The king of beasts, the lion is perhaps the best known and recognised among the wild animal since time immemorial. Lions have been depicted widely in the popular imagination as the symbol of majestic grace. In sculptures, paintings, films, on national flags, literature, the image of a lion features in a big way. Panthera Leo is the scientific name of a lion. Carl Linnaeus used the scientific name of Felis Leo for lion in 1758. Lorenz Oken, a German naturalist coined the genus name Panthera in 1816. They are powerfully built cats belonging to the Felidae family. It is the second-largest species of the cat family. The skulls of lions and tigers are very similar. However, the postorbital region of the lion is shorter than that of the tiger. They also have broader nasal openings.
The physical characteristics of a lion are distinguished by their well-developed muscle. The body of the lion is long and they have a large head. Their legs are short. The lion is sexually dimorphic, that is the male and female exhibit different characteristics. The most obvious difference between a male and a female lion is that the males have a majestic mane. The formation of the manes however can differ and have different varieties. A full-grown male excluding his tail is about 6 to 7 feet long and weighs around 170 to 230 kg. The lioness is smaller and weighs much less. The lion has a short coat and the colour varies from the buff yellow orange-brown or silvery grey and dark brown. They have a tuft on the tail which is usually darker in colour than the coat.
Types of Lions
Panthera Leo is the only type of surviving lion at present. From this, 7 lion subspecies have been derived. It is important to know that all the surviving lion species are in danger of extinction. The sub-species that are currently recognised are:
Katanga lion (Southwest African lion)
Congo Lion (Northeast Congo lion)
Transvaal Lion (Southeastern lion)
Nubian Lion (East African lion)
West African lion
Historically, between the mid 18th century and mid 20th century, there were 26 recognised lion specimens. In 2005, eleven species were recognized as valid. Between 2008 and 2016, IUCN Red List assessors recognized and used only two sub-specific names i.e. P.I. Leo for African lions and P.I. persica for the Asiatic lions. However, fossil records show that other lion subspecies or sister species to the modern lion thrived in the prehistoric times.
Where Do Lions Live?
The main habitation of the African lion is across Sub-Saharan Africa. The preferred lion’s habitat is grassy plains and savannahs and open woodlands with bushes. In Africa, however, lions were found in the Sahara desert and most parts of the central rainforest zone, but it became extinct in North Africa in the 1960s, except in the southern part of Sudan.
The Asiatic lion is found only in and around Gir National Park in Gujarat, India which has dry savannah forest and very dry deciduous scrub forest. It was once found in places between Sind, Punjab to Bengal and the Narmada River. Lions became extinct from North America about 10,000 years ago. Till about 2000 years ago they were found in the Balkans. Similarly, they were in Palestine during the Crusades. Now they are hardly found outside the National Parks.
What Do Lions Eat?
The lion is a generalist hyper-carnivore. In simple terms, it means that they can survive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and require large quantities of meat in their diet. Lions hunt and eat. They hunt mainly mammals like medium-sized to large- hoofed animals or ungulates like wildebeest, African buffalo, gemsbok, zebras, antelopes and giraffe. Sambal deer and chital are preferred prey. They occasionally also kill larger animals, especially sick or injured ones and eat found meat such as carrion.
Young lions refrain from hunting until they are almost a year old. Lions eat up their prey at the place of the hunt. Sometimes they are required to pull the large prey elsewhere. Though sometimes the pride members tend to fight over the meat, generally all pride members eat their required amount including old and crippled lions. The lion and the lioness eat around 7 and 5 kilos of meat per day respectively.
Lions feed on carrion, which is thought to provide a large portion of their diet. They have carrion whenever an opportunity arises. They look out for animals dead from natural causes or that killed by other animals. They try to locate circling vultures which indicate the death or distress of an animal.
The most recognisable part of the male lion is its mane. The mane starts growing when the lions are about one year old. The colour becomes darker with age. It has been shown by the researchers that the colour and the size of the mane depend on environmental factors like the temperature. The mane of the Asiatic lion is thinner than those of their African counterparts.
Not all male lions have a mane. Male lions in Pendjari National Park do not have mane or have a very thin and short mane. Lions without manes have also been found in Senegal, Sudan and other places.
Fun Facts about Lions
Lions are really social and live together in groups known as prides.
Lions have gender-specific roles – while the male lions defend the pride’s territory, the females do most of the hunting. However, the males eat first!
It is an endangered species and is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The lions roar so loudly that it can be heard from a distance of 5 miles!
Want to know a lion’s age? See his mane – the darker it is the older he is.
When walking, the lion’s heels do not touch the ground.
A lion loves to sleep and can sleep up to 20 hours a day.
