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The Lion (Panthera leo) is a mammal of the family Felidae. The male lion, easily recognized by his mane, may weigh up to 250 kg (550 lb). Females are much smaller, weighing up to 180 kg (400 lb). In the wild lions live for around 10–14 years, whilst in captivity they can live over 20. Lions are carnivores who live in family groups, called prides, consisting of related females, their cubs of both sexes, and an unrelated male who mates with the adult females. The females do the hunting for the pride while the males are largely occupied with maintaining the borders of their territory. Males are expelled from the pride when they reach maturity. When or if a male takes over a pride and ousts the previous lead male, the conqueror may kill any cubs left in the pride that are not his.



Despite being popularly known as the "king of the jungle", the lion is an animal of the open plains, and can be found throughout Africa. It is nevertheless a threatened species with significant populations being limited to national parks in Tanzania and South Africa.

The last remnant of the Asiatic Lion (subspecies Panthera leo persica), which in historical times ranged from Greece to India through Persia, lives in the Gir Forest of northwestern India. About 300 lions live in a 1412 km² (about 550 square miles) sanctuary in the state of Gujarat.

Lions had become extinct in Greece, their last European outpost, by 100 AD, but they survived in considerable numbers in the Middle East and North Africa until the early 20th century. The lions that used to live in North Africa, called Barbary lions, tended to be larger than the sub-Saharan ones, and the males had more extensive manes. They are thought to have been a subspecies of lion, although this has not been confirmed. Other extinct subspecies are the Cape Lion, and the European Cave Lion (subspecies Pathera leo spelaea) which coexisted with humans throughout the last Ice Age.

Lions are recurring symbols in the coat of arms of royalty and chivalry. Lions appear in the art of China, even though lions have never lived in China. No animal has been given more attention in art and literature. C.A.W. Guggisberg , in his book Simba, says the lion is referred to 130 times in the Bible. The lion can be found in stone age cave paintings.

Although they are not often heard of because they are rare, white lions do exist, in Timbavati, South Africa. There is a recessive gene in white lions that gives them their unusual color (also causing white tigers, many white tigers with this gene are bred for zoos and animal shows). White Lions have a disadvantage when it comes to hunting since their white color gives away their hiding place when hunting.

Lions in the wild

Lions eat mammals that are smaller than their size. They are predators with a stealthy approach in order to capture food. Accordingly, prey animals will normally keep calm if they spot a lion at a safe distance as the lion will probably not have the stamina for a sustained chase. They will eat almost any kind of animal from insects to elephants. Some of their natural enemies are male lions who are seeking territory. Lions are found throughout South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Mozambique. They are mainly found in woodland type areas but can survive in semi desert or bush areas. Baby or young lions are called cubs. Females give birth to 1-5 youngsters, after a gestation period of three months. The cubs can suckle for as long as 18 months but are normally weaned by 8 weeks. There is a high mortality rate amongst cubs.

Attacks on humans

While a hungry lion will probably attack a human that passes near, some (usually male) lions seem to seek out human prey. Some of the more publicized cases include the Tsavo Man-Eaters and the Mfuwe Man-Eater. In both cases the hunters who slew the lions wrote books about their exploits. In folklore, man-eating lions are sometimes considered demons.

The Mfuwe and Tsavo incidents did bear some similarities. The lions in both the incidents were all larger than normal, lacked manes and seemed to suffer from tooth decay. Some have speculated that they might belong to an unclassified species of lion, or they were sick and could not have easily caught prey.

See also: Tsavo maneaters

Cross-breeding with tigers

Lions have also been known to breed with their close counterparts, tigers (most often Siberian), while in captivity to create interesting mixes. These two new breeds are called ligers and tigons.

The liger originates from mating a male lion and a tigeress . Because the lion passes on a growth-prompting gene, but the corresponding growth inhibiting gene from the female lion is not present, ligers are larger than either parent. It is said that ligers do not stop growing and will grow constantly through their lifespan, until their bodies cannot sustain their huge size any longer, reaching up to half a tonne. Ligers share some qualities of both their parents (spots and stripes) however they enjoy swimming, a purely tiger activity, and they are always a sandy colour like the lion. Male ligers are sterile, but female ligers are often fertile.

The tigon is a cross between the lioness and the male tiger. Because the male tiger does not pass on a growth-promoting gene and the lioness passes on a growth inhibiting gene, tigons are often very small, and can best be described as "house cat like" in appearance and size, although with round ears. Like male ligers, male tigons are sterile, and they all have both spots and stripes, with yellow eyes.

Female ligers and female tigons are fertile and can produce offspring if mated to either a pure-bred lion or a pure-bred tiger.

Lions in sculpture

Lions have been widely used in sculpture and statuary to provide a sense of majesty and awe, especially on public buildings. Lion statues include those around Nelson's column in Londons Trafalgar Square. Another group of large lion statues are the four lions guarding the entrance to the Britannia Bridge crossing of the Menai Strait, Wales.

Interesting facts

  • The territory is owned by the lioness with the territorial males only protecting the area for approximately three years
  • The females in the pride are all related - mothers, aunts, daughters, grandmothers, granddaughters, cousins and sisters
  • The mane on the males is used to increase his size and is for protection against bites and blows delivered during fights
  • The front paws are larger than the back paws
  • Lions can spend as much time as 20 hours per day sleeping
  • Lions will hunt in the day or in the night and are more active on overcast, cool days
  • Lions will readily scavenge and often do so
  • Males will feed at a kill first or chase off the other lions if they get there after the others have started feeding
  • They have excellent night vision
  • Lions will always drink after eating

External links and references

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