Lion (Panthera leo)


Panthera leo (Linnaeus, 1758)

Male lion

Photo: Marius Saunders

French:Lion d’Afrique

IUCN Conservation Status:

Vulnerable (VU), A2abcd = a population reduction of 50% or more over the last 10 years.

King of the Beasts! Captured in the legends of ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt and threading through the traditions of African culture, the powerful spell of the lion has created a symbol of royal leadership. It gave form to the Sphinx and was engraved on Egyptian tombs. The eye was especially significant and the mane gave rise to religious myths and beliefs in traditional African societies. Lion is one of the African big five and certainly serves as the greatest attraction for tourists and hunters.




The lion’s name is derived from the Greek word “leon”. It was first described as Felis leo by Linnaeus in 1758 from a specimen found in Constantine, Algeria. In 1917, R.I. Pocock altered the genus name to Panthera leo after the cat family was split into two subfamilies namely pantherinae the roaring cats and felinae, the non-roaring, purring cats.

The genus Panthera has four species

  • Panthera leo the lion
  • Panthera pardus the leopard with three sub-species
  • Panthera onca the jaguar from South and Central America
  • Panthera tigris the tiger of tropical Asia with five sub-species

The earliest fossils of lions were found in Tanzania and date back 3.5 million years BP. In South Africa, fossils dating 2.8-2.4 million years BP were found at the Sterkfontein caves.

Despite the colour hybridization of the white lion of the Timbavati, only two living extant lion species are recognized

  • Panthera leo leo the African lion
  • P. leo persica the Asiatic lion

In the past, lions were widely distributed throughout Europe, most of Asia and the whole of Africa. They became extinct in Europe when the last individual was killed in Greece circa100 AC but persisted in Palestine until the 1100s. In 1990 an Asian census showed that <300 individuals remained. Lions became extinct in various regions of North Africa between 1890 and 1940. They are still widespread at present but are scarce in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Numbers in the continent declined from approximately 200 000 in 1880 to 20 000 in 2001.

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Lion have the typical body profile of a cat with a powerful muscular body, short robust legs, enlarged paws, shoulders that project above the spine when walking and an extremely long tail that serves as a means of balance when charging. Other than the Asian tiger, lions are the largest living cats. Body size and appearance differ between environments. The lack of genetic variation between lion populations is important, as the species is being forced into bottlenecks.

The body is a uni-coloured dull, sandy-yellow or tawny-yellow on the upper parts and flanks, and a light yellow-white on the under parts and inner legs. Adult males have a mane of dense, dark, tawny hair of up to 16 cm around the neck and down the throat between the front legs. The extinct Cape lion, and the legendary lions depicted in Greek and Roman lion cages had a mane that extended to the navel. Most of these lions were descended from the extinct Atlas lion of the Moroccan region of North Africa that had a massive, bushy mane. Kalahari lions tend to have a more developed mane than lions from the sub-tropical bushveld. In contrast, the lions of Somalia, Ethiopia and north-eastern Africa do not have a mane.


Trophies are measured by adding the maximum length of the skull from the nostril to the base of the cranium, to its maximum diameter.

Comparison To Man

Wildlife Ranching lion comparison to man

Habitat requirement

Lions inhabit almost any type of habitat other than forest, ranging from desert and arid Karoo to grassland, savannah, bushveld, valley thicket and mountain kloof thicket, from <100 to >1 200 mm annual rainfall. The topography ranges from beaches, flats and riverine areas to rocky hills, mountains and highlands. Refuge such as tall grass, bush, tree shade and rocks are necessary for the stalking of prey as well as for providing a resting place during the heat of the day. Surface drinking water is essential.


