Panthera leo

Quick Bio for Lions:

Status: Vulnerable
have from 1-6 cubs, usually 3
Weight: 130-270 kg
Diet: Carnivore

Physical description of Lions

Do I need to describe a lion? You know what color they are, right? They don’t have spots or camouflage markings. Being so powerful, they don’t really need any. The lion is, of course, the second largest of the cats after the tiger. The Asiatic subspecies is somewhat smaller than the type species in Africa.

Lions range from 100 – 200 kg, with males at the high end and females at the low end of this range. Due to the social structure, males tend to have a harem, and like other animals with this social system, the male is bigger than the female so that he can defend his pride. Males are only a little bit taller. Roughly 1 vs 1.2 m tall. However, they are significantly heavier and stronger.

The one distinctive feature of the lion is its mane. The males develop a large mane of hair around the neck when they reach maturity. This occurs at about three years of age. This is often darker than the normal golden fur.

Everybody likes a good kopje for a lookout point. If we were allowed out of the vehicle in the national parks we would have climbed up too, to see what intersting prey we could find for our cameras.
Photo by Adrian O'Brien, owner of ChasingWildlife, check out my print shop.
Everybody likes a good kopje for a lookout point. If we were allowed out of the vehicle in the national parks we would have climbed up too, to see what intersting prey we could find for our cameras.

Distribution and habitat of Lions

The Lion, the king of the jungle, Simba. One of the world’s most recognizable cats. Everybody knows the lion is African. However, they once spread further afield, reaching the Balkans in Europe, and through the Middle East to Southern India. Today, their range has been much reduced. In fact, lions are now limited to Subsaharan Africa apart from a small population in Western India, which is part of the northern subspecies.

They are not the king of the jungle. Other than some small populations in western Africa and a couple of extinct subspecies, Panthera leo lives on the open savanna.

The reason for savanna living is that lions are large animals and need plenty of food. Their main prey are the grass-grazing antelopes and zebras. The plains of East Africa have some of the largest lion populations due to the high numbers of prey.

The lion’s range also extends into the desert, such as in the Kalahari in southern Africa, and into the rainforests of western Africa. However, in these areas the populations are less dense due to the smaller numbers of suitable prey. The Asiatic subspecies in the Gir region of India lives in forested regions and arid areas.

Female lions (Panthera leo) tend to breed concurrently. Prides, therefore, have often a large number of cubs at the same time. Unfortunately, not all the cubs will survive to adulthood.
CC License, image by Bernard DuPont
Female lions (Panthera leo) tend to breed concurrently. Prides, therefore, have often a large number of cubs at the same time. Unfortunately, not all the cubs will survive to adulthood.

Lion behaviour

As mentioned, lions live in a pride. It is just a fancy word for a group of lions. This grouping does have a rather specific composition. Most cats have females that have independent territory and a male that overlaps with multiple females. Lions though have more of a system whereby the Matriarch has a territory and her relatives are allowed to live with her. This territory is then shared with a male. Unlike in other cat species, the male is not a loner but is part of the pride.

Prides range from a couple of members to 30 or so but are normally around 10 – 15. Most often, the males are subadults, and on reaching full maturity, will have to leave the pride. However, there are many prides with more than one adult male. In such cases, brothers sometimes form a coalition as youngsters to help them survive the years outside of a pride, and when the time comes to find a pride of their own, they might keep this formation and take over a pride together.

The females are generally related to each other. They are mainly sisters, often with a few mature daughters, and then younger cubs. The cubs are usually the same age. Lions generally breed together, potentially to promote inter-pride relations. Lionesses might even nurse other cubs of the pride.

African Lion, panthera leo, Cub in the Bush, Masai Mara Park in Kenya
Licensed from Shutterstock
African Lion, panthera leo, Cub in the Bush, Masai Mara Park in Kenya

The most important aspect of the pride is the ability to hunt together. Lion hunts are not always successful, and by hunting together, they can improve the success rate. Coordination also allows them to hunt larger prey.

Buffalo are generally much too large for a single lion to take down alone, but together, they can be very successful. Such large prey is necessary for a larger pride as there are more mouths to feed.

Unlike other members of the cat family, lions value the social aspect of the pride, and social interaction is part of their daily life. Socializing lions are often observed on safari. Lions are generally not too active during the day, and hunting is mostly nocturnal. A large amount of the behaviors we see while on safari are of the social kind rather than hunting. However, on an early morning game drive, you still have a good chance to see a hunt.

Being social animals, lions communicate a bit more than other cats. There is a lot more vocalization among lions than what is heard in other cats, but generally, their communication cues are similar.

