Exploring lion bonds in the wild and in sanctuaries

The differences in the bonds formed by wild lions and lions in sanctuaries are interesting to observe. Understanding how they develop relationships in different environments can provide insight into how to care better for these animals 


Lions are apex predators that form supportive bonds within their groups. Compared to other felines, they are the most social species. Their relationships are strong, which is expressed in the way they interact with each other. For a pride in the wild, these bonds are essential for their survival and strength as a group. 

It is however not only in nature that lions show affiliative behaviours like social grooming, rubbing their heads against each other, playing, and greeting to reinforce social bonds. Lions in species-appropriate sanctuaries live a less uncertain life but as a social species need these bonds just as much. 

While the bond between wild and sanctuary lions may differ in specifics, they are both essential to an individual animal as well as the pride’s welfare. 

The Project Manager of FOUR PAWS Wild Animal Health and Husbandry, Sabrina Ausserwoeger, says, that in a species-appropriate environment with well-organised group-housing, captive lions generally show the same social behaviours as their wild counterparts. 

This ranges from interactions like social grooming, playing, huddling together to agonistic behaviour like displacement, chasing or fighting. 

“The main difference between wild and captive settings is that the animals cannot choose their partners and have no option to leave a group when they are antagonised.” 

Sabrina Ausserwoeger, Project Manager of FOUR PAWS Wild Animal Health and Husbandry

Two of the Romanian Five

For the staff members at LIONSROCK in South Africa and FELIDA in the Netherlands, the two FOUR PAWS sanctuaries that currently house lions, this factor means careful planning and observation of group housing in their sanctuaries. For social bonds to form between lions in captivity, it is essential that the animals are compatible in terms of age, sex and personality. 

Moreover, FOUR PAWS does not allow breeding, which prevents lions at LIONSROCK and FELIDA from expressing maternal behaviour such as nursing. However, they may still show reproductive behaviours like nape biting and mounting if the contraceptive method does not interfere with hormonal levels. 

In captive settings different prides and groups of lions are closer to each other in adjacent enclosures than would be the case in nature. 

“This can lead to tensions, which we try to balance out or minimise by installing visual barriers or by not keeping groups that stress each other out, next to each other.” 

Sabrina emphasises that it is best for lions not to lead solitary lives in captivity as they are social animals. Group housing is vital for their well-being.

“For newly rescued single lions, FOUR PAWS always considers social introductions with a possible partner. These introductions will be different from case to case and depend on the outcome of a thorough assessment of the health condition, mental state, and behaviour of the animals.” 

She explains that individuals with matching characteristics, ages and sexes are placed in adjacent enclosures first and carefully observed. It is essential for the caretaking staff to recognise and monitor social behaviours. 

“Chances of success are higher when introducing a male and one female, a group of female lions or when introducing juvenile and subadult lions before their sexual maturity.” 

Positive interactions through or across the fence are a promising sign of a successful introduction in the future. “Those can be for example that a male is showing the flehmen response, baring the upper teeth in order to inhale a female’s pheromones. A female would seek out the company of the male especially during oestrus. The two animals would also both spend time in close proximity like resting next to each other along the fence.” 

Even in promising cases, there is always a risk that the introduction can fail due to animals responding unpredictably. A concise plan is therefore required considering the various possible outcomes. 

After a successful first introduction of individuals or groups, the bonds between them need to be strengthened. The risk of fights still remains and needs to be reduced as far as possible.

Lions Juba and Micca

Sabrina points out that conflict can be reduced by large enclosures with structures, such as platforms and vegetation, to enable animals to avoid each other. “This gives individuals an opportunity to withdraw.” 

Sanctuary animal caretakers can help strengthen affiliations by providing the lions with enrichment activities such as introducing new smells, giving them access to bags filled with different materials and offering them balls to play with. Engaging in these activities helps to satisfy their natural curiosity and avoids boredom and frustration. 

“By interacting with these objects within the group, lions can share positive experiences together,” says Sabrina. 

Nevertheless, we cannot avoid that social relationship change over time and that animals don’t get along well with each other anymore.  

Shifts in the social structure of prides can often happen when individual animals become old, weak, or ill. In such cases, younger and healthier animals might get the overhand over older animals. In a sanctuary setting, this means that it might be necessary to separate the group to prevent distress. 

Sexual maturity is another important factor when it comes to the behaviour of lions in a pride. As cubs reach adulthood, they may interact differently with each other to when they were younger. This can lead to a disruption of the social bonds.

“In captivity and when breeding is prevented, many ecological benefits of group living are no longer relevant. There is for example no need to hunt together or protect cubs. Still, in general social housing is essential for their well-being. If lions get along well with each other, living in a group can offer enrichment and reduce stress. The expression of supportive behaviours has a positive effect on their emotions and on their welfare.” 

Whatever the differences in affiliations or circumstances, lions remain a symbol of strength and courage. Their alliances formed either in the wild or in a sanctuary are yet another testament to their adaptation to changes. They are a reminder that even in times of adversity, resilience can prevail. 

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