Most of you have probably seen this picture:
As well as the ones after it:
This series of photos was taken at site H11 along the Loyangalani river and remains, to me, one of the most amazing accomplishments of our camera trap survey to date.
First, seeing a kill is rare. In the 47 years that the Lion Project has been watching Serengeti’s lions, we’ve only seen lions with about 4,000 carcasses; of those, we’ve only actually seen them in the act of killing 1,100 animals. That might sound like a lot, but with one or two people on the ground, almost every day of the year, racking up nearly 50,000 sightings, that’s not that often.
I don’t love this series simply because this random, stationary, complacently-stuck-to-a-tree camera trap caught this rather rare event – but because it goes on to document the story that follows: A single lioness takes down a zebra much bigger than herself. Within minutes, her sister joins her (free meal!). Note how big their bellies already are though, when they begin to eat. These aren’t particularly hungry lions to begin with. About 45 minutes later, they are staring out of view of the camera, and then comes a group of hyenas. The carcass goes back and forth between them throughout the night, with a jackal darting in to sneak a nibble.
Food stealing, or kleptoparasitism, is a major part of life for Serengeti carnivores. Contrary to long-standing popular belief (reinforced by the Lion King), hyenas are not skulking scavengers living only off others’ leftovers. Hyenas are quite adept predators and scavenge only about 40% of their diet; lions scavenge at least 30% of theirs. And, in fact, lions steal a lot more food from hyenas than is apparent at first glance. More often than not, when we see hyenas lurking anxiously around a pride of lions demolishing a carcass, it’s because hyenas made the kill, and lions stole it away. Research from Kenya suggests lions might actually suppress hyena populations simply by stealing their food.
On the flip side, work from Botswana suggests that hyenas are able to steal food from lions if and only if hyenas outnumber lions by at least 4 to one, and there are no adult male lions present. (Remember, males are half again as big as females: hyenas don’t stand a chance.) But observations that Craig and a former graduate student made from the Ngorongoro Crater further revealed that even when lions do give up a kill, they are so full they can barely move – it’s simply not worth the effort to fend off hyenas any more.
So, kleptoparasitism is a part of life if you are a Serengeti carnivore, but it’s not always as simple as the movies make it out to be. It’s a pretty cool mechanism that might be driving predator dynamics though – I just wish it weren’t so hard to test!!