The magnificent African lion (Panthera Leo or ‘Leeu’) is the largest of Africa's big cats and is primarily active at night, sleeping away most of the day to escape the intense heat. If you're on safari then the best chance of spotting lions on the prowl and perhaps on the hunt is an early morning or evening game drive when they are active.
During the day they can also easily be seen loafing about under shade trees. Mostly ground dwelling, they sometimes climb trees to get away from marauding flies and catch the cool breezes.
Lions are highly social creatures that hunt cooperatively and form cohesive groups called prides, which is unusual for cats. The pride consists of two groups, one of four to 12 related females and their cubs, and a group of one to 6 males known as a coalition who mate with the adult females. The lionesses are the most close-knit and central part of the pride while the lions may be substituted every few years. Prides largely consist of about a dozen adults but are smaller in places like the Kalahari, and larger where prey is abundant. The pride may split up into smaller groups roaming freely for a few days or a couple of weeks. Where game is plentiful prides are fiercely territorial but if prey is scant then their pride lands are far too large to defend.
Lions and lionesses announce occupation of their territory with strong smelling urine, faeces and lots of roaring. Audible for 10 km, the impressive roars of lions during the night is the quintessential sound of the African bushveld. If their prey source is migratory then they follow the roving herds and are less territorial. Should they encounter lion from other prides then interactions are hostile and wary but seldom end up in a fight. Lions that aren't part of a pride are nomadic, roaming extensively, either singly or in pairs.
Lionesses are more agile and faster than males and do most of the hunting. Males are much bigger and defend the pride and territory, ranking first in line to feed and grab the “lion’s share” of the kill. Next to dine are the lionesses and lastly the cubs with much scuffling, hissing and cuffing. By contrast lions at rest are blissfully peaceful and sprawl all over each other with lots of affectionate nuzzling, purring and licking.
Male lions weigh between 150-225 kg and females range from 120-150 kg with a lifespan between 10-14 years. Males reach maturity at 3 years and peak at 4-5 years when they are ready to take over a pride. From the age of 8 years a male may lose dominance and be ousted from the pride by a younger male. This gives him little time to procreate - so he usually kills all the previous alpha male's cubs that are less two years old. This results in the lionesses becoming fertile and receptive.
Lion mating behaviour is legendary with a couple frequently copulating (up to forty times a day!) and over several days. Occasionally the female may mate with other males in the pride resulting in cubs of the same litter having different fathers. The lioness’s gestation is between 100-120 days, and a litter ranges between 1-6 cubs. Pride females usually coordinate their reproductive cycles and collaborate in the raising and suckling of the cubs. Lion cubs are weaned at 6 months. Their mortality rate is high with only 20% of cubs reaching the age of two years.
South African Lion Subspecies:
South African lions usually belong to the subspecies Panthera leo krugeri - Kruger National Park lion. In parts of the Northern Cape, Namibia and Botswana, male lions have spectacular black manes, belonging to the subspecies Panthera leo verneyi - Kalahari lion.
Panthera leo melanochaitus, the black-maned Cape Lion, became extinct in 1860. The Cape Lion once roamed around Cape Town and the Cape Province, the last one to be seen in the Cape was shot in 1858.
Rare 'white lions' are born almost pure white without the usual camouflaging spots seen in lion cubs. Their unusual colour is due to a recessive gene that reduces pigmentation. As cubs mature their white coats progressively darken to ivory or blonde. A white lion is less camouflaged than the regular lion and has a disadvantage when it comes to hunting.
Their population is diminishing and has been given vulnerable status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
When you’re most likely to spot lion
Lion are mostly nocturnal and start hunting from early evening when it cools down until early morning. They can often be seen lounging or snoozing under a shade tree during the heat of the day.
Where lions roam
At one time they ranged widely in a variety of habitats from desert fringes to open savanna and woodlands. They now occur only in game reserves and National Parks in southern Africa.
Lionesses usually have litters of up to six cubs and give birth under cover, keeping cubs hidden and returning to the pride when cubs are one or two months old and only if there are no cubs older than 3 months already present. Lion cubs suckle from different mothers and older cubs would prevent the younger cubs from suckling. Cubs stay with their mothers for at least two years.
Lion Conservation Links
Global White Lion Protection Trust's conservation ethos integrates science, culture, education and enterprise development to protect the rare endangered White Lion and to help alleviate poverty in surrounding rural communities.