A lion mother (Panthera leo) and her cubs, during the dry season in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya
Licensed from Shutterstock
A lion mother (Panthera leo) and her cubs, during the dry season in the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya

What do Lions eat?

Lions are big enough to eat anything, even elephants. They might be too big to eat some things. Smaller rodents barely count as a snack, and given the size difference, they are hard to catch. For the most part, lions prefer to eat antelope, but they will go for something bigger or smaller as the season and ecosystem dictate.

With regards to elephants, it is a rare thing for a lion to attack one. However, from time to time, baby elephants wander off from the herd and are potential targets. Zebras, wildebeest and impala-size ungulates are the most common prey.

Lions are not picky about what they eat and are perfectly willing to steal a kill from a leopard or a hyena if the opportunity presents itself. As mentioned above, group hunting allows for more efficient hunting. Still, quite often, in areas such as the Serengeti and Masai Mara, the lions’ target species are missing for large portions of the year while the great migration is in a different area. Prey species are nomadic, but lions stay within their territories. During these times, lions are known to resort to scavenging when necessary.

Seeing two lions (Panthera leo) mating isn't an uncommon sight. As the king of the savannah, they are not shy and mating occurs multiple times throughout the day.
CC License, image by Bernard DuPont
Seeing two lions (Panthera leo) mating isn’t an uncommon sight. As the king of the savannah, they are not shy and mating occurs multiple times throughout the day.

Mating and Parental care of Lions

Lions are notably social cats. While other species of the Felidae family are solitary, the lion lives in a pride. Prides are generally ruled by a male but sometimes, though rarely, a coalition of males. This permits a strong or powerful lion to mate with numerous females.

Very few cubs survive to adulthood, and a strong pride with a father that protects them from other male lions is essential. Females can breed year-round, and if their cubs die, they will be ready to reproduce again very quickly. This leads to infanticide so that males don’t have to wait for the cubs to reach maturity before the female is receptive again.

The male lion’s role is therefore, to protect pride from other males. Apart from this, it doesn’t help in the rearing of the young. Females, who are usually related, take care of all the cubs in the pride. After 15 weeks of pregnancy, cubs are born in isolation, and the mother nurses them alone in secret for about six weeks. After this time, they are introduced to the pride where the ‘aunts’ help raise them.

A pride of lions (Panthera leo) is made up of a male, some females and numerous cubs. The pride can range in size from 5 to 40 but is most commonly around 10 to 15 individuals.
Licensed from Shutterstock
A pride of lions (Panthera leo) is made up of a male, some females and numerous cubs. The pride can range in size from 5 to 40 but is most commonly around 10 to 15 individuals.

Who preys on Lions?

I am pretty sure you can name all the predators of lions yourself. There is just one – humans. While lions compete with other predators, they are larger and more powerful and have nothing to fear. However, cubs are preyed upon. Hyenas and jackals would have no problem with a lone lion cub and are likely to take the opportunity if it presents itself.

The cubs are often left alone during hunting, and this can be a risky time for them. Also, during the first fragile weeks of a cub’s life, the mother leaves the pride to give birth and protect them from infanticide, which still happens within prides, not just when a pride sees a takeover from a new male.

At this time, when the mother goes to hunt, things are rather dangerous for the cubs, but their lack of mobility prevents them from wandering off into danger. They are more likely to be prey for other predators at the age they join the pride and sit on the sidelines of a hunt than at a younger age when they are hidden in a den.

Humans are the only creatures to prey on adult lions, and unfortunately, it is still possible in a lot of places. While self-preservation is a necessity in some areas, and in other areas the preservation of livestock is an issue, most of the human predation on lions is just trophy hunting.

Nothing compares to seeing the confidence of a male line strutting through the grasses of the savanna. If I was that big and strong I guess I would be equally confident that nothing could hurt me.
Photo by Adrian O'Brien, owner of ChasingWildlife, check out my print shop.
Nothing compares to seeing the confidence of a male line strutting through the grasses of the savanna. If I was that big and strong I guess I would be equally confident that nothing could hurt me.

How long do Lions live?

Lions can live up to 18 years in the wild. Since populations have been well studied in the Serengeti and similar areas, we have some good knowledge of the age limits of lions. Especially compared to the smaller cats.

There is a significant difference in the life expectancy of a male and female lion. The males often die young, especially during the period of trying to establish themselves. The need to be part of a pride is huge and has a significance on the ability of a male to feed himself. Lions hunt much more effectively as a group.

