The Royal Cub Club!!- Article by Gareth Jones
The Royal Cub Club – Lion Life Is Tough!
Lion cubs are indeed very cute creatures and sightings are immensely enjoyed by those who see them in the wild. However, while there are playful and joyful moments, being part of the “royal cub club” in any part of wild Africa is often very sad for many cubs, as this article will highlight. Indeed, these young cats are only ‘members’ of the “royal cub club” for a relatively short time, as graduation to adulthood is the privilege of few lion cubs.
Just imagine for a moment, if we could actually understand Lion talk!… Cleo the little lion cub lay on her back with her mother in the long soft green grass, under the tall leafy trees, almost next to the main gate of the Nairobi National Park. As Cleo lay there for some time, a low grumbling noise could be heard occasionally, “Mama!!..what is that noise we keep hearing?”. Mama replied in a knowing tone “Well my cub… we know them as “grumble- shines”, they have strange rolling legs and always seem to be in a mood as they growl wherever they go, and they also do not smell good and are filled with humans”. Cleo thought for a while and then said “but Mama why do so many “grumble-shines” go past us all the time?”. Mama replied “Well my cub, there are many theories, but the baboons seem to know the main reason after listening carefully to the humans talking, as I listen to the baboon jabber-jabber-jabber every day, and my understanding is that the many humans go through the gate in their “grumble-shines” to “LOOK FOR LIONS!!”, they are known to rumble around for hours in the heat and dust, just to try and find one of us, then when they see us the humans behave very strangely, they point funny things at us that click and sometimes flash brightly, and some of them even climb on top of their “grumble-shines”. “Wow Mama!!…. that is really crazy!” said little Cleo, “We relax here all day in the cool shade while they must get so hot in their “rumble-shines”.
In the Nairobi National Park, about 8 years ago I watched a lioness we called Mica with her family, for some time late one afternoon. Her two young cubs were lying next to her, however, I was glad to see her two older (2 yr & 2 months old) offspring lying nearby; Raffie and Elsie. The little cubs seemed to be really enjoying the wet conditions, as they played happy games like ‘catch me if you can’, ‘jump the puddle’, and ‘catch the tail’. It was delightful to just sit and watch them as they played in and around the muddy road. They also tried to play with the older lions like Raffie and even their mother Mica. When watching the cubs play, it is easy to reflect on the old English saying “as playful as a kitten” being applicable to lion cubs as well. The joyful mood of the cubs seemed to lift the somber mood of the other lions, much like young human children often lift our spirits at times. As it began to get darker, Mica suddenly decided it was time to go, and I watched them as they walked off, past the No5 junction stone sign, and eastward past the lone tree. Sadly over a period of time, none of these cubs survived, and Mica simply disappeared never to be seen again.
Lionesses can give birth to 4 cubs on rare occasions, however, 2-3 cubs are more common. All wild lion cubs are born in hidden places. When it is the right time, a lioness leaves her pride to search for a hidden den where she can give birth in secrecy so that the newborn cubs increase their chance of survival. The cubs are born blind and their eyes only open after 2-3 weeks, and then it takes another few weeks for them to be able to see clearly and focus. The newborn cubs also have black spots on their bodies that tend to fade as they grow older. The lioness keeps predators, such as large birds, snakes, hyenas, leopards, even male lions away from her newborns. The newborn cubs tend to crawl around when tiny, and cannot walk for the first 3 weeks of their lives. Their movements from one place to another are limited to only crawling. If they really lag behind, their mother carries them in her mouth by holding them behind their necks. It’s really amazing how the same lethal fangs of a lioness, can very caringly carry her newborn cubs so gently. After about 6 weeks, the lioness introduces the cubs to the trusted pride members. Baby cubs like to explore and socialize by playing. For those who are able to see lion cubs in the wild, it is wonderful to watch cubs playfully showcase their cute actions.
If older lion cubs are present in a family pride, a lioness does not introduce her newborns until little ones turn 3 months old. This is because older cubs usually bully the little ones by playing rough and stealing their milk. Like humans, lion cubs are born without teeth. So, their mother’s milk is crucial for them to grow up. They stop drinking milk when they reach the age of 6-7 months. However, they still stay dependent on their mother for protection and meat. Lion cubs usually only start eating meat after about 3 months. At about 2 years of age, lions have learned hunting skills, and therefore become less dependent upon adult care. As a consequence of being over 2 years old, male cubs are then ousted from their maternal pride.
Sadly only 1 in 8 male lion cubs survive in the wild. Even though male and female lion cubs are born roughly the same number ratios. Life of the “Royal Cub Club” is much tougher for male cubs, especially after they are ousted from their maternal pride. Thereafter young male cubs need to endure a “survival of the fittest”, “do or die” test period of their lives. During that rough journey, they experience deadly fights with males in foreign territories.
If the dominant male lions of a pride lose their authority to a newcomer male, they put lion cubs of the pride in a deadly risk situation, because a new leader kills all the existing lion cubs. This is one of the saddest facts about lion cubs. In order to successfully reach 2 years of age, lion cubs go through very tough times. Most of the time, they become victims of starvation, abandonment, and predators, which slashes about 50% of their chances to further life.
Seeing lion cubs is always a cute moment, especially when observing their seemingly innocent and mischievous nature, however, the harsh reality is that very few of them actually survive in the wild, and really struggle to grow up and become adults. The transition from cute cub to big cat carnivore depends on the survival of the fittest. So effectively while we humans mostly see the softer side of “Royal Cub Club”, in reality, it is a very tough cub club to be in, and graduating to adulthood is the privilege of the select few, who then pass their stronger genes onto the next generation.
Lion populations in Africa have plummeted drastically in recent years, from well over 200,000 a hundred years ago to less than 20,000 currently alive. Lions are no longer even found in the wild in at least 26 African countries. Sadly, there are just a few African countries like South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya that continue to protect critically endangered and threatened species, and lions are seriously in danger of being in that category. We hope and pray that the future of the “royal lion club” will be kept intact as mankind works together to protect them.