Panthera leo (Linnaeus, 1758)
Photo: Marius Saunders
IUCN Conservation Status:
Vulnerable (VU), A2abcd = a population reduction of 50% or more over the last 10 years.
King of the Beasts! Captured in the legends of ancient Rome, Greece and
Egypt and threading through the traditions of African culture, the
powerful spell of the lion has created a symbol of royal leadership. It
gave form to the Sphinx and was engraved on Egyptian tombs. The eye was
especially significant and the mane gave rise to religious myths and
beliefs in traditional African societies. Lion is one of the African
big five and certainly serves as the greatest attraction for tourists
The lion’s name is
derived from the Greek word “leon”. It was first described as Felis leo
by Linnaeus in 1758 from a specimen found in Constantine, Algeria. In
1917, R.I. Pocock altered the genus name to Panthera leo after the cat
family was split into two subfamilies namely pantherinae the roaring
cats and felinae, the non-roaring, purring cats.
The genus Panthera has four species
- Panthera leo the lion
- Panthera pardus the leopard with three sub-species
- Panthera onca the jaguar from South and Central America
- Panthera tigris the tiger of tropical Asia with five sub-species
The earliest fossils of lions were found in Tanzania and date back
3.5 million years BP. In South Africa, fossils dating 2.8-2.4 million
years BP were found at the Sterkfontein caves.
Despite the colour hybridization of the white lion of the Timbavati, only two living extant lion species are recognized
- Panthera leo leo the African lion
- P. leo persica the Asiatic lion
In the past, lions were widely distributed throughout Europe, most of
Asia and the whole of Africa. They became extinct in Europe when the
last individual was killed in Greece circa100 AC but persisted in
Palestine until the 1100s. In 1990 an Asian census showed that <300
individuals remained. Lions became extinct in various regions of North
Africa between 1890 and 1940. They are still widespread at present but
are scarce in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Numbers in the continent
declined from approximately 200 000 in 1880 to 20 000 in 2001.
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Lion have the typical body profile of a cat with a powerful muscular
body, short robust legs, enlarged paws, shoulders that project above
the spine when walking and an extremely long tail that serves as a
means of balance when charging. Other than the Asian tiger, lions are
the largest living cats. Body size and appearance differ between
environments. The lack of genetic variation between lion populations is
important, as the species is being forced into bottlenecks.
The body is a
uni-coloured dull, sandy-yellow or tawny-yellow on the upper parts and
flanks, and a light yellow-white on the under parts and inner legs.
Adult males have a mane of dense, dark, tawny hair of up to 16 cm
around the neck and down the throat between the front legs. The extinct
Cape lion, and the legendary lions depicted in Greek and Roman lion
cages had a mane that extended to the navel. Most of these lions were
descended from the extinct Atlas lion of the Moroccan region of North
Africa that had a massive, bushy mane. Kalahari lions tend to have a
more developed mane than lions from the sub-tropical bushveld. In
contrast, the lions of Somalia, Ethiopia and north-eastern Africa do
not have a mane.
Trophies are measured by
adding the maximum length of the skull from the nostril to the base of
the cranium, to its maximum diameter.
Comparison To Man
Lions inhabit almost any
type of habitat other than forest, ranging from desert and arid Karoo
to grassland, savannah, bushveld, valley thicket and mountain kloof
thicket, from <100 to >1 200 mm annual rainfall. The topography
ranges from beaches, flats and riverine areas to rocky hills, mountains
and highlands. Refuge such as tall grass, bush, tree shade and rocks
are necessary for the stalking of prey as well as for providing a
resting place during the heat of the day. Surface drinking water is
Feeding & Nutrition
Lions are predominantly
nocturnal but activity may extend to all daylight hours depending on
the abundance of prey. Most daylight hours are spent resting in the
shade of vegetation or on sandbanks and large rocky outcrops. Lions are
opportunistic and regard any live or strange object as a potential food
source. In deserts the bulk of the diet consists of hyrax, mice,
porcupine, ground birds and insects, while in the Kruger National Park
it consists primarily of impala, blue wildebeest, zebra and warthog
complemented by giraffe and buffalo. On the Skeleton Coast of Namibia,
nomadic, solitary lions are in direct competition with brown hayenas
and black-backed jackals as they feed mainly on seal and marine bird
carcasses found in the tidal zone. The preferred prey size is a live
mass of 60-350 kg.
