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Development of Hunting Skill in Captive Bred Lions

David Youldon


With 156 Night Encounters undertaken at Antelope Park to date, we now have sufficient data to start looking at patterns in hunting behaviour. The results from our captive bred lion cubs were compared to those from a study of adult lions in the Kruger National Park to identify similarities or differences. Here is what we found:

1. There was no difference in the probability that females (P= 0.24) or males (P= 0.23) would ignore or make no attempt to hunt prey they had encountered.

Our result: Our females showed a similar probability to make no attempt to hunt to the lions in the wild lion study (P= 0.25) but our males had a slightly higher probability (P=0.29). The Kruger study did not look at mixed gender groups; we found that ours were less likely overall to attempt to hunt prey they had encountered than single gender groups. (P=0.36).

2. There was no significant difference in the overall probability of hunting success for males and females.

Our result: Our study concurred with this showing only a 2% difference in hunting success between males and females. We did find that mixed gender groups were significantly (10%) less likely to make a successful hunt.

3. There was a significant relationship, with one or two adult lions having similar low probability of hunting successfully (P =0.21), compared to higher success rates for three (P =0.39) or four adults (P =0.35). There was no difference in the success rate for groups of three or four hunting lions. In contrast to this, Schaller (1972) looking at lions in the Serengeti showed that female pairs were twice as successful as singletons, but that success did not improve with larger groups.

Our Result: Probability of Hunting Success

All Groups: 2 lions (P=0.44), 3 lions (P=0.41) and 4 lions (P=0.53)
Male Only Groups: 2 lions (P=0.46), 3 lions (P=0.33) and 4 lions (P=0.50)
Female Only Groups: 2 lions (P=0.46), 3 lions (P=0.54) and 4 lions (no data)
Mixed Gender Groups: 2 lions (P=0.17), 3 lions (P=0.37) and 4 lions (P=0.53)

Contrary to the Kruger study our lion groups of either two or three lions have a similar probability of success, but with significant differences dependent on the gender mix, and contrary to the Schaller study success did improve when four lions hunted together.

What we can see is that mixed gender groups dramatically increase in probability in hunting success as each additional individual takes part in the hunt, regardless of gender. The most successful hunting group in our study (P=0.67) is a mixed gender group of one male and three females.

4. Hunts of impala and medium-sized prey were significantly more likely to be successful when the lions did not stalk their prey but rather chased them immediately upon detection…

Our result: Yes. 67% of successful hunts on these prey species did not include a stalk but a chase only.

…the opposite was true for small-sized prey species…

Our result: Yes. 64% of successful hunts on these prey species did include a stalk.

…however, lions were more likely to stalk impala and medium-sized species, whereas they were less likely to stalk small-sized prey. Females are significantly more likely to stalk anything.

Our result: Probability of Stalking

Small Species: All (P=0.86), Female (P=0.88), Male (P=0.83)
Impala: All (P=0.84), Female (P=0.89), Male (P=0.75)
Medium-sized Species: All (P=0.77), Female (P=0.76), Male (P=0.79)
Large Species: All (P=0.82), Female (P=0.88), Male (P=0.67)

Small + Large: All (P=0.86), Female (P=0.88), Male (P=0.81)
Impala + Medium: All (P=0.81), Female (P=0.84), Male (P=0.77)

All Species: All (P=0.84), Female (P=0.87), Male (P=0.82)

Contrary to the wild lion study we found that in fact our lions were more likely to stalk the smaller and larger prey species. Given the Kruger study showed that the highest success rates for lions were found to be on small-prey species where the lions stalked rather than giving immediate chase on detecting the animal may explain why our lions on average have a higher probability of a successful hunt than those observed in the wild lion study. Females are more likely to stalk than males in our study.

5. Hunts of small herds (1-3 animals, P =0.34) had a significantly higher probability of success than hunts of medium-sized herds (4-15 animals)

Our Result: Yes. 67% of successful hunts were against herds of 1 – 3 animals.

There is a lot more study to be done before any of these results can be considered conclusive and we will continue to take data to add to the study.


Funston, P. J., Mills, M. G. L., Biggs, H. C. (2001). Factors affecting the hunting success of male and female lions in the Kruger National Park. J. Zool., Lond. 253, 419-431

Schaller, G. B. (1972). The Serengeti lion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Funston, P. J., Mills, M. G. L., Biggs, H. C. & Richardson, P. R. K. (1988). Hunting by male lions: ecological influences and socio-ecological implications. Anim. Behav. 56: 1333-1345.

Cooperative hunting brings a greater probability of success in lion hunts, but a question exists on whether pre-planned cooperation is taking place or that lions are making use of opportunities brought about by the presence of other lions. [Stander 1991]

Studies of the tactics of group hunting by lions give a similar basic plan of the hunting process. When the group spots the prey a hunt is often initiated by a single lion looking at it, to which the other lions respond by looking in the same direction – the only clear form of “communication” evidenced in the hunting process. The group fans out, with certain lions stalking at a greater distance to encircle the prey. The encircling lions launch the attack, seemingly to drive the prey towards the other lions who ambush from their cover position. [Barry & Dalrymple-Smith 2005]

Stander suggested that lions often, but not exclusively, followed the same hunting patterns and divided lions into stalking roles; left, centre & right wing positions. Lions hunting in their preferred roles increased the success of the group by 9%.

2567 diurnal lion / prey interactions were observed over a seven month period from September 2007 to April 2008 at Antelope Park with lions aged 6 to 18 months old in varying group structures.

The probability that the lions were observed to make a central approach towards game was significantly higher (P=0.61) than either a left or right wing approach, however a central approach was more likely (P=0.85) if hunting small-sized game (warthog, duiker etc) and less likely (P=0.57) if hunting large-sized game (zebra, giraffe etc). Females were less likely (P= 0.53) to take a central approach than males (P=64) towards all sizes of game.

Older cubs (13 – 18 months) were less likely to take a central approach towards medium (P= 0.58) or large-sized game (P=54) but more likely to take a central approach towards small-sized game (P=87). The converse is true of the younger lions (6 – 12 months) suggesting that these hunting strategies may be a learnt behaviour.

Of all lions in the study, one female named Acacia, was least likely to take a central approach against any sized game species (All P=39, Small P=70, Medium P=38, Large P=36)

80 hunts were observed over three months with one lion group consisting of Acacia (f), Amghela (f) (both aged 14 months at the start of the study) and Chengeta (m) (aged 13 months at this time).

Acacia had no clear position preference (left: P=0.36, right: P=0.30, centre; P=0.34). Amghela had a preference for a central approach (P=0.46), but not as strong as Chengeta (P=68). On many hunts (N=44) more than one lion took the same approach angle; central.

The most common approach where each lion took a different angle was Amghela on the left, Acacia, right and Chengeta central, however this was also the least successful hunting technique. The greatest chance of success was any combination with Chengeta taking the left flank, but this was also the combination observed least.

Of 37 occasions where the lions progressed from stalking to a charge at the game this was most commonly (N=19) launched by the lion in the centre, but this was the least successful tactic. The most successful attack was launched from the lion on the left wing irrespective of which lion did so, although the greatest success was achieved if the attack was launched by Chengeta from this position, but it was most likely to be launched by Acacia.


[Stander, 1991] P. E. Stander. Cooperative hunting in lions: the role of the individual. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol., 29:445–454, 1991.

[Barry & Dalrymple-Smith 2005] Visual Communication and Social Structure – The Group Predation of Lions


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