Dating, mating and dominance

I observed the most extraordinary behaviour between a male and female lion last weekend on a trip to the bush. A group of girlfriends and I decided to abandon the city for a few days for the beauty and tranquillity of the wild. So we made our way to the Manyeleti Park in Mpumalanga.

I was desperate to see some cats, having failed to notice any during several recent game drives in Kenya, Zambia and North West province. We made quite an exotic sight during the drives—a rag tag of city girls, some sporting brightly coloured Louis Vuitton satchels, others in oversized JackieO sunglasses and wholly inappropriate sparkly gold sandals. This attire seemed to bemuse our game guide, Dries, and tracker, Winston. But you know what they say about being able to take the girl out of the city.

Dries, who in his previous life was a hunter in Namibia, was a wealth of knowledge as he painstakingly explained the habits and behaviour of every animal we spotted—to our frequent shrieks of glee. He seemed to enjoy our girlish exuberance but warned that although our enthusiasm was infectious, should we be lucky enough to spot lions, we must remain “tjoepstil”. That elicited a lot of laughter.

Our drive was long and didn’t disappoint in beauty and splendour. Often, even if you don’t spot many exciting animals, it’s the quiet of the bush and the cool breeze blowing through the open game car that I find invigorating and revitalising.

But we were determined to see some cats and Dries was eager to please, so our drive went into the night. My heart almost leapt out of my ribcage when we finally spotted one. My excitement at seeing lions never diminishes, regardless of how many times I come into contact with these great beasts of Africa. She was magnificent, especially in the dark. We stood for a few minutes observing in silence, as we had been warned. Then, as if God himself were speaking, she roared. Oh the goose bumps at the splendour of that moment! Dries explained that the lioness’s roar was a call to the male lion in the pride because she was going into oestrus and wanted to mate.

This sent us into a fit of giggles, but our amusement was cut short when Dries elaborated that a few days before the lioness’s four cubs were killed by the same lion she was desperately calling for now. When a male lion has taken over a territory he commits infanticide, killing all cubs that don’t belong to him so that the female lions will go into oestrus and he can have his way with her and have his own offspring. By the time we moved on she was still calling for the same cub-killing lion.

We managed to see the offending male a few metres away as we drove on. Our girl-power pride felt terrible for the yearning, heart-broken lioness and we tried not to pay him any attention. But he was hard to ignore. The sheer size of him was breath-taking and his long, tawny mane stood tall and proud as it gleamed in the dark.

We asked our guide why, if he had got what he wanted from the lioness and could hear her calling, was he still lazing around in the bush and not paying her any attention? Dries said that he would, but in his own time. As if on cue, the male roared back so loudly it almost shook our car. Still, we were disappointed that it was not belted out with the same eagerness and urgency that came from the lioness. It was a rather lazy growl, actually, as if to say: “Yes, darling, I’m on my way, but not right now.”

So these are the sad yet intriguing ways of the wild. I’m often wary of making comparisons between humans and animals because I think we have different survival skills and abilities for the different environments in which we operate, but I couldn’t help thinking that the mating ways of the wild can sometimes be compared with that other unwieldy jungle—the dating scene.

The lackadaisical, almost dismissive way in which the male lion responds to the lioness is a case in point. Now that he’s got her attention, he can do with her as he wishes, but only when it pleases him. His dominance in the pride means that she has no option but to wait. Aren’t we always waiting as well? Waiting for that phone call? Waiting for that marriage proposal? Constantly waiting?

Just as male lions have no stamina when hunting, it seems men, too, just love the thrill of the chase but the rest, it seems, is too much like hard work.

Sure, you can take matters into your own hands, but which woman really wants to be the hunter? It’s not attractive and offends our pride. All things considered, I think I’d rather be a peahen. She may not be as pretty as her male counterpart, the peacock, but when it comes to courting, he is the one who has to show off his colourful iridescent green and blue-coloured plumage to impress and attract the female.


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