Alpha males feed first and aggressively attack any female or youngster
attempting to intrude. Second in line are alpha and beta females and
their cubs and only then are the sub-adults allowed to feed. In nature,
lions feed once every four days on average and as much as 45 kg of
flesh may be consumed. A pride of lion requires less prey per lion per
annum compared to solitary individuals. Studies in the Kruger National
Park indicated a mean of 15 prey animals of mixed sizes, from warthog
to giraffe, per lion per annum. In the Kalahari Desert an annual kill
of mixed sizes ranging from mice to gemsbuck, is 47 prey animals per
lion. After taking down a large prey, the pride may spend several days
in the vicinity, returning to feed several times until the carcass is
Lions are strategic hunters that plan in advance. Their strategies vary
depending on the size of the pride and its social order. The basic
strategy is to appoint specific individuals to alert the prey, while
others stalk the flight paths in order to ambush them. Most chases are
short, covering a distance of 100-200 m in 6-15 seconds and reach a
speed of 60 km/hr. The hunting success of prides varies from 15-95% and
for solitary individuals from 2.5-29%.
Lion is the only living cat species that is distinctly social and lives
in gregarious prides. It is only post-mature alpha males of >10
years and sick or injured lionesses that become solitary nomads.
Lionesses with newborn cubs remain in solitude for the first month
after birth. Alpha females form the nucleus of lion society and lead
the pride, dominating the males and the beta and sub adult females. No
one lioness dominates the other alphas.
Most female cubs remain in the
pride for life. A small proportion of sub adult sisters from the same
litter may leave together as a fixed group, once sexual maturity is
reached. These sister groups become nomadic and wander across several
home ranges before they reach the social maturity and rank of beta
lionesses. They may then join a nomadic beta brother group and
establish a new pride. A pride consists of an external alpha brother
group of 2-4 individuals, 4-10 alpha and beta lionesses of different
ages, usually of the same pride and several sub-adult females and cubs
of both sexes. The size of prides varies according to the density of
potential prey in an area.
Photo: Doug Lee
On reaching sexual maturity at 20-24 months, brothers leave the pride
as a group and gain beta ranking. These bachelor groups are nomadic
until social maturity is reached at an age of 5 years. The group then
approaches several existing prides in order to replace the existing
alpha males. Once they succeed they tend to kill all existing cubs in
the pride to ensure that only their own genes are passed on to future
offspring. Any alpha brother of the group may mate with a willing alpha
or beta lioness. The alpha brothers remain permanently with the pride
for 4-5 years until they are replaced by a new, stronger brother group.
Once defeated, an alpha brother group again becomes nomadic, either as
an intact group or splitting into post-mature singles.
Lions move quickly and can cover distances of up to 50 km from the den.
General movement is 11-33 km per night. They frequently climb trees in
order to rest on the branches or to reach a leopard kill stored high in
|Lion information table
|Adult body weight
|Adult shoulder height
|Total body length (snout to tail)
|Age of sexual maturity
|Age of social adulthood (1st mating)
|1st litter born at
|Independent Aat age
|Gender ratio: Natural (all ages)
|Mating ratio: Natural (adults)
Absolute minimum number needed
Smallest viable population size
|Gregarious groups (prides)
|Spatial behaviour: Home range
|Spatial behaviour: Territory range
|Daily food consumption (adults)
|Maximum stocking load
|Determined by prey animal abundance
|Minimum habitat size required
|Annual population growth
|Optimal annual rainfall
|Optimal vegetation structure:
Woody canopy cover:
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