Kings and Queens of the Savanna
A long time ago, someone crowned lions as “the kings of the jungle.” But lions don’t live in jungles. Most live in the grassy African savanna. Some also live in India. Lions are big cats that are related to tigers, leopards, and jaguars. The number of lions is decreasing and lions are losing habitat. Most lions now live in preserves and protected parks. There are about 16,000 to 47,000 African lions (Panthera leo) in Africa. African lions are considered vulnerable. Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persicus)are in danger of becoming extinct. Only about 300 Asiatic lions remain.
No matter where the wild lion travels, it is the undisputed master of the wilderness. Even old males who live by themselves are respected by the other animals that share their land.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Where in the World are Lions?
Lions once lived across all of Africa and the Middle East, in parts of Europe, and far into Asia. Today, as the map shows, their territory has been dramatically reduced to avoid conflicts with people.©UNEP/WCPC
Lions were once the most widespread mammal on Earth. More than 10,000 years ago they lived across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, in Asia south of Siberia, and even in North America from Alaska to Peru. They have vanished from all of these places except central Africa and India’s Gir Forest National Park, where a small group of Asiatic lions lives.
Keeping Out of Sight
Lions are masters of camouflage when on the hunt. In the tall grasses of the savanna even a young male lion of 136 kgs (300 lbs) can easily disappear.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Lions thrive in grassy savannas. Their tawny coats blend well with the tall grasses and shrubs. This helps lions stay hidden from theirprey. They may also live in areas of thick brush or dry forest, in the case of Asiatic lions. All lions arepredators, which means they must live where there are large numbers of prey animals. The savanna is home to herds of hoofed animals such as gazelles, zebras, impalas, and wildebeests. Lions prey on these animals. Lions themselves have no natural predators. But they will kill hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs that compete with them for the same prey.
Lions have adaptations that make them awesome hunters. Females may grow to be 2 to 3 m long and weigh about 126 kg. They are able to bring down prey that is much larger than they are. Males are larger than females. They weigh in at about 190 kg. Asiatic lions are smaller than African lions, and the males have shorter manes.
Take Pride in Your Group
Lions are the only big cats that live in groups. The groups are calledprides. In a pride, female lions share the work of hunting and raisingcubs. Adult males protect the females and cubs from other males that try to take over the territory. You can tell a male lion from a female easily. A male has a shaggy mane around his face.
A hunting pride of female lions, often sisters, mothers and aunts, is trouble for any animal not paying close attention. Once a pride is set to hunt, all the cats are focused and alert.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
In Africa, a lion pride is made up of as many as 40 related females and cubs and one or more adult males. They occupy a territory that can be up to 260 km2. The males mark the boundaries of their territory withurine. They roar to warn off intruders. Their job is to guard the pride from outside males that might try to take it over.
Asiatic lions also live in groups, but the groups are smaller. They may consist of only two related females and their cubs. Males do defend territories, but they do not fight to control or protect a pride. They live apart from females except during mating. Asiatic lions tend to hunt alone. They feed mostly on small deer and antelope. They only share a kill when it is especially large.
The strength of a lion is truly impressive. This male lion is lifting and dragging away a wildebeest carcass that weighs over 180 kgs (400 lbs)!©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
The Hunt Is On!
While African lion males patrol their territories, females do most of the hunting. They usually prey on animals that can run faster than they do. For this reason, the lions often work as a group to surround an animal and ambush it before it can get away. Once they make a kill, the rest of the pride comes to eat. Lions can really gorge themselves. They can eat enough at one meal to last several days. Then it’s time for a nap!
A Big Cat Nap
Lions sleep up to 20 hours a day! Hunting is very hard work. Sleeping helps lions rest up and save energy for the next hunt. Lions are mostly active at night and sleeping through most of the day is also a good way to avoid the heat.
Generally lions live in a group, or pride, and show great affection to one another and the cubs. While the others hunt, one female usually stays behind to protect and care for the small cubs in the pride.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Lions use body language to communicate with each other. They greet others by rubbing their faces and heads together. They also groom each other. This helps keep them clean and free of parasites. It’s also a way of bonding with the others in the group. Lions can be quite loud. Besides roaring, they also grunt, hiss, purr, and snarl.
