How Do Lions Hunt? Understanding Their Most Common Tactics

Written by Sofia Fantauzzo
Published: November 26, 2023
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Lions are one of the most ferocious mammalian predators on land. Their large size, speed, and gymnast-like agility make them a force to be reckoned with in the wild. Not many other animals mess with these cats, who employ multiple hunting strategies in order to be successful predators.

Lions hunt by stalking their prey, before approaching them from an angle and using their body weight to wrestle the prey animal. They use their intensely strong bite force to sever the vertebrae in the neck. Below, we delve deeper into how lions hunt and the rate at which they successfully capture prey.

What Strategies Do Lions Use While Hunting?

Lioness walking into water

Lionesses will stalk their prey through water if necessary.

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©twabian/Shutterstock.com

Hunting Strategies

Lionesses are typically the providers of the pride. Their smaller size makes them quicker, more agile hunters than the bulkier male lion. Additionally, the lack of a mane and an overall slimmer profile make the female lions more able to camouflage with their surroundings.

Lions mostly rely on stealth to gain access to their prey, which are usually quick and can easily get away if they sense danger from an incoming predator. After they’re close enough to their future dinner, they make a quick lunge to attack. Preferably, this results in the lioness pouncing on top of the prey and then delivering the killing blow to the neck, either by severing the vertebrae or through suffocation. Sometimes, it’s enough to set the animal off balance. If they can get in a swat with their powerful paws, this can be the decisive blow the lion needs to make its next move. Once the prey animal is off-balance or knocked over, the lion moves in for the kill.

There are occasions where stealth is not the answer. In this case, the lion will ambush their predator and chase them for about 50 meters if necessary. If they do not get their catch, they’ll abandon the pursuit to conserve energy for future hunts.

Feeding Behavior

Though lionesses do all the heavy lifting when it comes to hunting, they bring the food back to their pride, and the adult male lions eat first. Lions will usually start at the stomach area of the carcass to gain easier access to the internal organs. The kidneys and the liver are the most nutrient-dense parts of the animal, so those are the first organs to go. The skull is rarely opened, as the entrails and heart are better for eating.

Once the adult male lions eat, the other lions consume the remains. If the kill is not very large, this could mean there is nothing left for the smaller lions or cubs until the next kill. For this reason, lions typically will eat once every few days. But even though lions are predators, they can also be scavengers. They are not above stealing the remains of another’s kill or scouting for any leftovers nearby.

Do Lions Hunt Alone?

African safari scene where a male lion with a full mane is looking at the camera and moving through long dry grass with a lioness and four cubs that are his pride. Botswana.

Lions are the most social of all the big cat species.

©CherylRamalho/Shutterstock.com

Lionesses can hunt solo, but they mostly hunt in groups with other females to increase their chances of success, along with the size of the kill. Lions need to feed a whole pride, and capturing larger animals means more food.

There is a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to how successful lions are when hunting. Lionesses are about half as successful when hunting solo as they are when they hunt with a group. While this rate of success isn’t wonderful, lions would rather conserve energy for a future hunt than waste that energy in an unsuccessful pursuit, which is why they usually give up after one or two failed attempts.

When they do hunt in groups, the female lions tend to take positions such as left, right, and center. This strategy can make it difficult for a prey animal to get away. Additionally, the distraction provided by the surrounding lions makes it easier for one to jump in for the kill. After the prey has been taken down, the lionesses bring the kill back to the group, and the hierarchy of feeding begins.

What Do Lions Hunt?

Elephant Hunting Lions

A perk to hunting in groups is being able to take down large prey like baby

elephants

and even giraffes.

©John WP White/Shutterstock.com

Lions are native to Africa and savannah landscapes, which are also home to some big prey animals. The prey animals lionesses prefer are wildebeests and zebras. When the male lions hunt, they can go for even larger prey like buffalo. While it’s not ideal, they eat smaller creatures like hares, lizards, and birds if necessary.

Lions are more likely to successfully separate small or weak elephants or hippos when hunting in groups. A meal this size can ensure the entire pride is well-fed. Some leftovers from the carcass can then feed scavenger animals like vultures, hyenas, or possibly other large cat species.

Interestingly, lions don’t hunt or eat hyenas. Although they might kill these animals, they don’t tend to eat the carcass. The same goes for leopards and cheetahs. Lions also don’t prefer impalas, contrary to popular belief.

Do Lions Eat Other Lions?

Lions don’t cannibalize their own, just as they don’t eat other large cat or dominant species. However, male lions will kill other male’s cubs to limit future competition and force a female into estrus so they can pass on their own genes. There have been reports of male lions killing another’s cubs and then eating them, though other times they just leave the carcass. Unfortunately, this behavior is not unusual in the animal kingdom.

Summary

In short, a lion’s first strategy is to use their stealth to track their prey and attack when the moment is right. If that doesn’t work, they will settle for an ambush and chase down their prey for a short distance. Lions don’t pursue prey for very long or attempt many takedowns in order to conserve energy. Once the lioness has killed the prey and dragged it back home, male lions eat first, followed by the lionesses. Cubs get any leftovers.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Elisabeth Y/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Sofia is a lover of all things nature, and has completed a B.S. in Botany at the University of Florida (Go Gators!). Professionally, interests include everything plant and animal related, with a penchant for writing and bringing science topics to a wider audience. On the off-occasion she is not writing or playing with her cats or crested gecko, she can be found outside pointing out native and invasive plants while playing Pokemon Go.

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