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African Lion @ Thanda Private Game Reserve. Photo: Håvard Rosenlund

Lion

Lion - Panthera leo - Distribution mapThe lion (Panthera leo) is the second largest cat in the world, after the tiger (Panthera tigris), and is the largest cat on the African continent. A male lion can reach a weight up to 250 kg (550 lb), though 180-190 kg (396-418 lb) is more common. Females are smaller with weights reaching 120-130 kg (264-286 lb). A male lion generally reaches 1.2 m (4 ft) at the shoulder. Males also have manes of varying sizes, which helps distinguish them from females. In a few places, however, like Tsavo in Kenya, male lions are known to not grow manes. There are eight recognized subspecies of the lion today: One subspecies of the Asiatic lion (P. leo persica), which is only found in the Gir Forest in North-West India, and seven subspecies of the African lion.

Social behaviour

Lion is the only cat that live socially structured lives. A family group is called a pride and related females, along with young, will make up the core of this group. Male lions need to earn their place in a pride by showing dominance and strength. Even if a pride is without a male it is not a given that the females will allow the first male that shows up into their pride, and they may even chase him away if deemed undesirable. Male lions normally take over a pride when they reach their prime at about 5 years by fighting off the resident males. A male will often stay with a pride no longer than 3 years before being pushed out by younger and stronger individuals. In normal circumstances a young male will be kicked out of the pride upon reaching an age of 2-3 years. Male lions commonly die at around the age of 10 due to sustained fighting and injuries. Females generally live to be 12-14.

In the absence of a dominant male younger males present will reach prime at an earlier stage. They will grow to full size quicker and their mane will grow at an accelerated rate and it might become noticeably darker. A large and dark mane is a sign of good health, strength and dominance, and females will quite often go for the male with the fullest and darkest mane. To increase their chances of taking over prides males often form coalitions with brothers. Because brothers share the same genes one will often allow the other to have the mating rights. When holding a territory a male will regularly roar to state his presence, as well as patrol and scent mark with urine, as can be seen in the video below.

Hunting and feeding habits

Lions are well known African hunters, but they are actually not very succesful at hunting. Only one hunt out of three succeeds when hunting as a group, and only one out of six when hunting alone. A pack of african wild dogs is successful in eight out of ten of their hunts for comparison. This makes lions prone to scavenge and they will not hesitate to steal prey from other predators, such as leopard, hyena, wild dog and cheetah.

Because lions live in larger family groups they need to feed on large prey to sustain the pride. Average weight for prey is 126 kg (278 lb) and wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and warthog are often prefered species. In Kruger National Park, seeing lions hunting giraffes are not uncommon, though large specimens are often avoided due to risk of injury. Prides are often specialized in certain prey species and a few prides are even specialized in taking down young elephants. Although male lions can hunt, females are better equipped by being smaller, faster, more agile, as well as having no cumbersome mane. Often, when going for larger and tougher prey, a male lion joins the hunt to help finish the kill by using his strength. Different prides can hunt in different ways and individual females often have different roles to play in the hunt.

I once got to follow a pride of lions as they planned and executed a hunt on wildebeest. I got to see how the females slowly approached the herd and went as close as a hundred meters before laying down flat in the grass. As this happened one of the older females had sneaked past us and walked around our car to approach the wildebeest from behind, having the wind blow her scent towards them. In the video below you will see how this caused the wildebeest to run straight into a trap. It is a little shaky, due to a very excited camera operator, but you can clearly see what is going on. Beware of strong language in the video, as we all got quite worked up and excited when this was happening.

When small cubs are present in a pride the mother often hides away the cubs before hunting. After a succesful hunt she will leave the kill to fetch the cubs. If old enough to eat meat, the other lions will open up some of the more tender parts of the prey for the cubs, such as the area around the anus, as has been done in the video below. The cubs in the video are about 4-5 months old, and still suckling. This was the first time they were seen eating meat.

Reproduction

Lions can breed throughout the year, and a male lion taking over a pride will kill any cubs sired by the previous male to get the females ready to mate. A male and a female will copulate twenty to forty times a day for several days. Gestation period is about 110 days, and at the time of birth the lioness will find a secluded and sheltered den away from the pride. She will spend some time away after birth with the cubs, varying from a few weeks to a couple of months, before introducing them to the pride.

Status

The lion as one species is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The Asian subspecies is listed as endangered. Asian lions used to be common throughout India and the Middle East, stretching all the way into Turkey and the Mediterranean. It was on the brink of extinction before efforts to save the population were initiated. There are today 400 individuals left and they are doing quite well. Plans to introduce specimens to a second Indian reserve is underway. The Barbary lion (P. l. leo), from northern Africa, known for its impressive and dark mane, is extinct in the wild, though it is believed that 90 Barbary lions still survive today in captivity. A project to reintroduce a wild population in Morocco is ongoing.

Threats

The lion populations in Africa today is declining throughout most of its range due to indiscriminate killing, diseases, and habitat loss, and there are possibly no more than 20,000 left in the wild. The West African lions (P. l. senegalensis) are especially vulnerable as they are totally isolated and confined to just a few protected areas. It is believed to be only 650 West African lions left. In areas outside of protected reserves conflicts with humans are quite common. Lions often go for livestock, and in some areas, such as rural southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, lions are specialized in hunting humans as other prey is scarce. Although they are feared, in these areas lions are respected and revered and the local population is often against retaliatory killing, even when loosing family and friends. The same cannot be said for other areas where lions have much less of an impact on human lives.

Wild lions are doing quite well in South Africa, and with the increase in private nature reserves there has been a sharp increase in places to see wild lions. All of these areas are fenced and several can not support large populations. Gene flow is done through management by swapping animals between reserves. Because of the availability of lions on the market from reserves and breeders there has been an increase in trophy hunting practises. Especially the canned hunting industry has benefited greatly from this, to much controversy. Canned hunting businesses keep lions for breeding purposes in what can be described as a caged lion farm. Rich tourists will then come and pay to hunt one of these animals. It will be set free in an enclosed area and “hunted” by whoever wants to pay. In many countries such practices are banned, but it is still ongoing in South Africa.

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How you can help

Here are a few projects and organizations you can support to help save the lion:

Lion Conservation Fund
Mission: To support projects that esatblish the distribution and abundance of African lions

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Born Free Foundation
Mission: To protect wild lions and reduce human-lion conflicts in Kenya.

Lion Aid
Mission: To work globally to save lions and end the decline of wild lion populations.

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