It began with the death of zebra.
From miles away we heard its terrified, high-pitched bark echoing across the Mara. It took us five minutes driving like a bat out of hell to reach it but by the time we arrived, it was laying at the bottom of a gully in a striped heap, alone.
Twenty yards away, a black-maned male and a lioness sat quietly in the high grass as if nothing had happened.
Fellow travelers who saw the encounter said the female brought down the zebra but the male, appearing out of nowhere, chased her from her prize. Paws flew, growling ensued. She was in his territory and he didn’t like it. From the look of his belly—full and round—he wasn’t hungry, he just didn’t want her to have it.
The lioness rose and bolted west towards a hill in the distance, her gait a powerful trot as she floated across the plain. The male followed in hot pursuit and we watched as their shrinking silhouettes disappeared over the summit to a plateau beyond.
From the east, two sets of ears worked their way through the grass towards us. Occasionally, white-whiskered muzzles tilted skyward sniffed the air. Two females from the lioness’ pride were on their way. Would they help the lioness? Would there be a fight?
Every day, lions engage in a subtle dance of dominance and submission.
This time, we were able to watch.
At the top of the plateau we found the male and the lioness, once again, sitting quietly in the grass. When the two females approached, he walked towards them. His posture was erect, he held his head high, his stride had strength and purpose. The females kept their heads low and crouched submissively as they circled and sniffed each other.
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Each female behaved differently. The lion on the far left continually snarled, which seemed antagonistic, but her posture—body low and to the side— was the most submissive of the three.
The middle lion was the temptress. She repeatedly drew the male’s attention by raising her tail and nuzzling him, but she never let him mount her. The first lioness (on the right) sat most of the time, watched and waited.
Inexplicably, the lions stopped circling each other and laid down as if a director had yelled “Cut!” only to resume moments later.
Low to the ground, her ears pulled back yet utterly submissive, this snarling female wasn’t thrilled to have the male’s undivided attention.
Coming to her rescue, the temptress went from flirty to downright slutty, shoving her back end into the male’s face.
She placed herself in front of the male as if to mate, but the second he got into position she scooted forward out of his reach.
(I’d seen this teasing behavior before: a female, trying to lure an amorous male away from her cub for fear he would kill it. She used her feminine wiles to lead him miles from her offspring.
After an hour, and as the sun began to set, the females inexplicably attacked the male from both sides.
The male spun around, lashing at them in return. The temptress on the left, the snarler on the right, while the first lioness continued to sit and watch. And as quickly as it began, it was over.
As night surrounded us, a fourth female appeared, giving the male even more to think about. Within minutes, the plain was veiled in black and reluctantly, we headed back to camp.
~Taken while a guest of Mara Plains Camp in Kenya.
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