And I thought it would be easy to make an episode on lions for Built for the Kill. After all, I was working with 400 pounds of muscular super-predator, running at 35 mph; clearing 30 feet in a gigantic bound, armed with three-inch canine teeth embedded in jaws that deliver 700 pounds of suffocating power. How hard could it be?
Well, I soon discovered there’s a problem. The king of the jungle, the sultan of the savannah, perhaps the most famous predator on the planet, enters the world as a four-pound bundle of fluff. A new-born cub is both unbearably cute, and utterly useless. It’s blind, can’t walk, and doesn’t have a tooth in its head.
So, just how does a four-pound ball of fluff get to be Africa’s most ferocious predator? Well, sadly, many cubs don’t make it. More than half of all lions die before their first birthday. The cubs have to fight to survive, and they start when they’re ten days old. When their eyes open for the first time, the first thing they do is beat up their brothers and sisters. Three months later, and they’ll try to attack anything that moves—be it an ant or an elephant.
That’s the thing that surprised me the most about lions: when they’re young, they are really, really, really stupid. They learn to kill by trial and error, mostly error. I think my favorite shot in the whole show is of a young cub going up to what looks like a long black stick lying on the ground. In super slow motion, we get to see the look of complete and utter surprise on the cub’s face as the stick (actually an enormous black snake) rears up and bites it right on the tip of its nose.
Lions are no natural born killers. For two years, they get bitten and bashed, kicked and crushed, even sprayed with the contents of a baboon’s bladder. Who knew the king of the jungle was such a doofus? But if the lions survive, they slowly (and painfully) hone their hunting skills. Cubs spend a lot of time watching the grown-ups—learning what and where to attack, as well as the intricate strategies used to kill different prey.
So by the time young adults take their place in the pride, lions know how to kill. They’ve learned the hard way. And what killers they are. I always knew lions took down wildebeest and zebra. But giraffes? And hippos? And elephants? Lions are seriously scary.
I never doubted that physically, lions are magnificently built for the kill. But mentally, they have a lot to learn in a short time. I think that’s why I have a new respect for the king of the jungle. It’s some achievement for a cub to shake off the dribblings of an incontinent baboon to become a super predator, superbly Built for the Kill.