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Nature of the Pride

Male lion 

Lions are the top predators in any area.

Above the vast Serengeti Plains of northern Tanzania towers Ngorongoro Crater, an extinct volcano whose walls rise 2,000 feet high. Inside the crater's 125 square miles graze countless herds of zebra, wildebeest, gazelles, and buffalo. Nearby, lions, the fierce predators of the plains, are lurking. These majestic animals live within strictly marked territories in family groups called prides. This week's NATURE program, THE CRATER LIONS, focuses on one small pride: the Tokitok family.

Most lion prides range from five to 35 individuals, with a disproportionately high number of females. Females are crucial to any pride's survival, and not just because they are the source of a new generation of cubs. In the unique organization of the pride, lionesses are in charge of the hunt.

Unlike most other species, lions leave killing to the females -- the lionesses -- who hunt as a group. Acting in tandem, lionesses' cooperative behavior is rare in the cat family; almost all other felines are notoriously solitary animals. Of all the cats, the lion is the most sociable.A male lion has two main duties: to produce new offspring and to protect the pride. Since lions are the most powerful predators in Africa, the only thing a lion fears in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a protected park, is another lion. Lions from rival prides may try to take over a group by fighting its males. If the invading lions succeed, they assert control by killing all the pride's cubs and starting families of their own.

Females generally come into heat once every two years, the length of time required to raise cubs to maturity. However, if intruding males kill the cubs, lionesses will be ready to breed within a few days, and the new males will mate with them in an effort to start a new litter of cubs. This cycle occurs every time a pride falls to invading

Lioness with cubs 

A lioness guards a group of cubs.

males -- so often, in fact, that for every cub that lives to be one year old, its parents have mated nearly 3,000 times.

Adult lions in any pride jockey for mating rights. If the males are related, only one brother or cousin will mate with all of the females, in order to keep family blood lines intact. Unrelated males will instead take turns mating with available females in an effort to insure that both sets of genes are passed down to the new generation.

After 110 days of gestation, lionesses give birth to cubs. The average number is three cubs per litter, but lionesses may bear as many as five at a time. Most mothers find secluded rocks or marshy areas in which to give birth. Mothers closely guard their newborns from predators like hyenas and jackals, until introducing them to the pride at about four weeks of age. Raising young is a community effort among the females, who take turns nursing the cubs.

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