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Predator Hierarchy

Lion pride in the Chobe Linyanti - Predator Hierarchy | Southern African Safaris | Classic Africa

Safari is an holistic experience, and it's impossible to fully appreciate the beauty and complexity of the African wilderness without understanding the critical role played by soil types, vegetation zones, termites and all the many other fundamental components of the vast ecosystem. The quality of guiding at the region's best safari camps and lodges ensures that this educational aspect of the safari experience receives the priority it deserves, and will be a major highlight of your time in Africa.

But there is also no denying that the "apex predators", those creatures that dominate the top of the food chain, provide some of the most exciting and captivating moments on safari. Very few travelers will see all five "apex predators" on a single safari, and every predator sighting is a rare privilege to watch some of the world's most evolved hunters in their natural environment.

Each species has its own hunting technique, and each has successfully established a niche for itself in the highly competitive environment of the African ecosystem. Competition for prey between these various species of predator is ferocious and often leads to fatal conflict, with little mercy shown to weaker animals. Something of a hierarchy exists among Africa's five " apex predators".

As a rule, lions rule supreme, both by virtue of their sheer physical strength, and because of the co-ordinated power of the lion pride. Through cooperative hunting efforts, lions are essentially the only predators capable of taking prey up to the size of Cape buffalo, hippos, giraffe, and even sub-adult elephants. It is a myth that only females can hunt -  male lions are in fact very successful hunters, but they avoid it as far as possible as they must conserve energy to defend their territories. Typically, females do most hunting but are displaced from the kill by pride males; once the males are satiated, the females will feed, and cubs eat last.

Next in line are Spotted hyenas. Still largely misunderstood, hyenas are not just scavengers but very successful hunters in their own right. Although they are also highly social, hyenas differ from lions in several respects. Firstly, they are dogs, and the hyena clan is dominated by females, who are physically larger and more aggressive than the males. Usually, hyena clans are not capable of driving a pride of lions from a kill, provided a mature male lion is present; if, however, no pride male is present and hyenas outnumber lionesses and sub-adults by a ratio of four to one, hyenas will carry the day.

The African painted wolf, also known as the African wild dog, is one of Africa's most endangered species, but also one of its most efficient predators. Wild dogs hunt in packs of up to 30 animals, and rarely fail. They can sustain speeds of 40 miles an hour for up to five miles, and very few prey species have the speed or endurance to escape a determined attack by a well coordinated pack of wild dogs. Having dispatched their prey by disembowling, wild dogs feed very quickly to avoid the kill being stolen - a pack of nine dogs can eat over 200lbs of meat in 15 minutes. Young are fed by regurgitation, away from the kill.  

Leopards are solitary and largely nocturnal animals. Their reclusive nature makes them one of Africa's most resilient predators in that they are able to survive in fairly close proximity to humans, without being detected. They are also highly adaptable and will eat a variety of prey species, from mice to baby giraffes, reptiles to fish. Hunting technique is classically feline, using cover to stalk within close range of prey, then pouncing. Leopards are extremely powerful animals, and are able to leap many feet into the air with carcasses heavier than themselves; by stashing carcasses high in trees, they are kept beyond the reach of other predators and scavengers.

Despite being the world's fastest land mammal, the cheetah is the most fragile of Africa's "apex predators". Cheetahs rely on short bursts of incredible speed (up to 60 MPH for less than a mile) to catch their prey, which is comprised primarily of small to medium size antelopes. Cheetahs have short canines and must strangle their prey to death; their unimpressive dentition and slender build also makes them vulnerable to attack by other predators, and cheetahs must eat quickly before being displaced from a kill. There are even recorded instances of warthogs chasing cheetahs from a kill.

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