When does a lion hunt?
Lions primarily hunt at night, when their night vision gives them an advantage over prey. However, they will also hunt opportunistically during the day.
Anatomy of a hunt
Lions are stalk-ambush predators. Once a lion has spotted a potential target, they will usually approach the animal slowly and carefully, crouching low to the ground with their ears flattened, to avoid alerting the prey to the imminent danger. Once they are within striking range, they launch the attack.
When attacking, lions often try to run ahead of their prey to cut off their escape route, reaching speeds as fast as 60km/h (37mph) – although they can only maintain these speeds for relatively short bursts of 100-200m. Once close enough, they will launch themselves towards the prey and grab on with their claws, using their sharp teeth to bite and attempt to drag it to the ground. Once the animal has been brought down, the lion will make the kill: for larger animals, they will crush the animal’s throat to suffocate it, while smaller prey can be killed by severing the spinal cord with a strong bite.
Sequence of a lioness hunting a warthog, which she then dragged over to the shade where her cubs were waiting.
Within a pride, females carry out the majority of hunts, while males are typically more focused on defending their territory.
Lions can hunt alone or in groups – for larger or trickier prey, females may carry out coordinated hunts. Each lioness will have a strategic position in the hunt: the larger and stronger females among the group will occupy a central position, tasked with taking down the prey. The other group members take to the “wings”, blocking the animal’s escape and funnelling it towards the best hunters in the centre.
A schematic of a coordinated hunt. Source: Lion Optimization Algorithm
Learning to hunt
Cubs first start to sharpen their hunting skills through play, where they will stalk, chase, and pounce on other lions – young or adult alike! They also learn by watching adults stalking and hunting as they grow older. At 11 months, cubs are old enough to begin participating in hunts, but may make life harder for the adults around them by carelessly alerting prey to their presence. By 16 months, cubs take part in hunts on a regular basis, and should be fully skilled hunters by two and a half years old.
Homemade or takeaway?
Although the lion has a reputation as a formidable hunter, lions do not necessarily acquire all their food by hunting. They can also scavenge food from other animals, by making use of their larger size to steal kills from spotted hyaena, leopard, cheetah, and African wild dogs, or even from other lions. Some groups have been known to obtain up to half of their diet in this way.
Secure lion landscapes
A Lion Landscape is a landscape that supports a viable population of wild lions, or any other pinnacle carnivore species. To do this it must also support healthy wild prey populations, healthy habitat, and benefit local people. Our lion conservation and research work focusses on how local communities, their livestock and lions can co-exist in a lion landscape.