Lion, Panthera leo
Lions are the second-largest felid, and the only cat with a tufted tail and mane (in males only). Lions have uniformly tawny coats. Leucism (unusual white color with normally pigmented eyes) has been reported from the vicinity of Kruger National Park and Umfolozi Game Reserve. Melanistic forms have never been reported. Lions stand three feet (1 m) tall at the shoulder and weigh 300 to 500 pounds (136 to 227 kg), with females being somewhat smaller than males.
Manes appear to serve several functions including increased protection during intraspecific fighting, a signpost of gender distinction at a distance (possibly linked to the lion’s historic colonization of open plains) and an indicator of individual fitness. Manes are probably closely linked to the lion’s distinctive social system, and mane development is strongly influenced by testosterone and climate.
Asian lions are similar in appearance to the African lion. The minor differences include a fold of skin along its abdomen not present in African lions and males have a slightly sparser mane.
In Africa, optimal habitat appears to be open woodlands and thick bush, scrub and grass complexes where sufficient cover is provided for hunting and denning. Lions have a broad habitat tolerance, however, and are absent only from tropical rainforest and the interior of the Sahara Desert. Although lions drink regularly when water is available, they are capable of obtaining their moisture requirements from prey and melons and thus, can survive in very arid environments. They may range quite high into the mountains of East Africa, up to 11,800 feet (3,600 m) on Kenya’s Mt. Elgon, and to 13,910 feet (4,240 m) in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains.
In the Gir Forest of India, lions are now confined to dry deciduous forests that receive little rainfall, as typical of the natural vegetation of the semi-arid Saurashtra Peninsula. Formerly, they were also found in open grassland habitats.
In Africa, lions are still found in most countries south of the Sahara Desert, although East and southern Africa are home to the majority of the continent’s lions. In West Africa, numbers have declined greatly and throughout the continent, they are becoming increasingly rare outside protected areas. Formerly lions were also distributed in North Africa, but the last population disappeared from Morocco in 1920; they disappeared from Niger’s Air Mountains about 1935. Sound population estimates are lacking but range from 30,000 to 100,000 individuals.
In Asia, the range of the lion formerly stretched from northern Greece across southwest Asia to eastern India. It became extinct in eastern Europe around A.D. 100, and in Palestine around the time of the Crusades. It remained widespread elsewhere until the mid-1800’s when the advent of firearms led to its extinction over large areas. By the late 1800’s, lions had disappeared from Turkey, and the last reports from Iran and Iraq date to 1942 and 1918 respectively. In India, lions ranged east to the state of Bihar and south to the Narmada River but were nearly extirpated by heavy hunting. By 1900, the Asian lion was confined to the Gir Forest where it was protected by the Nawab of Junagadh in his private hunting grounds. The wild population is currently at its highest point in recent years at approximately 175 animals. Some lions have repopulated former habitats near the Gir.
During the late Pleistocene, lions were more widespread. The “cave” lion of Asia is now considered to be a larger subspecies of extant lions and referred to as Panthera leo spelaeus. The American lion, Panthera leo atrox, was also much larger than living races and disappeared when its large ungulate prey base also vanished approximately 10,000 years ago.
Lions feed primarily on large ungulates, the prey type depending on what species are native to the specific area in question. In Africa, common prey species include buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, roan, sable, springbok, gazelles, gemsbok, waterbuck, and warthog. Like the leopard, lions are generalists and may take other species such as rodents, young rhinos, hippos, giraffes and young elephants. Lions, especially males, frequently scavenge, and in the Serengeti Ecosystem, over 40% of their diet was scavenged. This behavior is less common in arid environments where prey occurs at lower densities. Lions hunt primarily at night; while pride-living females appear to do most of the hunting, cohorts of males are also aggressive and successful hunters.
In Asia, hunting technique is similar to that of lions of Africa, but their prey consists primarily of deer, boar, nilgai antelope and domestic livestock.
