C. N. Burne
04 July 2009
The Lion is a vulnerable large cat found mainly within the savannas of mainland Africa. An isolated relict population exists in north western India. The Lion is a now a popular and well studied cat, although it has historically suffered from extensive persecution. In common with other cats, the Lion population is generally poorly understood but acknowledged to have undergone a significant reduction in recent decades. In common with other large animal species, Lions display morphological differences throughout their range. Unlike all other members of the Family Felidae, Lions live in social groups as well as displaying sexual dimorphism.
Species Authority: Linnaeus, 1758
Common Name: Lion
P. l. leo (African Lion) : Linnaeus, 1758
P. l. persica (Asian Lion) : Meyer, 1826
Sub-species not formally classified
P. l. senegalensis (West African Lion)
P. l. azandica (Northeast Congo Lion)
P. l. nubica (East African Lion)
P. l. bleyenberghi (Southwest African Lion)
P. l. melanochaita (Cape Lion)
The Lion shares a common ancestry (6 – 10 million years old) with the Tiger P. tigris, Jaguar P. onca, Leopard P. pardus, Snow Leopard P. uncia, Clouded Leopard Neofelis nebulosa and Sundaland Clouded Leopard N. diardi. P. leo and P. pardus diverged as recently as 1 – 1.25 million years ago. P. leo evolved in Africa before spreading throughout the Holarctic region around 700 000 years ago. It further spread during the upper Pleistocene into the Americas. P. leo became extinct throughout the Americas and northern Eurasia during the last glacial period ±10 000 years ago.
Various authors have recognized as many as twelve sub-species based on a variation of characteristics including location, size and distribution. Further and more detailed mDNA analysis is required for further sub-species recognition.
Lions have been the subject of varied inbreeding and hybridization. Hybridized outputs include liger, tigon, leopon, jaglion, marozi, Congolese Spotted Lion (lijagulep). White Lions are little more than the product of a recessive gene causing leucism and are popularly bred within the pet trade. Naturally occurring leucistic lions are well known from the Timbavati and Kruger National Park areas of South Africa. (also see melanism, which is known to occur in low frequencies among P. onca and P. pardus).
The Lion is the second largest of the Felids after P. tigris by weight, although it can appear larger due to its mane. Lions vary in colouration from light buff to ochraceous brown. Juveniles have light brown rosettes which mostly fade in adulthood, but can be seen particularly in females on the legs and underparts. Most adult males have a mane varying in colour from blonde in youngsters to black in older males. Mane sizes can vary on account of age, health, geography and habitat. All adults possess a light coloured tail with a tufted black tip (unique among Felids). Adult females have black and white stripe patterns on the rear of their ears, thought to assist cubs and other members of the pride in locating and following each other.
Adults males typically weigh between 150 – 250kg’s (heaviest to date is 313kg) while females weigh between 120 – 180kg’s. There is a marked weight difference between different geographical populations (southern African individuals typically weight up to 5% more than eastern African individuals).
Lions currently occupy most countries in sub-Saharan Africa. They formerly occupied territory over much of Africa, Europe and Asia. The last European Lions were to be found in the Caucasus, they were considered extinct approximately 1000 years ago. Extinction of populations increased significantly once firearms became readily available. Lions were extirpated from Turkey during the late 19th century, North Africa (Atlas Mountains – 1940’s) and Iran (1944). A relict population has survived in north western India within the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Lion is currently to be found in the following countries:
Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkino Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, DRC, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, India, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Burundi, Congo, Gabon, Togo
Afghanistan, Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Gambia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, Turkey and Western Sahara.
The Lion population has not been the topic of much serious investigation, with only three notable attempts all occurring between 1996 and 2004. No accurate estimation of their historical populations is possible, although Myers (1975) considered there to be around 400 000 individuals during the 1950’s. Based on studies by Chardonnet (2002) and Bauer & van der Merwe (2004), the estimated upper Lion population is between 30 000 to 47 000 individuals.
Habitat and Ecology
Lions survive in a number of habitats absent only from the central Sahara and African rain forests. They have proven adaptability, with some prides surviving without access to water within the Kalahari desert . Average Lion density varies from 1.5 adults per 100km² (semi desert) to 55 adults per 100km² (Serengeti). The Asiatic Lion of the Gir Forest inhabits dry deciduous forest surrounded by cultivated land. They show a preference for Spotted Deer Axis axis although Domestic Cattle Bos taurus have historically formed a large part of their diet.
