You are lying in your tent in the still of the night, with only the hiss of insects and the haunting whoops of hyenas breaking the silence of African night; and then you hear it…a few moans, followed by powerful roars echoing through the darkness. The lion pride sound like they are only metres from your tent, but maybe that's just your imagination…On a still night, a lion's roars can carry over 8km, proclaiming their territory and reinforcing their family bonds.
No other sound evokes the spirit of the wild like the roar of a lion. It's a sound that evokes awe and wonder, but also fear in no small measure. Perhaps this is something instinctive in us; a reaction tied to our evolution in Africa alongside the mighty cats, stretching back hundreds of thousands of years.
The only truly social cat, lions have represented strength and valour in human culture since the beginnings of civilization. In classical times, lions still survived in Greece and Turkey, North Africa and through to the Ganges Plain in India. Lions have suffered a catastrophic decline in the last hundred years, with perhaps only 10% of numbers surviving in comparison to a century ago. The only place they survive outside of Africa is the Sasan Gir National Park in Gujurat, India. However, where they do survive, in protected areas such as the Serengeti in Tanzania, reserves in Northern Botswana and the Zambezi Valley, lions can be fairly easy to track down and observe. Fascinating animals to watch, these majestic cats (the males weighing up to 260kg) exhibit a remarkable range of behaviour and facial expressions, adaptions necessary for life in prides of up to thirty strong.
When undisturbed by man, they are also superbly adaptable predators, able to live in habitats ranging from some of the driest of deserts (the Namib and Kalahari being good examples), to the edge of Congo basin. In deserts, prides are reduced in size in order to deal with the lack of available food; whilst lions in more forested lands have developed the habit of climbing trees, such as the famous lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, or Lake Manyara in Tanzania.
Unlike their cousins, jaguars and tigers, lions have little love of the water; but here again they can be flexible. Prides in Botswana's Okavango Delta often spend many months during the high water periods, swimming between isolated islands and making a living in habitats that are more amenable to the crocodiles and hippos they share this region with.
Perhaps more than anything, the presence of lion prides is a symbol of an undisturbed ecosystem - a place where nature can still provide enough food for this, the greatest of African predators.