African Lion

Panthera leo

Mama lion in Ngorongoro crater. Tanzania 2018.

Size: Male – Total length is between 2.5-3.3m, shoulder height is 1.2m. They generally weigh between 150-225kg. Female – Total length 2.3 – 2.7m, shoulder height is 1m. They generally weigh between 110-152kg

Male Lion on the Mashatu reserve. Botswana 2019

Identification: Lions are the largest of the African cats. There is sexual dimorphism between adult males and females, as males have a mane, whereas females do not. They have reddish-brown to pale tawny fur, with lighter underparts (with exceptions such as the white (leucistic) lions of the Timbavati). The cubs will also have pale spots on their sides which generally disappear by adulthood. The males’ mane extends from the sides of the face, down the neck and onto the shoulders and chest. The colour of the mane ranges from a pale tawny to black. The darker the mane, generally the higher in the hierarchy the lion is. 

Diet: Meat (Obligate Carnivore) – generally small to medium sized antelopes, but in large prides they will take down large animals such as buffalo or young elephants. Some lions have even worked out how to hunt giraffe. 

Habitat: A very broad range of habitats from desert edges to open savannah and woodland. They are absent however from equatorial forest. 

Location: South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia. They generally occur south of the Sahara , but are excluded from the equatorial forest areas. 

Breeding: No fixed breeding season, with a general litter size of 1-4, but can be as big as 6 occasionally. The gestation is 110 days, and the cubs weigh about 1.5kg at birth. The lioness will leave the pride to give birth to the cubs and will return once the cubs are bigger and stronger, which is usually when the cubs are 1-2 months old. Not only will the mother suckle the cubs, but any other female that is lactating with her own cubs will also suckle another’s cubs. The cubs may remain with their mothers for up to 2 years or longer. The males will generally be kicked out when they are old enough to prevent inbreeding. If a new male takes over the pride, any young cubs will be killed so that the adult females go into oestrus and he can have his own cubs. Mating is a rather arduous task, this is due to the frequency of the matings. Mating will occur every 20 minutes or so for 3-4 days. 


Lifespan: 13-15 years in the wild. An average of 13 years in captivity, with the longest living to have made it to 30 years old. 

Behaviour: Quite a large proportion of lion behaviour includes sleeping, as they sleep for 20-21 hours a day. Lion hunting behaviour is fairly interesting in that they need a lot of patience and skill (and also a good amount of luck sometimes) to catch their rather fast food. Lions are able to run at speeds of 48-59km per hour, but they are only able to maintain this speed for about 100m or so. Therefore, they rely on stalking behaviour to get as close to their prey as possible before making an attack. They use dense cover such as bushes or long grass, and will do a walk with their bellies pretty much on the ground. Once close enough, they will run at the prey, especially if the prey is not being attentive, but will stop and hunker down in the grass if the prey looks in their direction. The majority of hunts are group activities, and it is usually the females that will do the hunting, however, the male will generally get to eat first. There was a study done that looked at different lion hunting techniques, such as a single lion hunting or in a group, they found that only 17-19% of hunts were successful for solitary lions, compared with 30% of hunts for groups of 2 or more lions. Their success rate still being considerably low compared to other predators such as wild dogs, another group hunting animal. 

Two female lions playing with each other. Ngorongoro crate. Tanzania 2018.

Lions have a number of ways they communicate with each other, which include Olfactory, Visual and Tactile communication. Olfactory communication uses scent marking such as urine-spraying which will cause the flehmen response when another lion comes into contact with it so that they are able to extract the “message” from it. Visual communication comes in the form of body posture, facial expressions and tail position. For example, if the ears are flat back against the head and teeth are bared, I can assure you that lion is not happy to see you. Tactile communication is in the form of touch, such as social grooming, rubbing faces together, lying next to each other. If you have pet cats at home, they love tactile communication such as rubbing their faces on you, so it must just be a cat thing, or it’s to know they have ownership of you. 

Social Behaviour: The only sociable species of cat. They are well known for their “group” or pride living social structures, it is what stands out most about them. Pride sizes can vary from 3-30 individuals. The pride size is very dependent on food availability. In Botswana, for example, pride sizes are generally never above 6 individuals, whereas in Kruger National Park, South Africa, pride sizes are generally about 12 individuals. A pride will usually have a structure of 1-4 adult males, several related females (sisters or cousins generally), only one of the females is dominant, and there will also be several sub-adults and cubs. 

IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable

Population Trend: Decreasing

Mature individuals: 23,000-39,000 

Threats: Threats are made up of mostly human-based activities, such as, housing and urban areas, agriculture – which includes livestock farming and crop farming, they are also hunted and trapped – either for the black market as pets or as bones for Chinese medicine. Lions will often be killed if they are near rural villages as they may pose as a threat to livestock or human life. Logging and wood harvesting and also war, civil unrest and military exercises are having an impact in some locations. There is also the highly controversial issue of canned hunting and whether that is beneficial to conservation or not. 

Conservation: There are a number of different conservation action plans in place, depending on the biggest threat in the area they are protecting. Different locations have different problems, however the general conservation plans and actions include In-place land/water protection where it’s needed. In-place species management which also includes ex-situ conservation such as breeding programmes in zoos. There is also In-place education which includes education for locals and also international groups. 

Fiesty cubby. Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania 2018.

Interesting facts: The Afrikaans word for Lion is Leeu, and the Swahili word is Simba. 

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