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The Lion – the King of the Animal Kingdom

The Lion (also known as Panthera Leo) is a member of the Felidae family, and also a member of the genus Panthera.

Lions can be found in the grasslands and savannas of the African continent and in Asia (India), and cannot be found in the dense forests where other types of large predators are at the top of the food chain.

The Known History of the Lions

The oldest depictions about lions date from the Upper Paleolithic period (dating 17,000 years ago) and have been found under the form of carvings and paintings in the Lascaux and Chauvet Caves in France.

Being used as a symbol of the animal kingdom in the human culture, the lion has been extensively depicted in many paintings and sculptures over the time, and in many contemporary literary works and movies.

Lion Taxonomy

The lion has close relatives in other species of the genus Panthera (the tiger, the leopard, the snow leopard and the jaguar).

There are several known subspecies of lions on the African continent and in India.

1. North African lion: this subspecies of lion were already regionally extinct due to excessive hunting (the last North African lion, known as the Barbary lion, was hunted in 1942).

The Rabat Zoo (Temara Zoo in Morocco) hosts small groups of North African lions.

The North African lion is closely related to the Asiatic lion, and less related to the lions located in Eastern and Southern Africa.

In countries like Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia, the North African lion is regionally extinct.

2. West African lion: this is the lion that lives in West Africa from Senegal, Benin and Burkina Faso to Niger and Nigeria.

In 2015, the West African lion population has been listed as Critically Endangered.

In countries like Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Ghana, Côte D’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Togo, the West African lion is almost extinct.

3. Central African lion: this is the lion that can be found in Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is considered regionally extinct in Gabon.

4. P.I. Leo: this is the lion that lives in northern Kenya and Northeast Africa.

It is actually a genetically mixed population of lions between the Central African lion and the East African lion.

5. East African lion: this is the lion that can be found in countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania.

Sadly, the East African lion is considered regionally extinct in countries like Egypt, Djibouti and Eritrea.
However, in 2015, a number of seven South African lions have been reintroduced in the Akagera National Park in Rwanda.

6. Cape lion: this is a subpopulation of the Southern African lion that lived at the Cape of Good Hope.

Is considered regionally extinct for more than a century.

7. Southern African lion: this is considered the largest wild African lion after its size and weight.

It can be found in countries like Angola, Namibia and northern Botswana.

In countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo it is considered regionally extinct.

8. Asiatic lion: today, the population of the Asiatic lion can be found only in the state of Gujarat, India.

By the late 19th century, the range of the Asiatic lion included countries like Turkey, Iran and the former Sind Province up to Central India.

Studies have shown that its closest African relatives are the North African and the West African lions.

Because today we have only a small population of Asiatic lions, the species has been listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List.

Starting with 2010, the lion population in and around the Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, India, has been increased.

Lion Characteristics

The lion is a large muscular cat featuring a deep chest, a reduced neck and a short and rounded head with rounded ears.

Male lions look pretty different than females (this large panther shows a pronounced sexual dimorphism), they are larger, heavier and stronger animals reaching a weight range between 330 to 550 lbs (150 to 250 kg), while the females weigh less between 265 to 400 lbs (120 to 183 kg).

The mane is a specific feature of the lions and is proudly worn only by males.

The color of the mane is usually brownish and covers most of the head, neck, shoulders, and also chest, and if the male is very dominant, the mane becomes dark brown with more black hairs.

Both males and females have dark hairy tufts at the end of the tail, which makes them easily recognizable in the savanna.

Lion cubs are born with dark spots on their tiny bodies, but these spots are fading away until they are reaching adulthood.

Lion Behavior and Social Organization

Lions are very social animals, they live in groups called prides in which adult males and related females live along with their offsprings.

A small lion pride usually consists of 15 members, but a large pride can host 20 to 30 adults, one up to four males, more than a dozen related females and their cubs.

There is only one exception, a lion pride with only one male that is usually very dominant.

Male cubs reach maturity between 2 and 3 years of age and they get excluded from their maternal pride to find and form their own pride.

Lions very carefully keep the boundaries of their territory, which can cover an area up to 100 square miles (260 square kilometers).

Male and female lions that are cast away from the pride become nomadic.

Interactions between lion prides and nomad lions are usually very hostile, even if females in estrous allow the approach of the nomad males.

A young male lion can spend years as a nomad lion until it can gain residence in a new pride.

Lions communicate through growling, snarling, meowing and roaring and keep track of one another by roaring.

Both males and females have a powerful roar, which signals their presence during the night and can be heard from a distance of 5 miles away (8 kilometers).

A lion can sleep between 16 to 20 hours a day, and this could be the reason why lions are considered the most lazy cats on the planet.

