Often one of the most sought-after animals alongside rhino, leopard and elephants in national parks and game reserves, the lion has fascinated humankind for thousands of years. Unfortunately, they have also been persecuted and exploited for equally as long. Tragically, without radical conservation actions, they may become nothing more than archived photographs and dusty museum displays in the next few decades.
The lion was designated its formal scientific name by Linnaeus in 1758, Panthera leo. Panthera stems from panther – a cat and leo from the Greek name for lion. Several subspecies have been proposed but not accepted by many mammologists or taxonomists.
Around 15-20 thousand years ago lions were widespread across Africa, Asia and even throughout much of North America. The North American population was referable to the North American lion Panthera leo atrox and vanished around 11 000 years ago. The Beringian Lion Panthera leo vereschchagini occurred in the Bering Strait – the land bridges between Asia and North America. The Eurasian Cave Lion Panthera leo spelaea was found across most of Asia and Europe. Modern lions, Panthera leo leo are found across Africa, and historically the Middle East and southern parts of Europe. However, the relationships and taxonomy of these extinct lion lineages to modern-day lions remains unclear. For an interesting overview of current understanding of the phylogeography and historical ranges of lions, Ross Barnett and colleagues discuss the genetics in a paper published in Molecular Ecology in 2009 (referenced below).
The last remaining modern lions in Europe are believed to have become extinct in Greece around 100 AD. They were found in the Middle East until around the twelfth century and were largely extirpated from North Africa by the 1940s. Likewise, lions were found across South Africa, and known around Cape Town during the 1600s and 1700’s. As settlers and livestock moved inland, the lions steadily disappeared as a result of hunting and persecution. They all but vanished from most of the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape, as well as the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. The only populations surviving were those in protected reserves in northern KwaZulu-Natal and in patches of the lowveld and adjacent Mozambique.
Current Range and Conservation Status
Lions are currently found across far northern Namibia and much of Botswana, northern Zimbabwe and the north-eastern parts of South Africa where they exist in game reserves and national parks. They have a patchy distribution in Angola, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. Due to decades of civil war, the distribution and population density of lions in Angola and Mozambique remain unknown.
They occur widely in Tanzania and Kenya, both inside and outside of national parks. A few are also found in Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia, and across some parts of Central and West Africa.
Boundary fences in national parks are not always escape-proof and lions are known to get out and some can travel vast distances, especially at night. Lions are frequently encountered around the outskirts of the Kruger National Park near towns like Phalaborwa and Hoedspruit. A few individuals were seen near Louw’s Creek south of Kruger in the 1980s and 1990s.
The lion is listed on the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable as populations continue to decline. A recent paper discussing human-wildlife conflict with lion and elephant (Enrico Minin and colleagues, referenced below), showed that 82% of sites which had lions and elephants were adjacent to areas experiencing considerable human pressure. The authors also divided the African continent into four sections and gave lion population estimates: West Africa – 463 lions; Eastern Africa – 12 944 lions; Central Africa – 1 405 lions and Southern Africa – 10 314 lions. Give or take averages either way, the entire wild lion population on the African continent is less than 30 000 individuals. Given the rapid human population growth in sub-Saharan Africa, lion populations may well continue declining to the point where genetic isolation, or bottlenecks, could rapidly lead to their extinction within the next few decades.
Lions are sandy brown in complexion and paler underneath. Cubs and youngsters usually have distinct darker patches or rosettes which fade as they mature, but some adults retain this pattern. Interestingly, lions have a sharp spur on the tail tip which is covered by a tuft of course black hair. The reason for this spur is unknown. The back of the ears is also black in colouration. Adult males have a characteristic mane of golden-brown hair which may darken as the lion grows older. A few populations are very pale, almost white in complexion, particularly lions from Namibia and Botswana. However, the famous “white lions” of Timbavati also have a near white coat, which is caused by a recessive gene in the population.
Adult lions have a body length of 2,3 to 3,3 metres with males being larger and bulkier, and a shoulder height of up to 1.2 metres in males. Weight of females between 110-152 kg and males 150-225 kg. One of the heaviest males recorded was shot near Mount Kenya and weighed 272 kg.
Hunting and Prey
Lions are among the few cats that hunt socially. In established prides, it is usually the adult females that engage in hunting. Lions are superb stalkers and when suitable prey herds are detected, they begin stalking their prey. They remain close to the ground with eyes fixed on their intended target. Most chases are of a short duration and usually no more than 200 metres distant. A truly astonishing feat is that lions can cover a distance of 100 metres in around six seconds!
In the savanna ecosystems, impala, warthog, zebra and blue wildebeest make up a fair proportion of prey. Lions are very versatile when it comes to prey and it is largely dependent on what is available in a given environment and seasonal abundance. In the western arid regions, springbuck and gemsbok make up a substantial portion of prey. Lions in Namibia’s West Coast National Park regularly prey on seals. They will also take a wide variety of smaller prey species, including hares, springhares, pythons, aardvark and even porcupines. Some prides become specialists at killing certain species. In Botswana, some prides specialise in hunting elephants.
Most hunting takes place at night, especially on dark nights and rarely when there is a full moon. They will also hunt during the day when it is cool and overcast. Feeding at the kill has a clearly defined social hierarchy whereby the males have first feed, followed by the females. The younger cubs have a tough existence and usually get the leftovers. As a result, starvation is frequently observed in young lions and mortality is high, especially when prey is scarce or difficult to hunt.
Lions form prides of between 3-30 individuals, mostly made up by related females, their cubs and one or two adult males. However, pride dynamics change frequently. Pregnant females leave the main pride to give birth and where several lion prides and ousted males exist within a territory, aggressive interactions are commonplace. Pride takeovers by males often result in fights between the dominant males, and if an established male is ousted, his cubs are often killed by the new arrival.
Mating and Gestation
Lions breed throughout the year, but breeding success is largely dependent on environmental factors, especially food availability. The gestation period is around 110 days, and 1-4 cubs are born, rarely up to six cubs. Females move away from the pride to give birth and remain hidden for several weeks before re-joining the pride with their cubs.
Barnett, R. et al. 2009. Phylogeography of lions (Panthera leo ssp.) reveals three distinct taxa and a late Pleistocene reduction in genetic diversity. Molecular Ecology doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04134.x
Minin, E. D., Slotow, R., Fink, C., Bauer, H. & Packer, C. 2021. A pan-African spatial assessment of human conflicts with lions and elephants. Nature Communications (2021)12:2978 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23283-w
Potgieter, D.J., Du Plessis, P. C. & Skaife, S. H. 1971. Animal Life in Southern Africa. Nasou Limited.
Skinner, J. D. & Chimimba, C. T. 2005. The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion. Cambridge University Press.
Stevenson-Hamilton, J. 1950. Wild Life in South Africa. Cassell and Company, Ltd.
LIONS 2: Lions form prides of between 3-30 individuals, mostly made up by females, their cubs and one or two adult males.
LIONS 3: Adult males have a characteristic main of golden-brown hair which may darken as the lion grows older.
LIONS 4: In established prides, it is usually the adult females that engage in hunting.
LIONS 5: Tracks in the sand – lion spoor.