This post is specifically about the act of killing a prey animal. I am not going to discuss the predation process as a whole i.e. the stalking and attacking elements of the kill. This is about how a lion might kill the animal that they have caught and the type of killing bite employed normally depends on the size of the prey. Another factor is how vigorously the prey animal defends itself.
Under this heading I would include e.g., Thompson’s gazelles, antelope fawns and hares. They are knocked over with a quick blow from their free forelimb. The animal is then grabbed in both paws and killed with a bite to the neck or throat.
Under this heading I would include e.g., wildebeests and zebras-sized animals. These are knocked down with the impact of the lion’s body or grabbed and dragged down. They are then bitten and held by the neck, throat or nose. The animal is actually killed through suffocation when the lion places their jaw around the animal’s nose i.e. the nose-bite.
Sometimes lions hold the nose of the animal with one paw. They pull the head down to the animal’s chest. This causes the animal to break its neck when it falls.
Lions normally keep their hind legs on the ground during this activity.
Very large animals
Under this heading I would include e.g., buffalos, giraffes and elands. These are killed in the same way as wildebeests. Apparently, though, there are reports of lions hamstringing buffalo and giraffes. ‘Hamstringing’ means to cripple the animal by cutting their hamstrings. My reference book, the source of this information, Wild Cats of the World, tells me that in the Kalahari, lions attack gemsbok from behind to avoid their horns which often breaks the animal’s back.
Etosha National Park
In this reserve, lions kill springbok and other large ungulates with a throat bite 72% of the time. On the remaining occasions they use a nose-bite and a nape-bite.
It is suggested that in some lion prides they hand down, through generations, a style of killing prey which is described as a “cultural transmission”. For example, into two lion prides a nose bite was the only method used by some lionesses. Although this technique was not observed in two other prides in Etosha National Park.
As a postscript, large animals are normally eaten where they are killed and eating begins immediately. Small animals may be carried to a nearby thicket before starting to eat. Sometimes lions carry pieces of a carcass to a similar hiding place to feed. The weight of large animals prohibits dragging them to secluded places. Also, it is said that if a lion drags an animal away other lions may think that they are being deprived of their meal.
Specific references for this information: CA Guggisberg: Simba: The Life of the Lion 1963. GB Schaller: The Serengeti Lion 1972. J Kingdon: East African Mammals: An Atlas of Evolution in Africa 1989. FC Eloff: Ecology and Behaviour of the Kalahari Lion 1973. P Stander: Cooperative Hunting in Lions: The Role of the Individual 1992.
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