Lions are really bad hunters.
Patrolling, urinating and roaring – the ways a lion marks his territory!
Not all lions have manes!
Lions eat tsamma melons for moisture in the Kalahari Desert to survive extreme drought conditions.
FAQs on Lion
Q1. How Do the Lions Mate?
Ans. Most lionesses are ready to reproduce by their fourth year. Both the male and the female lions are polygamous. However, the females usually remain restricted to having one or two partners from the adult males of the pride. They have no fixed time for breeding and breed throughout the year. It has been observed that they breed every year in captivity, but in the wild once in two years in their natural habitat. Female lions become ready to mate for 3 or 4 days within the reproductive cycle. However, this cycle is widely variable. During this period a pair copulates every 20 to 30 minutes. They can mate up to 50 times within a time span of 24 hours. This serves two purposes – this stimulates ovulation in the female and also secures the paternity of a particular male by excluding other males. After a gestation period of around 108 days, the female gives birth to a litter of one to six cubs. Lionesses in the pride often synchronise their reproductive cycles. There is then communal rearing and suckling of the young. The cubs, on the other hand, suckle indiscriminately from any or all of the nursing females in the pride.
Newborn cubs are helpless and though they are weaned by the time they reach six to seven months, they cannot survive on their own until they are two years old. It has been found that the lion mothers are quite inattentive and leave the cubs alone for up to 24 hours. There is a high mortality rate among them. They reach sexual maturity at around 3 to 4 years, after which some female cubs remain within the pride and others are forced out. The male cubs no longer can remain in the pride after three years of age. They become nomads till they are about five and are ready to take over another pride.
Q2. What is a Pride?
Ans. Lions are social creatures which is something quite unique among the cats. They live in groups of related individuals called a pride. Typically, a pride consists of lionesses across several generations, a few breeding males and their cubs. The average size of the group is 15 but it can be as small as 4 or have around 37 members. Male cubs leave the pride once they are around two or three years of age. The pride occupies the ‘pride area’ which is a well-defined territory. It consists of a core area and is strictly defended and a fringe area. Males of the pride stay on the fringes of this area and defend the territory.
Depending on the availability of prey, the territory area may be small (20 square km) or large (400 square km). Some of the prides reside in the same territory for a very long time. They demarcate their territory by roaring and marking by scent. Males urinate on bushes, trees or simply on the ground. It leaves a pungent smell behind. They also defecate and rub against bushes to leave a scent. Male and female lions both actively defend the pride. It seems that individual members of the pride have specific roles in the pride, be it hunting or rearing of the cubs or defending the pride. Rearing of cubs, hunting more effectively, protecting the cubs etc. maybe some of the reasons why the lions form groups.
Q3. What Steps are Being Taken for the Conservation and Protection of Lions?
Ans. The IUCN Red List identifies the Lion in the vulnerable category. In Africa, several large protected areas have come up for the protection of lions. They have good infrastructure and have developed wildlife tourism. These flourishing and highly popular tourism projects generate enough cash revenue for the proper management of the parks. As a result, the local communities get benefitted and it also provides a strong incentive to them for lion conservation. East and Southern Africa are now the home for lions. Their numbers are dwindling fast and fell by an estimate of 30% to 50% in the late half of the 20th century.
The number of lions living in the wild in Africa ranged between 16,500 to 47,000 in 2002 – 2004. The primary cause is of course the humans and disease. The Lion Conservation Strategies were developed in 2005. These seek to bring in the conservation of lions in West and Central Africa and or East and Southern Africa. The aim of the strategies is to maintain suitable habitat, ensure a sufficient wild prey base and make lion-human coexistence sustainable.
Gir National Park is situated in the region of Saurashtra or the Kathiawar Peninsula in Gujarat. The park and its surrounding area comprising about 7000 square km area are the last refuges of the Asiatic Lions. The population of lions has risen from 180 lions in 1974 to about 650 in 2017. The Asiatic lion has been listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List since 2008. Numerous human habitations close to the park result in conflict between lions, local communities and their livestock.
Researchers have found a close genetic similarity between the Asiatic lion and the extinct Barbary lion. The conservationists feel that it may be possible to restore the population of Barbary lions in North Africa.
Q4. What are the Main Reasons for Lion Hunting?
Ans. All over the world, lion hunting has been a royal pastime since the ancient times. The kings wanted to demonstrate their power over nature. Some tribes like the Masai consider lion hunting as a rite of passage.
Q5. How Long Do Lions Live?
The lifespan of a lion in the wild is not more than 8 to 10 years. Their main threat to life is an attack by humans or other lions. They also get injured by goring or kick from their prey. However, in captivity, the lion lifespan is around 25 years.