The social glue that holds a successful pride together

Since 1975, the African lion population has decreased by an estimated 80-90%, and numbers continue to fall.  The African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) is working to conserve this iconic species before it is too late for the King of Beasts.  

AT1, the first cub to be born into the Ngamo pride is now three years of age

To tackle this dramatic decline, ALERT is seeking an answer to how to successfully use captive-bred lions to create a source for the reintroduction of lions into the wild through the four-stage African Lion Rehabilitation and Release into the Wild Program.

ALERT has recently undertaken a study on the pioneering Ngamo pride at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe to examine the important issue of social bondedness within the pride.  The research sought answers to such questions as: What are the relationships between individual lions in the pride?  Who helps keep the pride together?  Is the pride socially stable?  An academic research paper to document the findings of this study has recently been accepted for publication.

The formation of a socially cohesive and stable pride is one of two essential criteria for lions in the release stages of ALERT’s program.  Wild lions live in prides for good reason; pride life facilitates territorial defence, hunting, and protection of young.  Prides are usually based on kinship, as related females often remain in their natal group.  However, in ex situ programmes such as ALERT’s, prides may comprise related and unrelated females.  Unable to rely solely on kinship ties to hold them together, the organisation needs to assess if social cohesion is possible under such circumstances.  This research used Social Network Analysis to investigate the relationships between individual lions in the Ngamo pride, focusing on their social interactions such as greeting, play and social licking.  This analysis identifies ‘keystone’ individuals, who are the most social members of an animal group.  They play a key role in holding groups together; forming bridges between other individuals who might not readily associate with one another.

Phyre, the social glue of the Ngamo pride
Phyre, the social glue of the Ngamo pride

The research paper explores the differing levels of sociality in the Ngamo pride and notes the keystone role that lioness Phyre plays; acting as social glue which helps to hold this pride together.  Not only is Phyre the pride’s current alpha female, she’s also the most sociable.  Whilst insufficient data was available to include ALERT’s second release pride – the Dambwa pride – in this study, preliminary analysis suggests that a lion named Loma plays the keystone role.  Loma however is not the alpha female of the Dambwa pride, indicating that the most dominant female is not always the most social.

ALERT’s paper is the first published work to explore the social networks that exist within a lion pride and has implications for conservation practices.  Findings suggest that individual lions differ in terms of their sociality within a pride.  Pride structure is often disrupted as a consequence of retaliatory killing, problem animal control and wild-to-wild translocation.  In all scenarios, the removal of keystone individuals may have negative consequences for the pride.  ALERT proposes that wild lion research using a social network analytic approach is needed in order to assess the extent to which such actions affect prides.

ALERT’s Ngamo pride has achieved the criterion of social stability.  Another criterion for success is that they can productively hunt and sustain themselves with food.  The following two video clips vividly demonstrate that this standard has most certainly been met.  The first shows the sub-adult KE3 taking down and dispatching a zebra and the second shows sub-adult AT1 successfully hunting impala.  Both of these sub-adults were born to the Ngamo pride post release and have learnt their survival skills from the adults of the pride, with no human contact.  Please note that these videos contain images that may be distressing.

‘A Social Network Analysis of Cohesion in a Constructed Pride: Implications for Ex Situ Reintroduction of the African Lion (Panthera leo)’, written by the ALERT research team in collaboration with Morgan Kirzinger of Canada’s University of Regina, has been accepted for publication in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.   You can download the full article here.

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