Bringing Up Baby
Females are ready to mate several times every year. A male lion can tell when a female is ready by her scent, and he will guard her against other interested males. A female gives birth to three or four cubs. They stay in a nest of thick vegetation. Young cubs are spotted, which helps them blend into their surroundings. Their mom nursesthem throughout the day. Sometimes one of the mother’s sisters will “baby-sit.” She will nurse her own cubs and those that belong to her sister.
Only two months old and these little lion cubs are trying to explore everything around them – including the photographer. Even at this young age you can begin to see which lions will be the most aggressive, courageous or curious.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Learning to Hunt
After about six weeks, the cubs are old enough to leave the nest. They will also begin to eat meat, although they will still nurse for several more months. Cubs stay with their mothers for about two years. She teaches them everything they need to know to survive. One of the most important skills a mother lion teaches her cubs is hunting. Mom will often bring home a small animal that the cubs can chase and play with. This “play” is really hunting practice. When cubs are old enough, they join the others in real hunts. Female lions outlive males. They may reach about 15 years of age. Males rarely live more than 10 years.
Bon Voyage, Boys!
Despite lions’ strength, loss of habitat and increased human pressure threaten the survival of these great cats. Asiatic male lions now only exist in a small region of southwest India called the Gir (pronounced Geer) forest.©William A. Bolton
Female lions spend their whole lives with their sisters and daughters. But life is different for males. When they are about two-years-old, the pride’sdominant males run the young guys off. These young male lions live on their own or with a brother or cousin until they are strong enough to try and take over a pride of their own. Pairs or groups of male lions are called a coalition.
When outside males threaten a pride, the pride’s males fight fiercely to defend it. If they are successful, the outsiders are forced away. Males are sometimes killed during such fights. If the outsiders win, the losing males must leave. The new, dominant males will kill as many cubs as they can. This makes the females ready to mate again, and the males get the chance to father their own cubs. Most dominant males last only two or three years before they are defeated by younger, stronger outsiders.
Lions, and Tigons, and Ligers, Oh My!
In captivity, scientists have bred lions with other big cats to createhybrids. When a male lion and female tiger breed, for example, a liger is born. When a female lion mates with a tiger, the cub is a tigon. Why breed such mixed-up cats? One reason was to attract people to zoos to see the wild new cat. Today, however, most zoos do not breed hybrids. Instead, they concentrate on educating people about lions in the wild.
Lions in Our Lives
Not many animals have captured the human imagination the way lions have. Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and Hindus revered lions. Asian, Middle Eastern, and European cultures viewed lions as symbols of power and nobility. If you’ve seen the movie The Lion King, then you’re familiar with one of the latest stories about these magnificent big cats.
An Uncertain Future
Although lions are valuable to their ecosystems and to ecotourism, many people still see them as a danger to their cattle and villages. The survival of lions in the wild over the next few decades will depend on how much land can be protected for them and the species they depend on for food. With luck this cub will reach 15 to 20 years old.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Two groups of African lions have become extinct in the wild in the past 150 years. The Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus)of southern Africa vanished around 1860. The Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo), which lived in Egypt and Morocco, became extinct in 1922. In the past 20 years, the population of African lions has decreased by perhaps as much as 50 percent. The population of Asiatic lions has dropped so much that they are listed as critically endangered.
The Lion’s Share Gets Smaller
Lions have always been hunted. People see them as dangerous to them and their farm animals. Lions do sometimes kill people. Scientists believe that a lack of natural prey may lead to lions becoming “man-eaters.” Today, the biggest threat to lions is habitat loss. Many of Africa’s lions live on preserves that may not be large enough to protect them in the long run. While the lions may be safe in the preserves, they may be killed when they leave its borders bypoachers or villagers who want to protect livestock.
The only way to protect lions may be to put these great cats in wildlife preserves. Lions are worth thousands of dollars to local villagers and governments through tourism. Tourists from all over the world travel each year to Africa and India just to see big cats like the lion.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Lion habitat is becoming more and more broken up, or fragmented. This means that groups of lions are isolated from each other. There may not be enough of them to maintain healthy populations. Too few lions results in a lack of genetic diversity, and isolated lions are more likely to suffer from diseases.
Helping Lions Bounce Back
In addition to keeping up the preserves, conservation efforts are being made to establish a second population of Asiatic lions in India. African lions are also part of the Species Survival Plan carried out by zoos. In this plan, captive lions are bred to help preserve the species.