The first time I heard a lion’s roar, it shook me to the bones. I’d been snoozing soundly in my hut in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve (a Nat Hab favorite), when the full-throated and low-pitched bellow reverberated through my body, launching me upright. Afterward, I was too excited to go back to sleep. I’d caught sight of that same lion earlier in the day, lounging in the tall grasses in the reserve during an afternoon safari. He looked so docile. That is, until I heard his voice.
Lions have the loudest roars of all big cats, but they’re not the only big cats you’ll find in southern Africa. Together, Botswana and Namibia offer a wide variety of safari diversity—from the Okavango Delta swamplands to ancient salt pans and riverine forest—and with it comes an abundance of wildlife: giraffe and zebra, blue wildebeest, elephants, rhinos, and plenty of big cat predators, including lions, leopards and cheetahs. While watching them in action is incredible, there’s also plenty to learn about these animals as well.
For instance, roaring isn’t the only way that big cats communicate. From leaving behind scent marks to their overall appearance, Africa’s lions, leopards and cheetahs are decidedly complex beasts…and then some.
Ways that Lions Communicate
Lions are at the top of the food chain in the African savannah. If you have any doubt of their ferocity, just listen to one roar. It’s a sound that you can hear for up to five miles away.
In fact, the power and tone of a lion’s roar help to distinguish the cat from others of its genus. Roaring is a way to gauge strength. For example, a strong, guttural roar from a male lion is not only attractive to lionesses, but it helps to indicate his overall prowess.
Lions will use their roar to ward off potential intruders, and/or to protect their territory and their pride. Sometimes they’ll even roar as a way of talking with other lions, and their roars can reach up to 114 decibels—the same noise level as a chainsaw or a snowmobile.
Still, only big cats, such as lions, leopards, tigers and jaguars have the ability to roar. This is due to their large vocal folds, which form a square shape that allows for large vocal vibrations at less lung pressure, resulting in a monstrous sound that resonates for miles.
Roaring isn’t the only way that lions communicate, either. They often make a “scratch pile” with their urine, or claw trees as additional ways to mark their territory and keep a distance between other lion prides. Physical features, including the darkness of a male lion’s mane, are another way of displaying their abilities to others. Generally, the older the lion, the darker the mane. However, a particularly thick, dark mane indicates a lion that’s especially healthy and well-fed—and not an animal you’d want to mess with.
Lions may growl, moan, groan, huff and puff and emit gurgling growls that resemble purring, because unlike traditional purrs—which are continuous—the vibratory sounds that lions produce are only evident when they exhale. Lions also show affection to one another through actions like nuzzling and head rubbing.
Africa’s Other Big Cats
Along with the lion, southern Africa is home to two other species of big cats that use their calls to communicate: leopards and cheetahs.
Leopards are recognizable by their rosette-marked fur and white-tipped tails and ears—markings that help them to recognize one another—as well as their roars. While not as loud as that of a lion, a leopard’s roar is quite unique: in fact, it’s known as a “saw” because that’s exactly what it sounds like: a saw cutting through a plank of wood. This sort of “rough cough” can carry for up to two miles, and leopards use it most frequently at dusk and dawn to give others of their kind a nod (most leopards are solitary creatures) that they’re in the area.
Cheetahs are the fastest land animal on the planet, as well as the most endangered of Africa’s large cats. But while they’re lean, muscular and substantial in size—they can reach nearly five feet in length and weigh up to 130 pounds—they’re not scientifically classified as “big cats.” This is in part because rather than having a long vocal fold like lions and leopards, they have a fixed vocal box similar to that of house cats. While it’s a feature that keeps them from achieving bona fide big cat status, it also allows these tawny-colored, spotted felines the ability to purr authentically. Cheetahs communicate additionally through a series of growls, bleats, hisses and even high-pitched chirping. Scent markings and chin rubbing are also par for the course.
Where to See Big Cats in Botswana and Namibia
Together, Botswana and Namibia provide superb opportunities for spotting big cats in the wild, as well as hearing and/or seeing firsthand the many ways in which they communicate. Nat Hab’s immersive 16-day Epic Botswana & Namibia Safari visits the best of both country’s parks and reserves, from off-the-beaten-path locales to legendary game-viewing regions.
Ongava Private Reserve, Namibia
Tucked away in northern Namibia and sharing a boundary with the legendary Etosha National Park—featuring a salt pan that’s so enormous you can view it from space—Ongava’s wild landscape of vast plains and mineral flats is a perfect spot for tracking down lions, leopards and cheetahs that are drawn by an abundance of prey, including springbok and wildebeest. In fact, its more than 125 square miles are home to several lion prides.
Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana
Located on the eastern side of Botswana’s lush Okavango Delta, Moremi boasts a world of meandering river channels, open grasslands and mopane forests that make up one of the continent’s most diverse ecosystems. The lion prides here are notably large. Leopards and cheetahs reside here as well, along with packs of wild dogs. It’s one of the best places in Botswana for spotting these elusive creatures.
Linyanti Private Reserve, Botswana
Both rugged and remote, Linyanti is one of Botswana’s best game-viewing regions and a perfect contrast to the Okavango Delta. Not only is this private reserve home to huge herds of elephants, but lion sightings are quite common, and leopards have been known to make an appearance or two during night game drives.
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Predators in the country’s first national park include lions, leopards and cheetahs, as well as spotted hyenas and wild dogs. Large herds of African buffalo and elephants are reason enough for a Botswana safari amid this mix of forest, marshland and savannah, though the number of lions residing here is pretty impressive, too.