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Lion Facts

Found in Africa and Asia, these powerful big cats are skilled hunters. At approximately 2m long and 200kg in weight (adult male) they are the second largest of the big cats, smaller only than the tiger. 

The cat or ‘felidae’ family consists of about 40 different species, ranging from the domestic cat to the tiger. 

How are lions classified?

Both animals and plants can be organised into different groups based on their physical and genetic characteristics. Species that are alike are grouped together. This is called classification. 

This is how lions are classified:

Class: Mammals
Order:Carnivores
Family: Felidae
Species: Panthera leo 

African lion: Panthera leo leo
Asiatic lion: Panthera leo persica

Distribution and population decline

Africa’s lions are in crisis.  The continental population is estimated to have fallen by more than 40% between 1993-2014 (approximately 3 lion generations), and across West, Centrral and East Africa lions have declined by 60% or more.  Lions now occupy as little as 8% of their historic range (1978-2015).

There are 24 countries in Africa with lions. They are known to have disappeared from at lest 12 African countries in recent years, possibly as many as 16.Kenya, which may be home to around 2,000 lions, is one of the last remaining strongholds for the species in East Africa.  However, numbers may have fallen in Kenya by around 20% in just 10 years, and so protection of Kenya’s population has now also become imperative. 

Asiatic lions, numbering less than 500, are only found in the Gir Forest in India, althoughplans to establish a new population in another Indian State have been under discussion for some years. It was, until recently, thought that Asiatic lions represented an entirely different species but genetic analysis suggests that they are in fact closely related to the West African populations.

Habitat

 

Despite being known as the ‘king of the jungle’, the lion in fact prefers open savanna habitats, although Asiatic lions and the famous tree climbing lions of Uganda and Manyara, Tanzania, can also be found in bush and forested areas. The only habitats lions cannot inhabit are tropical rainforests and desert interiors.

Diet

 

All big cats are carnivores or meat-eaters and are at the top of their food chains. Unlike most cats, lions hunt collaboratively, enabling them to bring down large prey such as buffalo, giraffe and even young and adolescent elephants, although their prey typically consists of zebra, wildebeest, roan, sable, springbok, gemsbok, kob, impala, warthog, and hartebeest. While primarily known for their hunting, skills, lions will also scavenge.

Adaptations

© George Logan

Intelligent and agile, capable of sprinting, jumping and climbing, lions are ideally designed to hunt with powerful bodies, excellent eyesight, acute hearing and a good sense of smell. Their fur coats are camouflaged to blend into their backgrounds.

Lions and other carnivores are also physiologically adapted to allow them to eat and efficiently digest meat, having short intestines, sharp teeth and claws and strong jaws with which they suffocate their prey with a strangling bite to the windpipe.

Ecology and Behaviour 

Most big cats hunt at night, including lions. However, lions are the only cats that live and hunt in groups (called prides) with the females doing the majority of the hunting. Contrary to common belief, males do sometimes take part in the hunt. 

Lions defend their territory, which they mark by spraying urine or rubbing their scent on trees and bushes around the perimeter of their territory. It is the sole responsibility of the males to defend the pride against invading males and this is done by using their magnificent manes and roars to intimidate potential rivals. While these displays sometimes avoid direct conflict, nevertheless when fights take place between competing males they are dangerous and sometimes fatal direct.

Prides can include up to three males, around a dozen females, and their young, which are raised cooperatively after they reach 6-8 weeks old, when they are first introduced to the pride. All of the lionesses in the pride will be related to one another and the female cubs typically stay with the group for life. Young males leave the pride and seek to establish a pride of their own by driving out existing pride males. Incoming males may kill any cubs in order to bring the lionesses back into heat, so they can sire their own offspring.

Mating occurs throughout the year as the females are polyestrous, giving birth to a litter of between one and four cubs after a 110 day gestation period. Cubs rely entirely on their mothers’ milk at first but as they become weaned they remain dependent on the meat their mothers provide for at least 15 months. Hunting behaviour is learned from observing their mother and a process of trial and error.

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