CAN TWO MALE LIONS REALLY BE FRIENDS?
Born Free takes a closer look at the bonds between lions – specifically addressing the question often asked of whether it is ‘natural’ for two male lions, such as our rescued lions Horus and Dadou, to be friends.
Most of the rescued lions at our Sanctuaries in South Africa and Ethiopia live in pairs. There is some variation from this – the Lions of Lockdown have lived as a four for over a decade and continue to do so, and Nelson, who sadly passed away last year, didn’t get on with other lions so was housed alone as he seemed much more relaxed living alone.
At our sanctuary at Shamwari in South Africa, some of our rescued lions live in male/female partnerships, such as King and Thea; two are in a female/female partnership – Maggie and Sonja; and two pairs of lions live in male/male partnerships. Jora and Black are brothers who have lived together for life.
Male lions Horus and Dadou were rescued separately before being housed together at Tonga Terre d’Accueil in France, with lionesses Cersei and Thea; all cubs at the time, of very similar age.
Despite not being related, Horus and Dadou grew up together and likely regard one another as brothers. Certainly, their behaviour towards one another is indicative of a strong bond.
Despite the images people often see of male lions in the wild, battling ferociously and even killing one another, male lions can become very strongly bonded with each other. When they are two or three years old, they leave their pride in search of another one, and can only be successful if they invade and take another pride over. The chance of success is higher if attempted by a group, and so related males may leave their pride together, with up to seven individuals searching as one for another pride to conquer. Unrelated males sometimes join them.
In fact, in 2006 an infamous coalition of six male lions began to rule over the Sabi Sand region of the Kruger National Park, impressively gaining control of eight prides. They were known as the Mapogo coalition, and their triumphs over several years were testament to the success of lion coalitions. Their group strength and experience allowed them to take down large prey like hippos, giraffes and even cape buffalo. Their leader, Makulu, was believed to have originated from a different pride to the rest, who were brothers. The group was so formidable that a documentary was even made about them.
The survival advantage of a coalition is clear, and has been found by studies (Grinnell, 1994; Grinnell et al, 1995) to be a mutualistic relationship; but do these male lions simply stick together to survive, or do they actually bond with one another as individuals? Certainly, in the Mapogo lion coalitions, leader Makulu and member ‘Mr T’ did not seem to get on well, often fighting before Mr T and another left the coalition together, but as a group they were successful in their cooperation.
Our animal carers’ experience with the male lions at our centres suggest that male lions living together can have as much affection for one another as any other pairing in captivity.
Unrelated lions Horus and Dadou have lived together for most of their lives, having spent the majority of it as a duo. They are now about four and a half years old and have an extremely close bond. Animal Care Supervisor, Martin Miritiawo, who works at the Jean Byrd Centre where the pair is based, has witnessed their close bond over the years.
“The bond between Horus and Dadou is one of the best we have ever seen in the animal kingdom,” Martin says. “They care deeply about each other, which is evident from the way they behave towards one another with mutual grooming, head rubbing*, and lying side by side so much of the time. You can tell that they have some sort of intuitive communication system, unique only to them. It is evident just in the way that they coordinate their movements and interactions together. If they were living in the wild they would be a perfect coalition.”
The pair seems to get on with their male lion neighbours Jora and Black as well. Both pairs seem to like being able to see each other and there are never any displays of aggression between the four. Their carers believe that in another life, all four would in fact make a perfect coalition.
The relationships that exist between the pairs and groups of lions we care for seem positive, with close bonds between individuals. While we continually look out for changes in behaviour, and would intervene if changing dynamics ever necessitated it, it is clear to us that male lions have as much love for one another as any other couple at our centres.
*found in a study (Matoba, et al, 2013) to be a behaviour used to maintain and enhance social bonds in lions
African Travel Canvas (2019) The History of the Infamous Sabi Sands Mapogo Lion Coalition, African Travel Canvas [Online] Available at: https://africantravelcanvas.com/experiences/safaris/the-history-of-the-infamous-sabi-sands-mapogo-lion-coalition/ [Accessed 1 March 2023]
Grinnell, J. E. (1994) Cooperation and Communication in Coalition of Male Lions, University of Minnesota ProQuest Dissertations Publishing
Grinnell, J. E., Packer, C., Pusey, A. E. (1995) Cooperation in male lions: kinship, reciprocity or mutualism? Animal Behaviour, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp 95-105
Matoba, T., Kutsukake, N. & Hasegawa, T. (2013) Head Rubbing and Licking Reinforce Social Bonds in a Group of Captive African Lions, Panthera Leo, PLOS One, Vol. 8, No. 9.
National Geographic (n.d.) Kicked Out of the Pride, National Geographic [Online] Available at: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/kicked-out-pride/ [Accessed 28 Feb 2023]
Packer, C. & Pusey, A. E. (1982) Cooperation and competition within coalitions of male lions: kin selection or game theory? Nature, Vol. 296, No. 5859.
Safari (2019) Male Lion Coalitions in the Sabi Sands and Kruger National Park, Safari [Online] Available at: https://www.safari.com/blog/male-lion-coalitions-sabi-sands [Accessed 28 Feb 2023]