Lion kings lose place in the sun

Lion kings lose place in the sun

A dispute between lions over a lioness had a huge ecological impact in Africa


This lioness sparked a dispute between lions that upset the ecological balance in Africa, allowing hyenas to gain superiority over the big cats.
This lioness sparked a dispute between lions that upset the ecological balance in Africa, allowing hyenas to gain superiority over the big cats.
Photos: Wilderness Safaris
The legendary beauty Helen of Troy, who had many powerful admirers, is known as the "face that launched a thousand ships" for her part in inciting the Trojan War.

Australian Peter Allison, who has been a safari guide in Africa since the 1990s, knows her real-life equivalent in the animal world: an exquisite lioness that upset the delicate balance in the ecosystem of Mombo, in Botswana, and changed the lives of thousands of different animals.

The lioness was attracted to two lions, called Goss' Boys - named after a wildlife filmmaker, Richard Goss. This upset three rival lions, known as the Beach Boys because of their blonde manes, that admired her. The Beach Boys became so angry that they drove off their weaker rivals.

Allison told the story of the lioness that chose the wrong mate as part of his lecture about life as a safari guide, "Whatever You Do, Don't Run", organised by the Royal Geographical Society at the British Consulate General in Hong Kong last week.

He said the two prides of lions had lived peacefully, side by side, up until that point, in 1998; Goss' Boys controlled the north, the Beach Boys the south. Other lions were driven out, while hyenas and wild dogs kept out of their way. After the Goss' Boys disappeared, Allison saw the effect, which lasted several years. "Nature absolutely hates a vacuum," he says. "There's something ready to step up to fill it."

The Beach Boys went on the rampage in their former rival's territory, killing most lion cubs and young males they found. Allison said they didn't want young lions to grow up to challenge them. When things finally calmed down, few youngsters had survived.

With the Goss' Boys missing, hyenas took over as lords of the grassland and their population boomed. Leopards lost many kills to these famed scavengers, who were able to steal their food before they could carry it up into the trees. The frustrated cats gave up hunting in the open and focused on preying on birds, baboons and owls in trees.

"As a guide, it is my duty to show tourists a diversity of wildlife," Allison says. "But [the leopards] were hidden from view in thick trees."

Cheetahs, though the weakest of large predators, could be found in large numbers before the row. Allison once saw 18 in a single drive. But hyenas wiped out their cubs and the dispirited female cheetahs left to find a better home. Only two dominant males remained.

Wild dogs, the most powerful hunters in the area after the big cats, had been more successful than hyenas. With good team work, they could sprint after their prey and easily catch it. Yet they were overwhelmed by the hyenas and left. "We went from the best place to see wild dogs in Africa to not seeing any," Allison says.

The Beach Boys and other lions also struggled to compete with the hyenas. As their feeding became disrupted, they, like the leopards, turned to unusual foods. One pride spent as much time in water as on land, hunting semi-aquatic antelope and catfish.

Even humans had to change their behaviour. Hyenas love chewing on the tyres of Allison's vehicles, so he had to rebuild his camp to protect them. Eventually, three new prides of lions moved to Mombo. The strongest pride hated the hyenas and targeted their dens - wiping out clan after clan.

The new lions settled peacefully alongside the Beach Boys and the old order returned to Mombo. The leopards left the trees and returned to the ground, and the two lone male cheetahs saw females coming back. The wild dogs also flourished.

The lioness that set off the dispute, who had many cubs with the Beach Boys, remained "ignorant of her faults", says Allison. "[Now] all is going as smoothly as nature ever allows."


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