Hunting is performed primarily by the females within the pride. They act as a co-coordinated group ensuring a higher ration of success than individual hunters. Hunting females will normally take precedence over the kill, but may be violently excluded if the pride male is nearby.
Lions predate on most ungulates showing a preference for medium to large species including Wildebeest Connochaetus sp, Zebra Equus sp, Giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis, African Buffalo Syncerus caffer and various other antelope species. Prey by weight ranges between 200 – 550kg on average. Lions will gorge on prey, consuming up to 30kg’s of meat in a single sitting. Lions are also adept at scavenging from other predators such as Spotted Hyena Crocuta crocuta or eating carrion. (It is worth noting that Spotted Hyena, natures scavenging dustbins hunt and kill a higher percentage of their own prey than Lions do.) Lions are proficient killers of other predators, actively targeting Spotted Hyena C. crocuta, Leopard P. pardus, Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and African Wild Dog Lycaon pictus. Alpha females, pregnant mothers and juveniles are specifically targeted.
Lion prides are known to show preference for particular prey species, some showing a preference for rather atypical species such as African Elephant Loxodonta africana (Savuti River, Botswana), Cape Fur Seals Arctocephalus pusillus (Desert Lions of Kunene, Namibia) and Humans Homo sapiens (various prides within Kruger National Park, South Africa / Mozambique border and the Rufiji/Lindi areas of Tanzania).
Lions reproduce throughout the year producing between 1 and 4 cubs per litter. Mating can be an arduous task lasting up to a week with copulation occurring upwards of 30 times a day. During this period, neither of the couple are likely to eat or participate in hunts. Gestation is approximately 110 days, the female giving birth away from the pride usually in a secluded den area. Cubs weigh between 1 – 2 kg’s and are completely dependant on their mother, they only start crawling after a few days and their eyes do not open until a week old. The cubs are moved on a regular basis to avoid the attention of other predators (including other male Lions) as well as African Buffalo S. caffer (who have been known to stampede den sites in order to trample the cubs.)
Lions are the most social of all cats, with related females forming prides and males forming coalitions outside of the pride structure. Prides average four to six adults, one of which is typically a male. Lions spend upwards of 20 hours a day resting. Activity is intermittent and can take place at any time during the day, hunting most often occurs at dawn.
Females are unable to join other, unrelated prides and hence remain within their pride or may rarely become singularly nomadic. Sub-adult males are excluded from the pride on reaching maturity at around 2-3 years of age, typically forming coalitions.
Lions hunt from close range, stalking to within approximately 30 metres prior to initiating an attack. Methods of hunting vary depending on the environment and geography. Under ideal circumstances Lions attack downwind in a spear formation consisting of core central members with others working the flank. Prey animals are normally dispatched by strangulation resulting in asphyxiation or cerebral ischemia. Juveniles Lions start active stalking at the age of three months, progressing to ‘on the hunt’ training after one year and finally proficient participation at the age of two.
Male Lions have short period of their lives to procreate. Once they reach maturity at the age of 4 or 5, they will attempt to oust a prides dominant male. If successful, he will be able to father offspring for as long as he can withstand the advances of other males. A newly dominant male will often kill the young cubs (under the age of two) in order to stimulate oestrus in the pride females. Other sub-adults (both male and female) are liable to be ousted immediately. Most males start to become vulnerable to take over at the age of 10, becoming nomadic after losing their pride. Non-related nomadic males may form coalitions for periods of time, some may attempt to challenge other pride males with limited success.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classifies the Lion as Vulnerable (CITES Appendix II), while the Infra-specific subspecies P. l. persica is classified as Endangered (CITES Appendix I).
Adult Lions are apex predators with particular inter-specific niche competition from Spotted Hyena C. crocuta. There is limited inter-specific competition from Leopard P. pardus, African Wild Dog L. pictus, Tiger P. tigris and intra-specific competition from other Lions. A large number of Lion are killed through intra-specific competition, mostly between male Lions. The Nile Crocodile Crocodylus niloticus is the only animal that poses a one to one lethal threat to a Lion. However, their most significant threat as with most species relates to Humans H. sapiens.
