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Chapter 12 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

A talk about Lions

As they rode back they conversed about lions, to beguile the time. All of them knew something about these animals; but Swartboy, who had been born and brought up in the bush, in the very midst of their haunts as it were, of course was well acquainted with their habits—ay, far better than Monsieur Buffon himself.

To describe the personal appearance of a lion would be to waste words. Every one of my readers must know the lion by sight, either from having seen one in a zoological collection, or the stuffed skin of one in a museum. Every one knows the form of the animal, and his great shaggy mane. Every one knows, moreover, that the lioness is without this appendage, and in shape and size differs considerably from the male.

Though there are not two species of lions, there are what are termed varieties, but these differ very little from each other—far less than the varieties of most other animals.

There are seven acknowledged varieties. The Barbary lion, the lion of Senegal, the Indian lion, the Persian, the yellow Cape, the black Cape, and the maneless lion.

The difference among these animals is not so great, but that at a glance any one may tell they were all of one species and kind. The Persian variety is rather smaller than the others; the Barbary is of darker brown and heavily maned; the lion of Senegal is of light shining yellow colour, and thinly maned; while the maneless lion, as its name imports, is without this appendage. The existence of the last species is doubted by some naturalists. It is said to be found in Syria.

The two Cape lions differ principally in the colour of the mane. In the one it is black or dark brown—in the other of a tawny yellow, like the rest of the body.

Of all lions, those of South Africa are perhaps the largest, and the black variety the most fierce and dangerous.

Lions inhabit the whole continent of Africa, and the southern countries of Asia. They were once common in parts of Europe, where they exist no longer. There are no lions in America. The animal known in Spanish-American countries as the lion (leon) is the cougar or puma (Felis concolor), which is not one-third the lion’s size, and resembles the king of beasts only in being of the same tawny colour. The puma is not unlike a lion’s cub six months old.

Africa is peculiarly the country of the lion. He is found throughout the whole extent of that continent—excepting of course a few thickly inhabited spots, from which he has been expelled by man.

The lion has been called the “king of the forest.” This appears to be a misnomer. He is not properly a forest animal. He cannot climb trees, and therefore in the forest would less easily procure his food than in the open plain. The panther, the leopard, and the jaguar, are all tree-climbers. They can follow the bird to its roost, and the monkey to its perch. The forest is their appropriate home. They are forest animals. Not so the lion. It is upon the open plains—where the great ruminants love to roam, and among the low bushy thickets that skirt them, that the lion affects to dwell.

He lives upon flesh,—the flesh of many kinds of animals, though he has his favourites, according to the country in which he is found. He kills these animals for himself. The story of the jackal being his “provider,”—killing them for him,—is not true. More frequently he himself provides the skulking jackals with a meal. Hence their being often seen in his company—which they keep, in order to pick up his “crumbs.”

The lion “butchers” for himself, though he will not object to have it done for him; and will take away their game from wolf, jackal, or hyena—from the hunter if he can.

The lion is not a fast runner—none of the true felidae are. Nearly all the ruminant animals can outrun him. How, then, does he capture them?

By stratagem, by the suddenness of his attack, and by the length and velocity of his bound. He lies in wait, or steals upon them. He springs from his crouching place. His peculiar anatomical structure enables him to spring to an immense distance—in fact, to an almost incredible The lion in a fix distance. Sixteen paces have been alleged by writers, who say they were eye-witnesses, and carefully measured the leap!

Should he fail to capture his prey at the first bound, the lion follows it no farther, but turns and trots away in an opposite direction.

Sometimes, however, the intended victim tempts him to a second spring, and even to a third; but failing then, he is sure to give up the pursuit.

The lion is not gregarious, although as many as ten or a dozen are often seen together. They hunt in company at times, and drive the game towards one another!

They attack and destroy all other species of animals that inhabit the country around them—even the strong heavy rhinoceros is not feared by them, though the latter frequently foils and conquers them. Young elephants sometimes become their prey. The fierce buffalo, the giraffe, the oryx, the huge eland, and the eccentric gnoo, all have to succumb to their superior strength and armature.

But they are not universally victorious over these animals. Sometimes they are vanquished by one or other of them, and in turn become victims. Sometimes both combatants leave their bodies upon the scene of the struggle.

The lion is not hunted as a profession. His spoils are worthless. His skin sells for but little, and he yields no other trophy of any value. As hunting him is attended with great danger, and the hunter, as already stated, may avoid him if he wishes, but few lions would be destroyed, were it not for a certain offensive habit to which they are addicted—that of robbing the vee-boor of his horses and his cattle. This brings a new passion into play,—the vengeance of the farmer; and with such a motive to urge on the hunt, the lion in some parts is chased with great zeal and assiduity.

But where there are no cattle-farms, no such motive exists; and there but little interest is felt in the chase of this animal. Nay, what is still stranger: the Bushmen and other poor wandering tribes do not kill the lion at all, or very seldom. They do not regard him with feelings of hostility. The lion acts towards them as a “provider!”

Hendrik, who had heard of this, asked Swartboy if it was true.

The Bushman answered at once in the affirmative.

His people, he said, were in the habit of watching the lion, or following his spoor, until they came upon either himself, or the quarry he had killed. Sometimes the vultures guided them to it. When the “tao” chanced to be on the spot, or had not yet finished his meal, his trackers would wait, until he had taken his departure, after which they would steal up and appropriate what remained of the spoil. Often this would be the half, or perhaps three parts of some large animal, which they might have found a difficulty in killing for themselves.

Knowing the lion will rarely attack them, the Bushmen are not much afraid of these animals. On the contrary, they rather rejoice at seeing them numerous in their district, as they are then provided with hunters able to furnish them with food!

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