When males reach adolescence, they can survive a couple of years alone but are often forced into competing for the position as head of a pride. These battles are frequently to the death, and so the young or old lion perishes early. While the head of a pride is usually a bit older than mere youth, they rarely last to old age.

An important note here is that infant mortality is very high for both male and female lions. It isn’t uncommon that a litter of 4 might have only one cub reach adulthood. On reaching maturity, a female is quite likely to live a comfortable ten years as part of its pride. As a male, on the other hand, the next few years can be extremely perilous.

Two young male lions (Panthera leo). Their manes are not yet fully formed indicating their adolescent status.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Two young male lions (Panthera leo). Their manes are not yet fully formed indicating their adolescent status.

Lions and their ecosystem

They are apex predators. Whether this adds much to the ecosystem or not is up for debate. The general idea of lions preventing lion food from overpopulating an area is not the same as for other species. Lions have such a varied diet and, in different regions prey on different species despite the other species being available. While the Canadian lynx and the snowshoe hare have a clear population correlation, the lion and its prey don’t.

In the modern era, the lion’s duty to its ecosystem may simply just lie in being iconic. As a target species for most first-time African safari goers, the lion promotes the preservation of its habitat. This ecosystem preservation is of massive importance to numerous other species and many practically unknown species (unknown to the average westerner, but probably not unknown to my readers).

The distinctive feature of the male lion (Panthera leo) is his mane. Like this guy, it can rage from orange to black. It is mostly a status symbol, a symbol of virility to females but the mane might also serve as a bit of extra protection the the neck area during battles with other males for dominance of a pride.
CC License, image by Bernard DuPont
The distinctive feature of the male lion (Panthera leo) is his mane. Like this guy, it can rage from orange to black. It is mostly a status symbol, a symbol of virility to females but the mane might also serve as a bit of extra protection the the neck area during battles with other males for dominance of a pride.

Impact of Lions on the human economy

Lions are living gold for safari regions. They are repeatedly the most requested animals to safari guides in Africa. The value of safaris to the local economy is clear; if it is the best way to get these benefits is not as clear, but lions are a key driver of economic income in many poorer regions.

Hunting is clearly a source of massive income for some if the cost of hunting a lion can be up to $50,000, but as has been quite often demonstrated, the average wages of the locals do not increase around hunting regions. The benefit from hunting appears to be more limited than that from ecotourism.

There are pretty much no adverse economic effects from lions. The negative effects come from an invasion of the limited spaces lions have to survive in. The Masai who graze their cattle in lion-rich areas can see the negative impact of lions on their economy when they lose cattle. However, this happens extremely rarely. Other regions have very little to no predation of lions on cattle.

Lion cubs (Panthera leo) play all the time to hone their fighting skills. It might look like they are hugging but it is more like wrestling.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Lion cubs (Panthera leo) play all the time to hone their fighting skills. It might look like they are hugging but it is more like wrestling.

Conservation status and human impact on Lions

Lions are classified as vulnerable. In India, the subspecies, the Asiatic lion, is more than vulnerable and under threat due to habitat loss and encroachment of humans on the Gir Forest.

African lions have seen their habitat and numbers decline greatly over the last number of years. This has been stopped in certain areas, but in many regions, it still continues. In some cases, the decline has even been reversed. This has happened, for example, in massive transnational park areas such as in Mozambique, which has parks connecting to Zimbabwe and South Africa. The larger connected regions are vital for lions to roam, and recovery from tragic events such as war (leading to excessive poaching of lions) has finally been permitted in certain regions, leading to a small but significant increase in local populations.

That being said, the general trend for all lion populations is sadly downward.

This lioness was a little bit isolated from her pride but they were not too far away. It was just the long grasses that hide them so well when they are hunting that prevented me from photographing the others.
Photo by Adrian O'Brien, owner of ChasingWildlife, check out my print shop.
This lioness was a little bit isolated from her pride but they were not too far away. It was just the long grasses that hide them so well when they are hunting that prevented me from photographing the others.

Other important information about Lions

Subspecies:

Panthera leo leo (Northen lions)
Panthera leo melanochaita (Subsaharan lions)

Panthera leo persica was the old name for Asiatic lion that lives in India. Recently the taxonomy has been changed to reflect genetic similarities with the North African lions.

Previously the Barbary lion was considered a subspecies. This is the lion from areas of Morocco and North Africa that the Romans would have captured for the Colosseum.

Lion in French, German, Spanish ...

Latin Name
Panthera leo
Alternative Names
African Lion
French Names
Lion, Lion d'Afrique
German Names
Löwe, Afrikanischer Löwe
Spanish Names
León
Swahili Names
Simba

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