Human - Lion Conflict
Of all conflicts between humans and large carnivores, the most challenging involves the Lion. Most large reserves cannot be feasibly fenced, Lions attack thousands of livestock throughout the continent each year as well as predating on humans, particularly in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique. The erecting of fences is completely infeasible (for example, The Netherlands would fit comfortably within either the Central Kalahari National Park, Kgaligadi Transfrontier Park, Selous National Park or the Limpopo Transfrontier Park) but ecologically unacceptable (e.g. trapping migratory ungulates inside fenced reserves), whereas trans-locating people or problem lions would be politically unacceptable.
Various projects are underway to alleviate the conflict. Most revolve around improved accommodation structures and increased protection to Domestic Cattle enclosures.
Habitat and Prey Loss
Lion populations have become segmented due to Human development and population increase. Genetic diversity has become severely limited in some populations (Namibia’s Desert Lions, India’s Asiatic Lion population, west African Lions) increasing the incidence of disease and the potential for localised wipeout. The increase of human habitation brings with it an increase in domestic livestock. The offset of decreased prey items and increased human populations results in further persecution as hungry Lions attack domestic livestock and humans. While Lions are adaptable, a significant increase in desertification is leading to a further reduction in prey species.
Unfortunately, no amount of education or law will protect the Lion. As certainly as the Human population is to increase, so the Lion population will decrease in much the same way that has befallen the Tiger P. tigris. Lions do not have the same popular appeal as cuddly Great Pandas Ailuropoda melanoleuca or the fascinating intelligence of the great Apes Hominidae and hence the human population is unlikely to take an interest in the conservation of the Lion until the species is facing extinction.
Conservation efforts focus almost entirely on resolving the conflict between Lions and Humans. It is implausible to attempt any form of preservation, thus for Lions to survive, Humans are going to have to learn to live alongside them. Approximately 50% of the Lion population live within official conservation areas. While they are mostly protected, most conservation areas are surrounded by pastoralist farmers and their domestic livestock. The only effective method to reduce the risk to humans and their livestock is to improve farmers living facilities and farming practices. Sturdier farm houses with internal sewage systems (or at least protected access to outdoor lavatories) and improved enclosures for livestock would drastically reduce the current conflict. Research in Tanzania has shown that digging trenches around agricultural fields would reduce the number of Bushpig Potamochoerus larvatus and consequently the prey options for Lion within agricultural areas.
Conservation of Lions within privately owned nature reserves is a near impossible and highly expensive venture. Standard games fences suitable for most ungulates and large mammals are insufficient for the containment of Lions. Lions pose a real and dangerous threat to the safety of humans and hence the introduction of Lions to National Parks or privately run game farms is always met with stiff opposition from neighbouring land owners and communities. Specialised electric fencing necessary to maintain Lions requires permanent maintenance and monitoring which often proves more expensive than the commercial potential of Lion introduction. Lion are thus unlikely to benefit from private landowner initiatives which have been particularly successful in conserving such species as Sable Hippotragus niger and Roan H. equinus.
Tourists should consider Lions to be amongst the most dangerous large animals likely to be encountered on safari. Lions are adept hunters and humans are unlikely to be aware of them should they specifically target you or your accommodation. A Lions sense of sight, smell and hearing under all conditions are exponentially superior to that of a human. Accommodation within Lion territories should be well secured with lockable windows and doors, preferably surrounded by electric fencing and monitored by armed guides. Lions tend not to take much notice of organized safari vehicles due to habituation, however standing up or overt movement and noise are to be avoided as it is likely to provoke their attention – either to flight or to confrontation.
Walking in known Lion habitat should be undertaken only under the supervision of specific Dangerous Animals qualified guides. The presence of armed guides should not be construed as de facto protection or competence. The frontal ‘kill zone’ on a charging Lion is approximately 5cm in diameter situated slightly below the eye line. A charging Lion moves low to the ground in complete silence at approximately 22 metres per second.
African Lion Working Group Link to African Lion Working Group
IUCN Redlist – Lion Link to IUCN Website - Lion
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