However, nomadic males and females sleep less during the day because they feel the lack of protection provided by a pride.

Hunting and lion diet

Lions usually hunt in groups and they are considered a generalist hypercarnivore in the animal kingdom because they hunt and consume a wide range of large mammals such as zebras, wildebeests, buffalos, hippos, gemsboks, warthogs, giraffes and even rhinos or elephants in Africa.

In India, lions hunt wild boars, sambar deer, chital, chinkara, chousingha and nilgai (deer, gazelles and antelopes).

When attacking large animals such as hippos, rhinos and elephants they try to avoid fully grown adults, preferring the younger ones.

They also avoid hunting small animals that are very quick and hard to catch.

In India, the lions often attack domestic livestock and even people.

In Africa, lions often attack other predators such as hyenas, wild dogs, leopards and cheetahs.

Lions also eat wounded or dead animals (dead from natural causes), and steal prey from other predators.

Inside a lion pride, only the females go hunting because their body is smaller and more agile than the body of the male lion.

Being smaller, a lioness is quicker, but has less power.

The improved agility of the female and the team work (they hunt in groups of females) is a good combination when hunting normal prey, however, when hunting large and dangerous mammals such as giraffes, elephants, rhinos and hippos the males could join the hunt.

If the hunt is successful, all the lions in the pride will share the meal, however, males will eat first, will be followed by females and the last ones will be the cubs.

Competition from other predators

Lions and spotted hyenas share the same territory in Africa, which means that they compete for the same prey.

Lions often steal prey from hyenas and other predators, and this is the reason why spotted hyenas and other predators such as: cheetahs, leopards, jaguars and wild dogs need to hunt more to survive in the land of the lions.

There are lions that largely subsist only by relying on kills stolen from hyenas and other predators, and if these predators try to stop them, they get killed or badly wounded in the fight.

These rival species (lions and spotted hyenas) can attack each other even if no prey is involved, they are simply enemies because they share the same territory and compete for the same food source.

Spotted hyenas create the most problems to lions (they are attacking lionesses to steal their already killed prey), while other predators like wild dogs, cheetahs, leopards, jaguars usually don’t do this.

Lions also kill hyena cubs and the cubs of other predators (even adults if they have the chance) just to eliminate competition.

Lion cubs are also very vulnerable when they are very young, and they could end-up being killed only if they are not protected by the pride or if the pride is taken over by nomadic males.

Lion Health

Being at the top of the food chain, lions have no natural enemies, they usually die due to the wounds obtained during the hunting of large and dangerous animals (elephants, giraffes, buffaloes etc.), due to the fight to protect the pride from being taken over by nomadic lions, and due to hunting.

Lions could also suffer due to different types of tick that can infest their ears, neck and groin regions, and also due to the presence in their intestines of a tapeworm called Taenia that gets there due to the fact that the lions are eating antelope meat that contains Taenia larvae.

Different stable flies can also affect the health of the lions, and also a few diseases that are common to dogs such as canine distemper virus (CDV), or common to other carnivores such as feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

Group organization inside the pride

Being an extremely social cat, lions live in a group called pride, and male lion groups form a coalition.
Inside the pride, all lions are related individuals and they live together with their offsprings.

Inside the lion pride, the females will provide the food (they are smaller and more agile than male lions), and they work together to catch prey that will then be used to feed the entire pride.

When eating, the dominant males are the first to feed, they will be followed by females and teenage lions, and the last ones at the table will be the cubs.

If the pride is very large (between 30 and 40 members) feeding inside the pride will be hard because there is no room at the table for such a large number of lions, small fights will be regular for food and will usually take place between females and the teenage males.

Young male lions will leave the pride at the age of eighteen months (when they reach sexual maturity).

They will become nomadic males and will spend a few years living together (a coalition of brothers) until they will try to get their own pride.

However, a male lion or a coalition of male lions will rule over a pride between three and five years (when they lose strength, stamina and agility due to aging they will lose the pride).

The nomadic lion or the coalition of nomadic male lions that will take over the pride will kill all the cubs and even the teenage lions that are the cubs of the former king, in order to induce the heat of the females and mate with them to produce their own offsprings in the pride.

Lion Conservation

Lion population in Africa and Asia has been drastically reduced in the last century due to habitat loss, interaction with livestock and people, and due to excessive hunting.

Luckily, more than 1,000 African lions and about 100 Asiatic lions live in wildlife parks and zoos across the world.

Being considered ambassador species the lions represent great attraction for tourists, for educational purposes and also for conservation.

Lion distribution in 2018.

Article written by:

Darius Savin is a lifelong animal lover and protector and the chief editor of Checkmember. He writes and edits articles and is also the creator of the distribution maps for all the creatures featured here.