Africa

The Dance of Dominance and Submission Between Lions

It started 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.

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The male and female as we found them when Ping, my guide, and I arrived.

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.

Two lions in the high grass in the Masai Mara

From the east, two sets of ears worked their way through the grass towards us. Occasionally, white-whiskered muzzles tilted skyward, sniffing 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 got to watch.

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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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When the male approached this female she didn’t let him get too close.

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Each female acted differently. The lion on the far left continually snarled, which seemed antagonistic, but her posture 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 would never let him mount her. The first lioness (on the right) sat most of the time, watched and waited.

Commercial break. After 5 minutes of tap dancing around each other, they all took a little breather.

Inexplicably, the lions stopped circling each other as if a director had yelled “Cut!”, only to resume moments later.

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Low to the ground, her ears pulled back yet utterly submissive, this snarling female wasn’t thrilled to have the male’s undivided attention.

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Coming to her rescue, the temptress went from flirty to down right slutty, shoving her back end into the male’s face.

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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 femininely wiles to lead him miles from her offspring.  You can read about it here: The Lion Lap Dance. )

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Another  break.

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After an hour and near the end of the sighting, the females inexplicably attacked the male from both sides.

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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.

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As the sun set, a fourth female appeared, giving the male even more to think about. Within minutes the plain was doused in black and reluctantly, we headed back to camp.

~Taken while a guest of Mara Plains Camp in Kenya.


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NEXT:  The Lion Lap Dance

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49 replies »

    • Hi Jenn –
      Thank you very much. I really appreciate the nom but I want to be truthful, I don’t write about these kind of things on my blog which is part of the requirements. I wanted you to know that I am thrilled that you would think enough of my work to do so, but also why you would not see follow up on my part. 🙂

  1. Fascinating set of images and a great write up on lion behaviour. It’s such a privilege when you get a chance to both see and photograph something like this. Thanks Susan.

    • Hi Kevin, that you so much. I really appreciate your kind words. I’ve seen lions hunt too and, wow, it’s really an incredible sight. Thrilling and sad and a million other emotions.

Would love to hear from you!