The lion is a magnificent animal that appears as a symbol of power, courage and nobility on family crests, coats of arms and national flags in many civilizations. Lions at one time were found from Greece through the Middle East to northern India, but today only a very small population remains in India. In the past lions lived in most parts of Africa, but are now confined to the sub-Saharan region.
Mature male lions are unique among the cat species for the thick mane of brown or black hair encircling the head and neck. Both male and female lions roar, a sound which can be heard as far as 8 km away.
Lions are found in savannas, grasslands, dense bush and woodlands.
The lion is an exception to the usual solitary existence of most cat species. It has developed a social system based on teamwork, division of labor and an extended but closed family unit. The average pride consists of about 15 individuals: 5 to 10 females, their young, and 2 or 3 territorial males. These are usually brothers or pride mates who have formed a coalition to protect their females. Because a nursing lioness will come into heat a few weeks after the loss of cubs, males with newly won prides will often kill existing cubs, enabling them to sire their own. When resting, lions seem to enjoy good fellowship with lots of touching, head rubbing, licking and purring.
Litters consist of two or three cubs that weigh about 3 pounds each. Some mothers carefully nurture the young; others may neglect or abandon them, especially when food is scarce. Usually two or more females in a pride give birth about the same time, and the cubs are raised together. A lioness will permit cubs other than her own to suckle, sometimes enabling a neglected infant to survive. Capable hunters by 2 years of age, lions become fully grown between 5 and 6 years and normally live about 13 years.
Cooperative hunting enables lions to take prey as large as buffaloes, rhinos, hippos and giraffes. However, scavenged food provides more than 50% of their diets—lions will often take over kills made by other carnivores. Females do 85-90% of the hunting, usually by setting up an ambush into which they drive the prey. The kill is not shared equally within a pride, and at times of prey scarcity, high juvenile mortality rates occur, as hungry females may not even share with their offspring.
Predators and Threats
Lions have long been killed in rituals of bravery, as hunting trophies, and for their medicinal and magical powers. Habitat loss and conflicts with humans are the lions greatest threat. Currently, AWF funds research on lion behavior and human-lion conflicts in Tanzania, Kenya, and Botswana. Little is currently known about where lions go outside of national parks, what they do and what types of threats they face. With a growing human population surrounding parks, there are an increasing number of encounters with humans.
Did You Know?
- Most lions drink water daily if available, but can go four or five days without it. Lions in arid areas seem to obtain needed moisture from the stomach contents of their prey.
- When males take over a pride, they usually kill the cubs. The females come into estrus and the new males sire other cubs.