Lions are generally considered tawny in colour but do range in colour from light buff to silvery grey but also to a yellowish red and brown coloration. ‘White’ or pale cream colouration also exists as does a rare melanistic form. For all colour variations, the underparts and insides of limbs are paler in colour and the tail has a black tufted tip. Some adults retain some of the rosettes characteristic of cubs. Males possess a long mane containing hairs of up to 16 cm in length . In some individuals, the mane extends to the elbows and abdomen. Manes ranges in colour from tawny to black. Manes generally become darker with age and is seen as a sign of fitness. The mane serves to protect the male’s neck during fights with other males. It also serves to distinguish the sexes and can be seen by other lions at great distance. Mane development and maintenance is strongly influenced by testosterone.
Habitat and Distribution
The Lion has a broad habitat tolerance with the exception that it is not found in tropical rainforest or the interior of the Sahara desert (Nowell and Jackson 1996). Lions primarily live in semi desert/arid environments usually along avenues of watercourses. There are records of Lion to elevations of more than 4,000 m in the Bale Mountains and on Kilimanjaro (West and Packer in press). Although Lions drink regularly when water is available, they are capable of obtaining their moisture requirements from prey and even plants (such as the tsama melon in the Kalahari desert), and thus can survive in very arid environments. Lions are found in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Extent of occurrence is estimated at over 4.5 million km², 22% of historical range. Most lion range is in eastern and southern Africa (77%). Current lion status is still unknown over large parts of Africa.
The lion formerly ranged from northern Africa through southwest Asia (where it disappeared from most countries within the last 150 years), west into Europe, where it apparently became extinct almost 2,000 years ago, and east into India (Nowell and Jackson 1996, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002). Today, the only remainder of this once widespread population is a single isolated population of the Asiatic lion P. leo persica in the 1,400 km² Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. Lions are extinct in North Africa, having perhaps survived in the High Atlas Mountains up to the 1940s (Nowell and Jackson 1996, West and Packer in press).
The main threats to lions are indiscriminate killing (primarily as a result of retaliatory or pre-emptive killing to protect life and livestock) and loss of prey species. Habitat loss has led to a number of populations becoming small and isolated (Bauer 2008).
The economic impact of stock raiding can be significant: Patterson et al. (2004) estimated that each lion cost ranchers in Kenya living alongside Tsavo East National Park US$290 per year in livestock losses. Likewise, annual losses of cattle to lions in areas adjacent to Waza National Park in Cameroon comprised only about 3.1% of all livestock losses, but were estimated to represent more than 22% of financial losses amounting to about US$370 per owner (Bauer 2003). Consequently, lions are persecuted intensely in livestock areas across Africa; their scavenging behaviour makes them particularly vulnerable to poisoned carcasses put out to eliminate predators. Little actual information exists on the number of lions killed as problem animals by local people, even though this is considered the primary threat to their survival outside protected areas. Implementation of appropriate livestock management measures, coupled with problem animal control measures and mechanisms for compensating livestock losses, are some of the primary responses to resolving human-lion conflict (Frank et al. 2006).
Trophy hunting is carried out in a number of sub-Saharan African countries and is considered an important management tool for providing financial resource for lion conservation for both governments and local communities. However, there is concern that current management regimes can lead to unsustainable offtakes (Packer et al. 2006). Disease has also been a threat to wild lion populations (Ray et al. 2005). In parts of southeastern Tanzania there have been alarmingly high incidences of people killed by lions, with up to 400 human lion-related fatalities recorded from 1997-2007 (Ikanda 2007).
Lions pre y on medium- to large-sized ungulates but will take almost any animal, from rodents to rhino. Common prey includes Blue Wildebeest, Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Kob, Sable antelope, Gemsbok, Eland, Impala, Springbok, Giraffe, Warthog and Zebra . Lions are opportunistic hunters so will also prey on hippo, elephants, ostrich as well as fish and smaller mammals. They also scavenge, displacing other predators (such as the Spotted Hyaena) from their kills.
Breeding and Lifecycle
The lion is the only true communal cat. Prides comprise 1-20 (usually 4-11) related females, offspring and between 1-9 (usually 2-4) immigrant males that are unrelated to the breeding females (pers. comm. L.Hunter). Pride size varies depending on prey abundance. Females will generally remain in the pride for life and will protect their territories against intruding females and unfamiliar males. (pers. comm. L.Hunter) Occasionally though, some females may leave their pride during a male takeover. While female membership of the pride is fairly stable, it is rare that all pride members are together – instead small sub groups come and go within the pride’s range in a continuous flow (pers. comm. L.Hunter).
Coalition males are usually related but in smaller coalitions of 2-3 males they can include non relatives (pers. comm. L.Hunter). These coalition males remain together for life – defending the territory and females from wandering males. Young males are evicted or leave their pride between 25 – 48 months and enter a nomadic phase for up to 3 years (pers. comm. L.Hunter). During a takeover by new males, all dependent cubs under 12-18 months of age are killed or evicted (unless they are related to the take over males). Males will not kill the cubs of a female that he has mated. Once dependant cubs have been removed, females will return to oestrus. Coalition tenure over females is usually 2-4 years (pers. comm. L.Hunter).
Females may give birth to cubs at any time of year although may have peaks when prey abundance is high (Haas et al, 2005). In the wild, age of first reproduction is 2.5 – 3 years of age but more usually 3.5 – 4 years and ceases by 15 years. Males are sexually mature at 2 years of age but would rarely have an opportunity to breed before 4 years of age (pers. comm. L.Hunter) or after 16 years of age (Haas et al, 2005).
Oestrus: Lasts 4-5 days on average with 14 – 21 day cycles.
Gestation: 98 – 115 days (110 day average). Births may be synchronized with communal care and nursing of cubs. Interestingly, females will suckle any other female’s cub but will only carry their own (pers. comm. L.Hunter).
Weaning: begins at 6 – 8 weeks although some cubs may attempt to suckle until 8 months of age.
Independence: Cubs can hunt on own at 18 months but generally do not disperse till 2 years.
Birth sites: Females leave the pride to give birth to cubs in dens or thick underbrush. Litters remain hidden for 4- 5 weeks before the female rejoins her pride (Haas et al, 2005).
Lions are primarily active at night with approximately 80% of their daily time budget spent sleeping, lying down or sitting. (Haas et al, 2005). Males use vocalizations and scent marking to determine territory boundaries. Roaring is also used in communication between pride mates. (Haas et al, 2005)
The Zoo and Aquarium Association acknowledges Taronga Conservation Society Australia for providing the fact-sheet information above.