The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion

Death is always near, and teamwork is essential on the Serengeti—even for a magnificent, dark-maned male known as C-Boy.

They say that cats have nine lives, but they don’t say that about the Serengeti lion. Life is hard and precarious on this unforgiving landscape, and dead is dead. For the greatest of African predators as well as for their prey, life spans tend to be short, more often terminating abruptly than in graceful decline. An adult male lion, if he’s lucky and durable, might attain the advanced age of 12 in the wild. Adult females can live longer, even to 19. Life expectancy at birth is much lower, for any lion, if you consider the high mortality among cubs, half of which die before age two. But surviving to adulthood is no guarantee of a peaceful demise. For a certain young male, black-maned and robust, known to researchers as C-Boy, the end seemed to have arrived on the morning of August 17, 2009.

A Swedish woman named Ingela Jansson, working as a field assistant on a long-term lion study, was there to see it. She knew C-Boy from previous encounters; in fact, she had named him. (By her recollection, she had “boringly” labeled a trio of new lions alphabetically as A-Boy, B-Boy, and C-Boy.) Now he was four or five years old, just entering his prime. She sat in a Land Rover, 30 feet away, while three other males ganged up on C-Boy and tried to kill him. His struggle to survive against those daunting odds, dramatic in itself, reflected a larger truth about the Serengeti lion: Continual risk of death, even more than the ability to cause it, is what shapes the social behavior of this ferocious but ever jeopardized animal.

On the day in question, near the dry bed of the Seronera River, Jansson came to check on a pride known as Jua Kali. She was also alert for adult males, including those “resident” with the pride. (Male lions, not strictly belonging to any pride, instead form coalitions with other males and exert controlling interest over one or more prides, fathering the cubs and becoming resident, loosely associated with the pride. They also play an important role in helping kill prey—especially with larger and more dangerous animals, such as cape buffalo or hippos—thereby contributing something besides sperm and protection to the life of the pride.) The resident males of Jua Kali, Jansson knew, were C-Boy and his sole coalition partner, a golden-maned lothario named Hildur. Approaching the river, she saw in the distance one male being chased by another. The fleeing lion was Hildur. Fleeing from what, and why, she didn’t at first understand.

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