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Species Facts

Lions are well known for their unpatterned coats, which can be anywhere from light buff or silvery gray to yellowish red or dark brown. The underparts are generally a paler version of the overall coat color. Both males and females have a black tuft of tassel on the end of the tail. Interestingly, the fur of newborn lion cubs is patterned with dark rosettes that fuse to form stripes in some places.

  • Scientific Designation: Panthera leo
  • Endangered Status: Vulnerable (VU)
  • Lifespan: Up to 18 years old
  • Weight: 120-250 kg
  • Body Length: 70-250 cm
  • Tail Length: 70-123 cm

Mane and Build

In comparison with the African lion, the Asiatic lion has a thicker coat, a longer tail tassel, and a scantier mane. The male lion’s distinctive mane can be yellow, brown, or reddish brown in younger males, but the color seems to darken with age. Young males begin to grow a mane as they mature, usually between three and four years of age. Manes come in all sizes and increase in length and thickness as the lion ages. Functions of the mane include: making the adult male look more impressive and providing protection for the head and neck region during fights. 

Physically, lions and tigers are similarly built. Both species have well-muscled forequarters (designed to grapple with large prey) that taper to slender hind legs. Males are approximately 50 percent heavier than females.

Behavior

Lions are primarily terrestrial and are not adept climbers. However, they will often spend the day resting in the branches of a tree. Furthermore, lions are primarily nocturnal, but as with other felids, there are no hard and fast rules as to when they are active. Interestingly, lions are the least active of all the felids. The lion’s primary prey consists of ungulate species. However, lions have been observed feeding on a variety of land mammals of all sizes from a hare to the occasional young elephant. Lions have occasionally been observed feeding on aquatic species.

Social Organization

The social organization of the archetypal solitary big cat consists of a single male range that overlaps the ranges of several females, a social system where each cat hunts for itself. The lion social system differs from this: In the Gir Forest of India, male and female lions lead separate lives and rarely associate with each other except during mating and at large kills.

Prides are composed of related females (four-five) and their young and sub-adult male offspring. Meanwhile, males form coalitions of two to six individuals, patrol territories, and make their own kills. In the Serengeti, a pride consists of two to eighteen related adult females, their cubs, and one to seven males. In the Serengeti social system, the lionesses do most of the hunting and killing.

Distribution map centers on Africa. The range of the lion is clearly very fragmented and reduced, showing only some splotches here and there in central Africa and some Southern Africa. The range is shaded as extant, or resident, but is surrounded by large swaths of striped red, showing where the lion is possibly extinct from its former range.

Species Distribution

Today, the lion is found only in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Gir Forest of northwestern India. However, until 200 years ago, the species was widely distributed in North Africa, Arabia, the Middle East, and northwestern India. Within the lion’s range, this cat inhabits not only the Serengeti wooded grasslands and rolling shortgrass plains, but also woodlands, dry forest, scrub, and even deserts. In their habitats, lions require stalking cover, such as vegetation, termite mounds, gullies, riverbanks, and other features of the terrain.

Distribution map courtesy of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), compiled in 2016 by Panthera and WCS.

Threats to the Lion

In the wild, the increase of agriculture and pastoralism has reduced the lion’s wild prey base. Lions can be serious problem animals when living alongside humans, as is increasingly becoming the case. Lion predation on livestock is the main form of conflict. The economic impact of stock raiding can be significant. The scavenging behavior of lions also makes them particularly vulnerable to poisoned carcasses put out to eliminate predators.

The lion is currently classified as Vulnerable (VU) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and protected under appendices I, II, and III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), depending on the individual population.

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