Lions are the only social big cat, with prides of females and young accompanied by one or more (usually two) adult males. In more arid areas where prey is less common and more dispersed, pride sizes are lower. Prides are fission-fusion social units, with female pride membership being stable even though pride members may be scattered in small sub-groups throughout the pride’s range. A single male or coalition of males holds tenure over one or more prides, effectively excluding strange males from siring cubs with pride females. Pride tenure by males is short, averaging only two to three years, and young sired by former pride males are often killed by new pride males.
Lionesses bear three to five young after a gestation of 110 days. Males become independent in two to four years, sooner if the pride is taken over by a new male. Many females will remain with their natal pride for life, although 30% will leave to form a new pride or remain solitary for life.
Working cooperatively as a team, lions stalk and surround their prey, getting as close as they can before launching an attack. They often hunt under the cover of darkness. They are successful in only one of every four hunts. Lions also scavenge and even chase other predators off their kills.
Threats to Survival:
Lion depredation on livestock can be a serious problem and leads to persecution by farmers. However, despite heavy predation, Asian lions co-exist with livestock-raising communities in the Gir Sanctuary. Lions’ scavenging behavior makes them particularly vulnerable to poisoned carcasses put out to eliminate predators. Where wild ungulate prey is migratory, some prides follow (as in the Serengeti), but livestock raiding may be more intense during the lean season. Lions are becoming very scarce outside parks and reserves and many scientists feel that, in the future, lions will only be found in protected areas, a scenario which could have genetic implications for future generations.
In recent years, habitat destruction has been the main cause of the Asian lion’s decline, although droughts of the late 1980’s forced lions to leave the Gir Forest sanctuary due to a lack of domestic and wild prey. As a result, there was an increase in attacks on humans, a situation that has forced authorities to remove problem animals from the wild. Also, the small size of this population, about 175 animals in four different separate areas (three of which are outside the protected area), makes it very susceptible to disease or other genetically-linked problems.
The IUCN lists African lions as Vulnerable and they are regionally listed as Endangered in west and central Africa. The Asian subspecies is listed as Endangered based solely on population size. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the Asian lion as Endangered. Those in Africa are not protected. CITES bans international commerce in Asian lions under Appendix I regulations. Trade in African lions is regulated by CITES under Appendix II regulations; lions are legally hunted in some range countries in East and southern Africa.
In North America, the African lion studbook was approved in 1992 in order to identify animals of known origin that could be traced back to the wild. A Species Survival Plan (SSP) was approved a year later. Since then, 37 lions have been imported from Africa, primarily South Africa but also Zimbabwe, and breeding is restricted to individuals of known ancestry. Zoos participating in the SSP are phasing out managing animals of unknown origin by not breeding them, and replacing them with pedigree animals as they become available.
An international studbook for Asian lions was initiated in 1977 with an SSP for this subspecies approved in 1983. However in 1986, the Asian Lion SSP found that the ancestors of all but one “Asian” lion in North America had been hybridized with African lions. Although no importations of Asian lions are anticipated from India, a successful program is underway in Europe for individuals that can be wholly traced back to the Gir Forest.
Lion SSP Coordinator
Hollie Colohan, Denver Zoo
Lion SSP Education Advisor
Amanda Berlinski, Lincoln Park Zoo
The Serengeti Lion project is the longest running lion research project in Africa and its focus has shifted from ecology to conservation strategies. Panthera and Wildlife Conservation Society are currently doing work in central and west Africa, where lion populations are most critical.
The Lion SSP is committed to the management and welfare of lions in captivity, but we also believe we have an obligation to lions in the wild. In 2013, the Lion SSP, with support from the Houston Zoo and Denver Zoo, partnered to launch a lion conservation campaign. The goal is to raise awareness among the zoo community about the threats lions face in the wild and offer a simple but impactful way to help. The campaign endorses six projects in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique that focus on habitat protection and mitigating human conflict.
Lion SSP Conservation Campaign, www.houstonzoo.org/lionssp