Lions are the second-largest felid and the only cat with a tufted tail and mane (though only males have manes). Lions have uniformly tawny coats. They stand three feet (one meter) tall at the shoulder and weigh 300 to 500 pounds (136 to 227 kilograms). Females are smaller than males. Leucism (unusual white color with normally pigmented eyes) has been reported from near Kruger National Park and Umfolozi Game Reserve. Melanistic (black) forms have never been reported.
Manes appear to serve several functions including increased protection during intraspecific fighting; a signpost of gender distinction at a distance (possibly linked to the lion’s historic colonization of open plains); and an indicator of individual fitness. Manes are probably closely linked to the lion’s distinctive social system, and mane development is strongly influenced by testosterone.
Asian lions are similar in appearance to the African lion. The minor differences are that Asian lions have a fold of skin along their abdomens that African lions don’t have, and Asian male lions have sparser manes.
In Africa, lions still live in most countries south of the Sahara Desert although East and southern Africa are home to the majority of the continent’s lions. In West Africa, numbers have declined greatly and throughout the continent, they are becoming increasingly rare outside protected areas. Formerly lions also lived in North Africa, but the last population disappeared from Morocco in 1920; they disappeared from Niger’s Air Mountains about 1935. Sound population estimates are lacking but range from 30,000 to 100,000 individuals.
In Asia, the lion’s range formerly stretched from northern Greece across southwest Asia to eastern India. It went extinct in eastern Europe around 100 CE, and in Palestine around the time of the Crusades. It remained widespread elsewhere until the mid-1800s when the advent of firearms led to its extinction over large areas. By the late 1800s, lions had disappeared from Turkey, and the last reports from Iran and Iraq date to 1942 and 1918 respectively. In India, lions ranged east to the state of Bihar and south to the Narmada River but heavy hunting nearly them. By 1900, the Asian lion was confined to the Gir Forest where the Nawab of Junagadh in his private hunting grounds protected it. The wild population is currently at its highest point in recent years at approximately 175 animals. Some lions have repopulated former habitats near the Gir.
During the late Pleistocene, lions were more widespread. The "cave" lion of Asia is now considered to be a larger subspecies of extant lions and referred to as Panthera leo spelaeus. The American lion, Panthera leo atrox, was also much larger than living races and disappeared when its large ungulate prey base also vanished approximately 10,000 years ago. See range map
In Africa, optimal habitat appears to be open woodlands and thick bush, scrub, and grass complexes with sufficient cover for hunting and denning. Lions have a broad habitat tolerance, however, and are absent only from tropical rain forest and the interior of the Sahara Desert. Although lions drink regularly when water is available, they are capable of obtaining their moisture requirements from prey and melons and thus can survive in very arid environments. They may range quite high into the mountains of East Africa, up to 11,800 feet (3,600 meters) on Kenya’s Mount Elgon, and to 13,910 feet (4,240 meters) in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains.
In the Gir Forest of India, lions now live only in dry deciduous forests that receive little rainfall, as typical of the natural vegetation of the semi-arid Saurashtra Peninsula. Formerly they were also found in open grassland habitats.
Lions feed primarily on large ungulates, the prey type depending on what species are native to the specific area in question. In Africa, common prey species include buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, roan, sable, springbok, gazelles, gemsbok, waterbuck, and warthog. Like the leopard, lions are generalists and may eat other species including rodents, young rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and young elephants. Lions, especially males, frequently scavenge and in the Serengeti Ecosystem, more than 40 percent of their diet was scavenged. This behavior is less common in arid environments where there is less prey. Lions hunt primarily at night. While pride-living females appear to do most of the hunting, cohorts of males are also aggressive and successful hunters.
In Asia, hunting technique is similar to that of lions of Africa but their prey consists primarily of deer, boar, nilgai antelope, and domestic livestock.
Lions are the only social big cat, with prides of females and young accompanied by one or more (usually two) adult males. In more arid areas where prey is less common and more dispersed, pride sizes are lower. Prides are fission-fusion social units, with female pride membership being stable even though pride members may be scattered in small sub-groups throughout the pride’s range. A single male or coalition of males holds tenure over one or more prides, effectively excluding strange males from siring cubs with pride females. Pride tenure by males is short, averaging only two to three years, and young sired by former pride males are often killed by new pride males.
Lionesses bear three to five cubs after a gestation of 110 days. Males become independent in two to four years, and sooner if the pride is taken over by a new male. Many females will remain with their natal pride for life, although 30 percent will leave to form a new pride or remain solitary for life.
Lion depredation on livestock can be a serious problem and leads to persecution by farmers. However, despite heavy predation, Asian lions co-exist with livestock-raising communities in the Gir Sanctuary. Lions’ scavenging behavior makes them particularly vulnerable to poisoned carcasses put out to eliminate predators. Where wild ungulate prey is migratory, some prides follow (as in the Serengeti) but livestock raiding may be more intense during the lean season. Lions are becoming very scarce outside parks and reserves and many scientists feel that, in the future, lions will only be found in protected areas, a scenario that could have genetic implications for future generations.
In recent years, habitat destruction has been the main cause of the Asian lion's decline, although droughts of the late 1980s forced lions to leave the Gir Forest sanctuary due to a lack of domestic and wild prey. As a result, there was an increase in attacks on humans, a situation that has forced authorities to remove problem animals from the wild. Also, the small size of this population, around 175 animals in four different separate areas (three of which are outside the protected area), makes it very susceptible to disease or other genetically-linked problems,
The 2008 IUCN Red List lists African lions as vulnerable. It down-listed the Asian subspecies from critically endangered to endangered based solely on population size. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the Asian lion as endangered. Lions in Africa are not protected. CITES bans international commerce in Asian lions under Appendix I regulations. Trade in African lions is regulated by CITES under Appendix II regulations; lions are legally hunted in some range countries in East and southern Africa.
An international studbook for Asian lions was initiated in 1977 with an SSP for this subspecies approved in 1983. Since 1986, however, the Asian Lion SSP has been rebuilding when it was found that the ancestors of all but one Asian lion in North America had been hybridized with African lions. Although no importations of Asian lions are anticipated from India, a successful program is underway in Europe for individuals that can be wholly traced back to the Gir Forest.
The African lion studbook was approved in 1992 in order to identify animals of known origin that could be traced back to the wild. An SSP was approved a year later. Since then, 37 lions have been imported from Africa, primarily South Africa but also Zimbabwe, and breeding is restricted to individuals specified by the species coordinator. Zoos participating in the SSP are phasing out managing animals of unknown origin by not breeding them, and replacing them with pedigree animals as they become available.
Most of the programs targeting lions involve means to control livestock/human depredation, especially in West Africa, Namibia and in areas adjacent to the Gir Forest. Other studies involving the relationship of lions and their prey, especially in Kruger National Park and in the Serengeti ecosystem, are also ongoing. In 1996, a PHVA meeting was held in Namibia to investigate means of protecting the last remaining lions (fewer than 300 animals) in that country, a population known to be free of Feline Immune Virus (FIV). Lastly, a continent-wide survey of lions is being undertaken to better understand their present status and ways to reduce the rate of population decline, especially in West Africa.