Wildlife ranching lion distribution

Feeding & Nutrition

Lions are predominantly nocturnal but activity may extend to all daylight hours depending on the abundance of prey. Most daylight hours are spent resting in the shade of vegetation or on sandbanks and large rocky outcrops. Lions are opportunistic and regard any live or strange object as a potential food source. In deserts the bulk of the diet consists of hyrax, mice, porcupine, ground birds and insects, while in the Kruger National Park it consists primarily of impala, blue wildebeest, zebra and warthog complemented by giraffe and buffalo. On the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, nomadic, solitary lions are in direct competition with brown hayenas and black-backed jackals as they feed mainly on seal and marine bird carcasses found in the tidal zone. The preferred prey size is a live mass of 60-350 kg.
Alpha males feed first and aggressively attack any female or youngster attempting to intrude. Second in line are alpha and beta females and their cubs and only then are the sub-adults allowed to feed. In nature, lions feed once every four days on average and as much as 45 kg of flesh may be consumed. A pride of lion requires less prey per lion per annum compared to solitary individuals. Studies in the Kruger National Park indicated a mean of 15 prey animals of mixed sizes, from warthog to giraffe, per lion per annum. In the Kalahari Desert an annual kill of mixed sizes ranging from mice to gemsbuck, is 47 prey animals per lion. After taking down a large prey, the pride may spend several days in the vicinity, returning to feed several times until the carcass is consumed.
Lions are strategic hunters that plan in advance. Their strategies vary depending on the size of the pride and its social order. The basic strategy is to appoint specific individuals to alert the prey, while others stalk the flight paths in order to ambush them. Most chases are short, covering a distance of 100-200 m in 6-15 seconds and reach a speed of 60 km/hr. The hunting success of prides varies from 15-95% and for solitary individuals from 2.5-29%.

Social structure

Lion is the only living cat species that is distinctly social and lives in gregarious prides. It is only post-mature alpha males of >10 years and sick or injured lionesses that become solitary nomads. Lionesses with newborn cubs remain in solitude for the first month after birth. Alpha females form the nucleus of lion society and lead the pride, dominating the males and the beta and sub adult females. No one lioness dominates the other alphas.

Most female cubs remain in the pride for life. A small proportion of sub adult sisters from the same litter may leave together as a fixed group, once sexual maturity is reached. These sister groups become nomadic and wander across several home ranges before they reach the social maturity and rank of beta lionesses. They may then join a nomadic beta brother group and establish a new pride. A pride consists of an external alpha brother group of 2-4 individuals, 4-10 alpha and beta lionesses of different ages, usually of the same pride and several sub-adult females and cubs of both sexes. The size of prides varies according to the density of potential prey in an area.

Lion family

Photo: Doug Lee

On reaching sexual maturity at 20-24 months, brothers leave the pride as a group and gain beta ranking. These bachelor groups are nomadic until social maturity is reached at an age of 5 years. The group then approaches several existing prides in order to replace the existing alpha males. Once they succeed they tend to kill all existing cubs in the pride to ensure that only their own genes are passed on to future offspring. Any alpha brother of the group may mate with a willing alpha or beta lioness. The alpha brothers remain permanently with the pride for 4-5 years until they are replaced by a new, stronger brother group. Once defeated, an alpha brother group again becomes nomadic, either as an intact group or splitting into post-mature singles.
Lions move quickly and can cover distances of up to 50 km from the den. General movement is 11-33 km per night. They frequently climb trees in order to rest on the branches or to reach a leopard kill stored high in a tree.

Information Table


Lion information table
Adult body weight
Adult shoulder height
Total body length (snout to tail)
Expected longevity
Age of sexual maturity
Age of social adulthood (1st mating)

1st litter born at

Litter interval

Rutting season
Year round
Birth season

Year round
Weaning age months
Independent Aat age
Gender ratio: Natural (all ages)
Mating ratio: Natural (adults)
Re-establishment: Absolute minimum number needed
Re-establishment: Smallest viable population size
Social order
Gregarious groups (prides)
Spatial behaviour: Home range
(arid environment)


to 3900

to 3900
Spatial behaviour: Territory range
Daily food consumption (adults)
Maximum stocking load
Determined by prey animal abundance
Minimum habitat size required
Annual population growth
Optimal annual rainfall
Optimal vegetation structure:
Grass height:
Woody canopy cover:

0-90 cm


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