A pregnant lioness in the Serengeti
Photo by Thomson Safaris guest and photo safari leader, Randy Hanna
We’ve all heard of someone trying to hide a pregnancy; the entire period-drama genre would implode without the trope.
But usually, that someone is human, not feline.
Lions, though, are notoriously secretive, if not about their pregnancies, than at least about giving birth. Once a female lion realizes she’s going into labor, she’ll sneak away from the pride and hide herself in a secret lair, where she’ll give birth to a litter of 2-6 cubs and stay with them for around three months.
Why all the secrecy? It’s simple: survival.
The odds are already stacked against a female lion bringing a cub to term; though pregnancies last just three and a half months, and female lions can go into estrus (a period of fertility) at any time of the year, it’s estimated that a female must copulate, on average, 3,000 times for each cub that survives past a year.
Part of that is just the harshness of life in the wild; many lion cubs starve, both in infancy and beyond. A female lion has only four teats, so litters larger than four generally won’t all survive. And once cubs have returned to the pride, when food is scarce, they often go unfed, meaning they regularly starve. That explains part of the reason lions go into hiding when giving birth; lionesses will allow any cub in the pride to suckle (they group-mother the cubs), and older cubs are as hungry for mother’s milk as brand-new-babies. If she stayed with the pride to give birth, a lioness’s milk would likely never make it to her own young.
Injury, teething, and disease can also carry off young cubs. Overall, somewhere between 60 and 70% of the cubs will die within their first year, and even fewer—about 1 in 8, or 12.5%—live to adulthood (lions mature around two years old).
But another major killer of lion cubs is even crueler than starvation: it’s other lions.
That’s not a smile…
Photo by Thomson Safaris guest, Neil Rabinowitz
Females will stay with the pride their entire lives, but males are ejected when they start to grow their manes, around two years of age. In order to join a new pride, they have to essentially take it over (hey, you don’t get the name “king of the beasts” without a serious love for power struggles). When it does take over a new pride, the first thing a male will do is kill all cubs in the pride he hasn’t personally sired.
That’s one way to make sure your child ascends to the throne.
If there’s more than one male lion in the pride, each may attempt to kill the offspring of the others at any time. While three-month old cubs are by no means ready to protect themselves, keeping them away for the first few months, when they’re most helpless (lion cubs can’t even run until four weeks after birth, a significant time span compared to most wild animals) ups their chances of survival.
So yes, it may be a dog-eat-dog world, but at least for lions, it’s also a cat-kill-cat one.