Dispelling a few myths

Sabi Sand | October 2016

Having been “around the block” a few times, I’ve found that I’ve quite often had to dispel a few myths about some of Africa’s wildlife, so I thought I would share a few of these with you, the reader, this month. While there is usually an element of truth in some of the popular beliefs, and they have not arisen without good reason, my own observations in the field over the last 25 years have been sufficient for me to challenge some of these beliefs, and indeed I will go further than merely to challenge them – I will confidently state that they are indeed myths. Perhaps I am using too strong a word, “myths”- which might suggest that I have contempt for these beliefs. That is not the case at all. I do in fact have respect for the beliefs and how they originated, but I can categorically state that the following popular beliefs are, in most cases, grossly inaccurate, or, at best, major oversimplification of reality.

Myth 1: Male lions do not hunt
Really? Why on earth would male lions not hunt? They are carnivores, aren’t they? A popular fairytale version of lion society depicts a typical lion pride as consisting of one adult male, a few lionesses and a number of cubs. Many people believe that in such a pride, the lionesses do all the hunting, and when they make a kill, the male lion always eats first, and the lionesses and cubs have to wait until he has eaten his fill, before they are allowed to eat.

I need to first explain that in lion society, at least in this part of Africa, adult male lions usually operate in coalitions of anything from two to six (or even more) males, usually (but not always) closely related to each other. Such a coalition will normally reign supreme in an area for a few years, during which time they will come to “possess” a few different prides of lionesses, mate with these lionesses and sire a number of cubs. Currently, the four Majingilane male lions are still the main territorial coalition in Singita Sabi Sand, and because they have been around so long, they are beginning to rival their deceased predecessors, the Mapogo coalition, for legendary status. But getting back to whether or not male lions hunt, there is no doubt whatsoever that they do. I have witnessed a number of kills, from start to finish, in which only male lions have been involved. Male lions are much larger and more conspicuous than lionesses, and for this reason they are generally less likely than lionesses to be successful in hunting of smaller or medium-sized prey animals. When it comes to hunting buffaloes, however, male lions actually have the edge over the
females. Many coalitions of male lions, including nomadic coalitions of sub-adults, have become specialist killers of large mammals, particularly buffalo, but sometimes even hippo! Remember male lions spend a considerable amount of their time away from the females, so it would be in their best interests to do some of their own hunting. I will concede, however, that very often male lions will benefit from kills made by lionesses, and because of their superior size, they often dominate the feeding. To claim, however, that lionesses do all the hunting, or that male lions never hunt, is erroneous.

Myth 2: Leopards are nocturnal animals
It is true that leopards can be active at night, and certainly do a good deal of their moving and hunting at night. However, I can honestly say that during my career, I have had better sightings of active leopards in the hours of daylight. Leopards are secretive and are experts at utilising cover to their advantage. Sometimes this is the cover of darkness, but very often they will use cover provided by the vegetation or the lie of the land, to conceal themselves in the daylight hours. I have definitely witnessed more leopard kills take place in daylight than at night, and I have often seen leopards fast asleep for lengthy periods at night. I will not go as far as claiming that leopards are generally more active in the daytime than at night, but I would definitely hotly dispute the theory put forward, even in many books on mammals, that leopards are essentially nocturnal. Again, there is some truth in the theory that leopards are nocturnal, but this probably applies more to areas where leopards are operating in competition with man, such as on stock farms. Leopards are highly adaptable, and can without a doubt change their habits to be mainly active in the daytime or mainly active at night, depending on their needs and the circumstances in which they exist.

Myth 3: Most baby animals are born in the spring
This may be the case in some parts of the world, but in our part of southern Africa, it is not an accurate claim. A few species of mammals in this area give birth mainly in the early part of summer, notably impala, wildebeest and warthogs. Waterbuck calves tend to be born in the middle of summer. Painted hunting dogs (or African wild dogs) are typically born in winter. Cape buffalo calves are born over an extended season, from mid-summer to mid-winter, with a peak in late summer. A huge range of mammals can and give birth at any time of the year. Examples here include elephant, rhinoceros, giraffe, zebra, hippo, lion, leopard, baboon, monkey, nyala, bushbuck and many more.

Myth 4: Baboons are the favourite prey of leopards
This is perhaps most frequently claimed my members of the South African population, and I am not certain of the origin of this theory. While it is possibly true that a leopard is the most likely carnivore to prey on baboons, in my experience they seldom do. This is not because they dislike the flesh of a baboon (indeed, leopards will consume the flesh of a vast range of other animals from various classes.) Leopards will for the most part avoid contact with baboons, because they rightly have a very healthy respect for the strength of an adult male baboon and the formidable size of its canine teeth. Leopards can be easily intimidated by a troop of baboons, and most leopards will usually give baboons a very wide berth. Yes, some leopards do occasionally kill baboons, but it seems to be a rather high-risk activity, which a wise leopard would usually avoid. Undoubtedly more baboons would be killed by male leopards than by female leopards, because of the significantly superior size and strength of the former.

I still have much to learn about the ways of the wild, and it is always my pleasure to be learning as I go along, sharing what I learn with my guests, and offering my interpretation of what we are witnessing or observing together.