- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Felidae
- Genus: Panthera
- Species: leo
Scientific Name: Panthera leo
- West African Lion: Panthera leo leo
- Asiatic Lion: Panthera leo leo
- East and Southern African Lion: Panthera leo melanochaita
IUCN Red List Status and Population
Vulnerable (Bauer et al. 2016)
West Africa Lion subpopulation Panthera leo leo – Critically Endangered (2015)- ~900 (14 subpopulations) remaining (USFWS “Lions Are Now Protected Under the Endangered Species Act” 2015)
Asiatic/Indian Lion subpopulation Panthera leo leo – Endangered (2008) -~523 remaining (”Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plant Subspecies” 2015)
*Note ( new taxonomy, known as Panthera leo persica but changed according to US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as of Jan 22, 2016 (“The Lions We Listed Are Not Extinct” 2015).
East and Southern African Lion: Panthera leo melanochaita – Threatened USFWS (“Lions Are Now Protected Under the Endangered Species Act” 2015)
~ 17,000- 19,000 remaining
Population: ~20,000 individuals in the wild (WWF UK “The Magnificent Lion: The Symbol of Africa”)
Weight: 265-420 pounds
Length: 4.5 to 6.5 feet
- Females: 14-16 years
- Males: 12-13 years
Group Name: Pride
Natural Behaviors: Lions are the most sociable of all the big cats, living in groups called “prides” which consist of related females, their cubs, and a dominant male. There may be up to three males within a pride, and a dozen or more females depending on habitat and prey abundance. Males fight over dominance of the pride to maintain their breeding rights and protect territories up to 100 square miles. The darker the mane, the more dominant the male because it is regulated by testosterone levels. Lions mark their territory with vocalizations called a “carol” and also by spraying their urine. Females typically stay with the group as they age, but males will leave the pride to establish their own pride and territories. Incoming males may kill cubs in order to sire their own offspring.
Big cats hunt at night and females do the majority of the hunting. They form a group to take down large prey consisting of zebras, wildebeests, springboks, and other hoof stock that roam the savannah. They defend their territory, and the sole responsibility of the males is to protect the females and cubs of the pride. Cubs are raised cooperatively within the pride once they reach 6-8 weeks old. All females are related to one another, and will most likely remain in the same pride for life. Hunting is learned from the females teaching the cubs, and they provide meat for their cubs until they are 15 months old.
Habitat Types: Open savannah, African plains, scrubs, grasslands, open woodlands, Indian Gir Forest
Historic Home Ranges: Well distributed throughout the African continent, as well as Asiatic lions throughout Asia and Europe.
Current Home Ranges: Sub-Saharan Africa, 80% in Eastern or Southern Africa (WWF UK “The Magnificent Lion: The Symbol of Africa”). 3/5 largest populations in Tanzania. Asian lions only found in India’s Gir Forest.
Lions have been facing a catastrophic decline in their population and are extinct in 26 African countries, vanishing from 90% of their historic range, according to big cat conservation group, Panthera. Although African lions are classified as vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (Bauer et al. 2016) Red List, outside of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, African lion populations have declined 50% over 3 generations, classifying those populations as A2 criterion for Endangered. The IUCN declares the region of South Africa lions will be categorized as Least Concern, and the Indian Asiatic lion population is Endangered, Panthera leo leo (Bauer et al. 2016).
The cause of lion population decline is indiscriminate killing in defense of humans and livestock, habitat loss, and prey depletion in current home ranges. There is also a large problem with poaching lions for the illegal bushmeat market. Their body parts are also sold to markets within Africa and to Asia for traditional medicines. Unsustainably and rampant trophy hunting sparks a cause for concern for the future of the species. It contributes to population declines when poorly regulated. The IUCN also states that leading causes are difficult to pinpoint and manage directly, and decline is likely to continue (Bauer et al. 2016).
The dramatic loss of habitat, fragmentation, and population growth is putting unbearable pressure on lion populations. In 100 years’ lions have already lost 90% of their historical habitat range, and Africa’s population is predicted to increase from 1.2 billion people to 2.47 billion people by 2050 (”Beyond Cecil: Africa’s Lions in Crisis”7).
Bushmeat markets have become a primary threat to lion populations in some regions, as it is being sold commercially in African urban markets, and also shipped throughout the United States and Europe. Bushmeat serves as a cheap source of protein for impoverished local populations (“Beyond Cecil: Africa’s Lions in Crisis” 8). Most of this hunting is illegal and unsustainable, and overexploitation of lions has caused a substantial decline of populations in these areas.
Overall lion population numbers are declining, and trophy hunting causes additional mortalities. Listing Panthera leo leo as an endangered subspecies prohibits hunters from importing trophies into the United States. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) established a permitting system to strictly regulate the import of lion parts into the US, ensuring that persons who have violated wildlife laws will not be granted future permits to trophy hunt or engage in other wildlife-related activities (African Wildlife Foundation “Lion Subspecies Listed and Endangered, Threatened” 2015). It is also the responsibility of the hunters to ensure that sport and trophy hunting does not negatively impact wildlife populations in Africa.
