by Christiaan Winterbach
First published on NikonRumors 17 May 2020
Christian Winterbach is a Botswana-based wildlife researcher and photography enthusiast. He’s also African Conservation Experience’s partner for our Okavango Wilderness Project. In this post he shares his advice on understanding lion behaviour in order to capture the best wildlife photos.
I am a wildlife biologist who has worked for 25 years in northern Botswana, mostly in and around the Okavango Delta. My focus has been on counting large carnivores, especially lions. Sharing a passion for carnivores and photography, I have been privileged to spend more time with lions than most people have.
If you’re going on a once-in-a-lifetime safari, you don’t want to miss out on key photographic opportunities. The advantages that professional wildlife photographers have over a first-time visitor are local knowledge and an understanding of the animals. Knowing where to find animals and when they are going to do something improves your chances to get that special photo. A good guide will go a long way in providing the local knowledge. I hope this will also help you with some basic understanding of lions so as not to miss that perfect shot!
People associate lions with the African savannah, but they can be found from the deserts to the edge of tropical forests, and everything in between. Lions are social cats, living in prides of related females and their offspring. Prides frequently spend time apart in sub-groups.
New males will take over as pride males from time to time. One to three males usually make up a coalition of pride males. The males are dominant over the females and aggression is a normal part of lion social interaction.
In general, lions do not do much:
On average they can sleep over 20 hours per day! Therefore, you need to get your timing right. The good news is that they are more active in golden hour (in photography, the golden hour is the period of daytime shortly after sunrise or before sunset, during which daylight is redder and softer than when the Sun is higher in the sky.)
The hotter it is, the less likely they are to do something. Waiting for lions to do something that you can photograph is best done without non-photographers!
The typical lion day starts late afternoon into the early evening. It is time for grooming and ablutions. This is a peak time for interaction between individuals— cleaning and rubbing against each other and flopping down on top of each other. Cubs like to play. A bit later the group will set off hunting. They will spread three to four hours of activity through the night interspersed with frequent naps, before starting their day nap. On cold winter mornings they like to find a nice spot in the sun, until it becomes hot. On cool overcast days, they may be active for longer.
The males frequently leave the females on their own, to go and patrol their home range. They mark their scent by spray painting bushes with urine and leaving faeces, to deter intruders. When sub-groups of the same pride meet up, there is a lot of greeting. Encounters with nomadic lions or neighbouring prides are tense and frequently become hostile between the same sexes.
Both sexes roar and it can be audible to humans for up to 8 km (5 miles) at night.
Lions prefer medium to large prey but will catch smaller animals opportunistically. They don’t mind scavenging food from other predators. A fresh kill and hungry lions equals conflict. It is everyone for themselves, with the males ruling. Lots of action. From growling to short skirmishes. A pride member that’s late for dinner will restart the squabbles. Cubs can get injured.
A big kill like a buffalo or giraffe will last the lions a couple of days. Generally, the lions will try to pull the kill into bushes where the vultures won’t see it. They will stuff themselves and then replenish themselves regularly afterwards; being most active at dusk and dawn. After a day or two you should make sure to approach and stay upwind of the kill.
Hyaenas and jackal will start hanging around. The hyaenas will wait for their chance to take over the kill from the lions.
Lust overrides the heat! Mating happens over a four-day period with the pair mating on average every 15 to 20 minutes. Initially, the male is very eager, but on day three less so. The female will initiate mating, by flirting and presenting herself. The action lasts about 15 seconds before the male dismounts. Males demount on the same side each time – giving you a good idea of where to expect the action. You don’t want to miss the dismount; the male growls and some females get aggressive with the male. The female response varies a lot in intensity between individuals. Some merely flop over. If you miss it, wait 15 to 20 minutes for the next chance.
A good anticipation of coming events helped me a lot in the past, we were sitting with a pair of mating lions, rain was drizzling down and eventually stopped. I was waiting for the male to shake the rain from his mane. My friend missed the shot. Eventually, the lions mated. We didn’t have the best view. They moved about 50m to a new spot. We got into a good position. The female was facing us straight. The male approached and sniffed her behind. Two hours of being wet and cold, but now we had the perfect view. I pre-focused on her face. She whipped around, and slapped him a couple of times to say “No more! This is over!”. It happened so unexpectedly and quickly that I forgot to focus (back button), and only regained focus as the male gave a final roar and walked away. I anticipated a normal mating, but we saw the last one 20 minutes earlier. My friend got the shots!…on a Sony. And that is why there is a Sony photo on a Nikon Rumors post! I deeply apologise…
Any other carnivores will get a response from the lions, even small carnivores. On the herbivore side, it is mostly buffalo and elephant that will take on the lions.
This section is not meant to be your all-in-one safety course, I am merely pointing a few things out. I could start this section by saying “Use your common sense”. Unfortunately, common sense is quite rare. So, I’ll start with “Trust your guide, he is probably the most experienced person in your group”.
We were discussing safety when darting lions. My vet friend summed it up perfectly: “When things go wrong, it will change our lives forever”. The photo is not worth your life!
You get various types of lions, genetically speaking and otherwise. The ‘otherwise’ bit is what most wildlife photographers should take note of. Most tourists are only exposed to safari lions; these are the lions that are used to game drive vehicles and people on these vehicles and mostly ignore the vehicles and people. So, after a day or two on safari, you might think you have the hang of this. We do like to generalize. The problem with animal behaviour is, that it is the exception that’s going to bite or stomp you!
Off the beaten track, lions have far less contact with people and vehicles. These lions are more skittish and more likely to be aggressive. Don’t mess with lions in areas with high levels of human wildlife conflict. The same lion that is moving away from you today, is the one that will show no fear tonight!
The most dangerous wild lions are man-eaters. They have zero fear for humans and see us as food. Luckily there are only a few areas where that might be a problem. In general, the most dangerous lion that the tourist would be exposed to, is hand reared lions at various ‘rescue’ and ‘conservation’ facilities that offer cub petting and walking with lions. Teenage males are the worst.
It is worthwhile to know some indicators of when a large predator is not happy. The first indication is that they look uncomfortable, then the ears are pulled back and the tail starts whipping. Getting out of the way is highly recommended at this point. If you can’t get out, sit still and quiet, don’t look the animal in the eye. This will escalate to growling, followed by a mock charge. But don’t bet on it that it will be a mock charge.
May you get many good lion photos, and remember, lions did not read the book. Sometimes they will do the unexpected!