under threat as their habitats shrink and unsavoury practices such as canned hunting and cub cuddling persist.

Kariega Game Reserve, and other national and privately owned wilderness areas, play a critical role in the conservation of these magnificent, big cats ensuring they have wild and safe spaces to roam and hunt freely.

Before the 1820 Settlers arrived, there were numerous sightings of lions in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. However, by the 1850s lions had been completely exterminated from the area. In May 2004, when Kariega completed the re-introduction of the Big 5, two magnificent male lions were brought in from the Kalahari region along with two females from South Africa's Highveld. Since then the lions have thrived at Kariega Game Reserve.

The current dominant male is the grandson of the males brought in from the Kalahari. I hope you enjoy this photographic record of his life from birth to dominance.

Dominant Male Lion Part of Litter of Three

I estimate that the current dominant male lion was born around late January or early February of 2013. He was part of a litter of three (two males, one female). Lion cubs typically weigh one to two kilograms at birth and are born blind. They only open their eyes at around six days old. The below photograph is my first recorded sighting taken on 5 May 2013.

First recorded sighting of Kariega dominant male lion May 2013

Lion cubs at Kariega have fortunately had an extremely low mortality rate. I can only recall that one of the cubs born on the reserve did not make it to adulthood. This is mostly due to lions being the dominant predator in the area. Lion cubs in the Greater Kruger National Park have a mortality rate of around 50% in their first year and this rises to 80% over the full lifespan.

Lion Cubs Meet the Pride at Six Weeks Old

Lion cubs interact with each other for the first six weeks. They grow stronger as they play fight and explore their environment when their mother is around. They are introduced to the rest of the pride from six weeks of age and start to interact with more tolerant members of the pride.

Male lion cub climbing tree at Kariega Game Reserve

Lions Face Significant Weather Challenges

Vulnerability is not something we associate with lions! However, surviving in the African wild poses challengers for all animal species, including lions.

The main challenge that Kariega's lions face are extreme weather conditions. Lions in our area have to tolerate temperatures that vary between -3C and 53C (26F – 127F). These are thankfully limited and extreme weather variations. Cubs can be born at any time and so could have to endure a variety of climates, including days of continual rain and long periods of drought.

This poignant photograph of the young male lion enduring the rain is among my favourites of him.

Kariega majestic male lion enduring the rain

Lion cubs are weaned at around six months. Adult male lions require around 7 kgs (15lb) of food per day but they will often go for long periods of without food and then gorge themselves on up to 30 kgs (66lb) at a single sitting. Their stomachs will be heavily distended as they lie down panting at rest as they digest their enormous meal. Lions do need to drink water daily.

As they grow larger, lions will occasionally loose condition if food is scarce. This is evident in the photograph below where our majestic young male lion looks very thin during a period of scarcity.

Kariega majestic male lion losing condition after being weaned

Male Lions Reach Maturity at Two Years Old

At around two years of age male lions reach sexual maturity and are usually ousted from the pride. Our majestic dominant male did not leave the pride but rather formed a coalition with his father, who was the dominant male. This is unusual but not unheard of. One of the famous lions of the Maasai Mara, Notch, also formed a dominant coalition with his father.

Our majestic male lion's hunting skills at this time were limited, but he learned from the other pride members and has refined his hunting skills over time. It is estimated that lions are only successful in their hunts about 35% percent of the time. This varies between individuals and environments.

Majestic male lion after a successful hunt at Kariega Game Reserve

Majestic Male Lion Becomes Dominant

As the male lion grew stronger and more confident he started challenging the older male in the coalition. In the beginning he seemed to lack confidence and took quite a few beatings from the older male! However, as the urge to mate grew stronger the disputes and fights became more intense.

By this time the reserve had exchanged lionesses with another reserve to maintain genetic diversity. Our ecologist and conservation teams are tasked to ensure that the best environment is maintained for healthy lions to thrive at Kariega Game Reserve. As an example, Kariega’s lions are from different areas, namely Kruger and a mix between Etosha and the Kalahari. The inbreeding coefficient of Greater Kruger is 0.23% whilst Kariega’s is 0.18%.

Male lion asserting dominance at Kariega Game Reserve

As this majestic male lion became more assertive, fights were regular occurrences and the inevitable scarred features of a battle-hardened lion made their appearance. Weighing in now at around 200 kilograms and capable of running 100 meters in around six seconds, the younger male was very impressive!

The lifespan of lions varies and is heavily dependent on the environment. Male lions reach maturity by three years of age and will start to displace dominant males at around five years of age. The lifespan of a typical male lion will range between 10 and 15 years if they survive the vulnerable cub and sub-adult phase.

Majestic male lion becoming dominant at Kariega Game Reserve

Battle scars on male lion fighting for dominance at Kariega Game Reserve

Majestic Male Lion a Privilege to Photograph

Personally, I have always enjoyed viewing and photographing this majestic male lion. His impressive size coupled with his large yellow mane has always made him extremely photogenic. The photographs I have of him have provided me with a literal snapshot of his life to date. I will always be in awe of his ability to overcome challenges and his raw power.

Did you have a sighting of this male lion on your Kariega safari? Did you manage to get any great photos of him? Please share your stories or photos by tagging us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. We love hearing from you.

If you would like to find out more about a safari at Kariega Game Reserve, please get in touch or review our safari lodge availability and make a booking online.

Dominant and photographic male lion at Kariega Game Reserve

Early morning photograph of majestic male lion at Kariega Game Reserve

Photo and blog credits to Kariega field guide Brendon Jennings.