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Lion populations differ ecologically, even within an eco-system. The inter-relationships of habitat and prey with lion ecology, sociality, and behaviour are obvious and striking.
Lions have a wide habitat tolerance; preferring open woodlands, thick bush, scrub and grass complexes, even penetrating deep into deserts along watercourses. The only habitat where they are generally not found is rainforest. Densities are highest in savannah or plains habitats with the greatest variety and biomass of hoofed mammals. In Ngorongoro Crater densities reach c. 38 / 100km2, 26 / 100km2 in Nairobi NP, 12.7 in Kruger NP and 12 in Serengeti.
Different prides have different preferences and traditions of what prey species they favour, but due to their opportunistic nature, lions hunt a large variety of game. The most widely distributed ungulate species of impala, wildebeest and zebra are also the most common prey species. When a group of females hunt together or when the larger males are assisting lions are able to take larger prey such as buffalo, giraffe or even young elephant. They will take smaller prey from warthog and rodents to ostrich eggs and even fish. Lions are also known to eat cheetah, cape fur seals, chimpanzee, tortoises, termites, grass and fruit.
Kills in southern Kalahari: wildebeest (37%), gemsbok (32%), springbok (13%), hartebeest (7%), eland (4%), ostrich (4%), porcupine (2%). In Kruger NP, in normal years of rain: impala (29%), Burchell’s zebra (16%), wildebeest (14%), warthog (13%), porcupine (13%). In Savuti wet season: buffalo (41%), zebra (29%). Mana Pools: impala (45%), buffalo (20%), waterbuck (15%), warthog (7%), zebra (7%).
Lions kill a greater proportion of males and young animals of prey species.
Lions will scavenge and respond to smells or sounds of a kill, including following circling vultures; they will readily drive other predators off a kill. In Serengeti c. 40% of food is scavenged. Scavenging behaviour allows lions to thrive in periods of drought. Lion densities in northern Kruger NP rose from 1 per 30km2 in 1989 to 1 per 8 – 9km2 in 1993 after the 1991 – 92 drought.
Lions and spotted hyenas have similar prey preferences and often compete at kill sites. Lions are dominant except when substantially outnumbered and will generally only surrender a kill once most of the meat has been consumed.
The average daily intake for males is 7kg, and 4.5kg for females but this varies considerably between seasons. The maximum at one meal is up to 15% of body weight.
Lions can survive for long periods without water, getting much of what they need from the moisture content of their prey, however where a water source is available they will drink regularly.
Habitat also affects the social biology of lions. In Kruger woodlands, males spend less time with females, hunting more themselves and scavenging less from females. Males and females also rely differentially on prey species, females taking more zebra and wildebeest and males taking more buffalo. Associated with these differences, juvenile survivorship and birth intervals are higher and post-natal dispersal of cubs is lower, producing dramatically different life-table and settlement patterns than in Serengeti. Most Kruger males settle within 20km of their birthplace versus moving >200km away before settling, apparently as a result of both habitat structure and prey density.