- Human-Lion Conflict
- Bushmeat Poaching
- Human Encroachment
- Trophy Hunting
- Lion Poaching
*Note- due to the illusiveness of lion poaching, it is difficult to truly estimate the number of lions being killed illegally. Many lion deaths go unrecorded due to human-wildlife conflict and poaching. According to Panthera, written in Beyond Cecil: Africa’s Lions in Crisis, the number of estimated lion killings could easily be 5 to 10 times higher than reports (6).
Why Lions Matter
Lions play a vital and irreversible role in the ecosystems of Africa. As apex predators, they balance the important predator-prey equilibrium. If lions were to disappear, it would create disastrous and irreversible consequences to the ecosystem. Lions control dominant herbivore species such as zebras and buffalos, who could outcompete other herbivores if not regulated by the apex predator. Losing lions would be an extreme loss to Africa’s abundant biodiversity.
Tourism is of extreme importance to Africa’s economy, with lions playing an important role as an attraction for safaris. Africa’s most impoverished communities depend on these African safaris and roaming lion prides to feed their families.
African lions are a symbol of strength around the world. They are celebrated for their courage, strength, and beauty. Losing this iconic species or “King of Beasts” is an ultimate sign of the sixth mass extinction of the Anthropocene (epoch or record in history showing the impact of a single species caused mass extinction). This magnificent species needs the help of everyone, not just those who inhabit their homelands. It is up to the entire world to ensure the survival of the world’s greatest predators, or face the unfortunate consequence of losing a vital part of the ecosystem.
History and Current Status of Lions
African lions were once spread across most of the continent, with populations greater than 200,000 throughout the continent. Asiatic lions were well distributed throughout Asia and Europe as well, and are now isolated to only the Indian Gir Forest. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF UK), ¾ of African lion populations are in decline and have disappeared from 12 countries. They now reside on only 8% of historic home range and have been isolated into small subpopulations. In three generations 40% of the world’s lion population has been lost (“The Magnificent Lion: The Symbol of Africa”). There are approximately 20,000 lions left in the wild in fragmented populations.
According to the conservation entity Panthera, there are only four African countries that lion populations are increasing; South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. These four countries are also home to 23-33% of Africa’s lions. However, in West, Central, and East Africa, it is estimated that lion populations have collectively decreased by 60% (”Beyond Cecil: Africa’s Lions in Crisis” 4).
Saving Lions for the Future
Strengthening protected areas (PA’s) for wild lions is extremely important for their survival, and also requires massive public and financial support. Securing land for lion populations will ensure their long-term survival, as well as protect many other species that reside on the same land. According to Panthera, the current protected area for lions is 1.51 million km^2, which is twice the size of Texas. However, this area is extremely underfunded and on 31% of PA’s maintain lions at 50% or greater of their natural density (16). By increasing PA’s for lions support for conservation efforts will increase, and also create more job opportunities, attract tourism and help the economy. Increasing collaborations with NGO’s and state wildlife authorities will help provide long-term funding opportunities and conservation support (“Beyond Cecil” Africa’s Lions in Crisis” 15).
Punishing those who hunt lions as a source of food without providing an alternative protein source will not fix the problem. However, ensuring that locals have enough access to protein, teaching them how to maintain livestock, and also providing cheap ways to obtain protein, will. By inspiring communities and providing them with alternate food resources, these communities that once hunted lions will formulate a positive relationship with lion conservation for future generations, and thereby become a part of the solution.
Current Wild Conservation Groups and Efforts
Project Leonardo – Conservation group Panthera has developed a conservation plan first of its kind to encompass wild lion’s entire African range, called Project Leonardo. It aims to protect lions in key conservation landscapes including African national parks. This project will also build and support corridors that guarantee safe passage for lions and other animals to aid with habitat fragmentation. The overall goal of the project is to bring lion populations back to a minimum of 30,000 individuals within 15 years. To find out more about this project and Panthera’s conservation efforts, please visit: https://www.panthera.org/initiative/project-leonardo
- Panthera Fact Sheet: https://www.panthera.org/cms/sites/default/files/Panthera_FactSheets_Lion.pdf
- “African Lion”. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/a/african-lion/
- “Africa Needs Lions”. Lion Alert. http://lionalert.org/page/about-us
- Bauer, H., Packer, C., Funston, P.F., Henschel, P. & Nowell, K. 2016. Panthera leo. (errata version published in 2017) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15951A115130419. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T15951A107265605.en.
- “Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plant Subspecies”. Federal Register: The Daily Journal of the United States Government. US Fish and Wildlife Service. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2015/12/23/2015-31958/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-listing-two-lion-subspecies
- “Lions Are Now Protected Under the Endangered Species Act”. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; Endangered Species. https://www.fws.gov/endangered/what-we-do/lion.html
- “Lion Facts”. Born Free USA. http://www.bornfree.org.uk/animals/lions/facts/
- “Lion Subspecies Listed as Endangered, Threatened”. African Wildlife Foundation
- “The Lions We Listed Are Not Extinct” US Fish and Wildlife Service; Open Spaces, A Talk on the Wild Side”. https://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2015/12/22/The-Lions-We-Listed-Are-Not-Extinct
- “The Magnificent Lion: The Symbol of Africa”. World Wildlife Fund UK. https://www.wwf.org.uk/wildlife/african-lions