Lions are the sybarites of the animal kingdom. When food is plentiful, they enjoy life. Every few days they go out and gorge themselves on a nice fat wildebeest. The rest of the time, they lie around basking in the sun on a big warm rock, looking as contented and harmless as your pussycat.
Also, they enjoy sex – lots and lots of it. One day on safari, we spotted an amorous lion couple in the southern Serengeti, a place as awesome as anywhere on Earth. After they had sex, the lady lion rolled over on her back and gave a growl of ecstasy. During the few days a female is in estrus, she and her suitor will mate several hundred times, or roughly once every 20 minutes.
Spending a few days up close and personal with the animals renews your appreciation of life’s fundamentals. It’s all about survival. Animal behaviour is entirely governed by reproducing, eating and avoiding being eaten. What’s impressive is the variety of strategies the animals have evolved for accomplishing these things. Animal behaviour makes human behaviour seem dull and narrow by comparison.
One thing we learned in the Serengeti is how important the females really are. We’d just assumed that in the animal world, males called the shots. Nothing could be further from the truth. To take just one example, the vast wildebeest migration to their calving grounds – the most impressive animal movement on Earth – is led by the matriarchs. The guys just fall in line behind them. Elephant society is tightly matriarchal – an essential fact that was widely played down in the days when all the animal behaviourists were men. It’s the oldest, most experienced female elephants who lead the clan in search of food, water and safety, and protect the family unit.
Female elephants spend their entire lives in the company of their mothers, sisters, daughters and nieces. Their family bonds are extremely warm and strong. The males are kicked out of the family when they’re teenagers and become too disruptive. For the rest of their lives they hang out on their own or with other bachelors, inspecting each other’s tusks. The status of a male elephant depends entirely on the size of his tusks – the bigger the better. The biggest tusker gets the girl.
Unlike lionesses, female elephants seem to regard sex as, literally, a distasteful burden. They only mate every four years or so, which is probably a good thing, since having a 7,000-kilogram weight on your back under any circumstances is excruciatingly uncomfortable. Nor are they impressed by the male appendage, which, because of anatomical necessity, is S-shaped and reaches all the way to the ground.
On the whole, guys in the Serengeti have a tougher time than girls. For every male impala with his doting harem, there are a dozen lonely bachelors who can’t get a date. The animal kingdom is full of surplus males – small-tuskers and other also-rans who spend their lives desperately competing for status and sex, along with aging has-beens who’ve been pushed out by younger and more virile rivals. For males, life tends to be nasty, brutish and short. Only around one in eight male lions makes it to adulthood. You don’t get to be king of the castle without a fight. And even if you win, one day you, too, will be dethroned.
Of course, it’s wrong to anthropomorphize these creatures. As we know, humans are so much more evolved than antelopes and lions that any similarities between our society and theirs are completely coincidental. Still, I couldn’t help noticing that we, too, are plagued with more and more young males who seem to be surplus to requirements. We used to send our surplus off to sea, or war, or penal colonies in Australia. Now that those options are off the table, we really have no idea what to do with them.
But if you really want to see abject males, look no further than the hyena – one of the more unpleasant species in all of Africa, anthropomorphically speaking. Unlike the other mammals, hyenas never co-operate – they just compete. They’re killing machines. And the females are totally in charge. They only let the males eat after they’ve had their fill. They are larger than the males, and come equipped with pseudo-scrotums and penis-shaped clitorises that are unusually big. For whatever reasons, hyenas are the most successful large mammal species on the continent.
The sex lives of animals in the Serengeti are as fascinating and baffling as our own. Who knew giraffes were so gay? Certainly not me – or anybody else, until recently. It turns out that male giraffes court and mate with each other at least as frequently as they do with females, and maybe more so. A definitive explanation for this behaviour is not yet forthcoming. No doubt Nature has its reasons, even if we don’t have a clue what they are. The more you learn about animal behaviour, the more you realize that the intricate interplay between ecology and animals (even people) is more complex and marvellous than we will ever comprehend.
One day we came across four lions – three females and a male – sunning themselves as they eyed the endless passing parade of wildebeests. They looked stuffed. (For lions, the wildebeest migration is like an all-day buffet.) Our guide, Tim Corfield, who is a walking encyclopedia of animal knowledge, pointed out that the huge male could barely walk because of a dislocated hip, probably the result of a hunting accident. “Fortunately, he’s got three females to hunt for him,” he said. That lion king had beaten the odds, for now. But soon the wildebeests will be gone and food will become scarce. A coalition of younger lions will challenge him and kick him out and take over his females and kill his cubs. And then he’ll turn from predator to prey. He will probably be finished off by the hyenas, just waiting for their chance.
Would you really want to be the king of beasts? Not me. No way.