An animal that needs no introduction. In the eyes of the general public, the lion embodies the quintessential big cat, even if paradoxically it is the most atypical representative. Indeed, it is the only truly gregarious feline, with the exception of coalitions of male cheetahs. The lion is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal to South Africa, with the exception of the rainforests of the Congo Basin and West Africa. The African lion can be distinguished from the Asiatic lion (Leo persica), which was once widespread throughout the Middle East as far as India, by its larger size, the absence of tufts of hair on the elbows, a more abundant mane and a slightly different skull shape. The Asiatic lion is also less gregarious. The Asiatic lion has almost disappeared from the Asian continent with the exception of the Gir forest in the state of Gujarat in India. In Africa, the Atlas lion is extinct in the wild. The lion is also rare in West Africa with only a few scattered populations in the Sahelian strip from Senegal to Chad. It is more present in eastern and southern Africa, particularly in the large national parks.

African male lion (Nairobi National Park, Kenya)


Length: F= 158-184 cm; M=170-208 cm
Shoulder height: 107-125 cm
Weight: F= 90-152 kg; M=160-272 kg


Habitat: Lions are found in virtually all habitats in Africa except dense rainforests and true deserts such as the Sahara. They generally have a preference for open environments and are found in semi-deserts such as the Kalahari and the Sahel to mountainous areas. Savannah ecosystems remain their preferred habitat and they are found in grasslands and shot-grass savannahs such as the southern Serengeti in Tanzania, as well as in wooded savannahs, scrub savannahs, bushland and. It also frequents open forests, gallery forests and even some mountainous woodlands such as the Aberdares in Kenya or the Harena Forest in the Bale massif in Ethiopia.

Food and foraging behaviour: The lion can feed on anything from rodents to sub-adult elephants. As a general rule, its preferred prey are medium to large ungulates ranging from 100 to 300 kg, including zebras and all antelopes in Africa, with a preference for wildebeest, hartebeest, topi, waterbuck, lechwe, greater kudu, Cape eland, gemsbok, roan antelope, sable, impala, springbok, to name but the most common prey. Warthogs are also often on the menu when larger prey are not available. These animals may be taken by a lone lion or lioness or in a group. Like most big cats, a lone lion is capable of taking down prey that is more than three times its weight. A solitary lioness is therefore perfectly capable of taking down a prey as large and dangerous as an adult zebra or bull wildebeest. Exceptionally, a lioness or lion can also take down animals as large as a Cape eland bull or buffalo bull. Buffalo is a favourite prey of lions and remains one of the most dangerous prey items. Buffalo hunting usually involves several members of the pride. After isolating an animal, a lion will often jump on the buffalo's back and bite it on the neck, hoping to weaken it, while the others bite it where they can. Fights between lions and buffalo are long and difficult and it is not uncommon for a lion to be injured or even killed by the buffalo's murderous horns or hooves. Frequently, the rest of the buffalo herd will come to the aid of a fellow buffalo attacked by the lions and interrupt the hunt by charging the lions and scattering them. When the buffalo begins to weaken, a lion will eventually apply the fatal bite by grabbing it by the throat. Sometimes a lion can also choke the buffalo by squeezing its snout between its jaws. Lions in groups sometimes attack even larger prey that are beyond the reach of other predators, such as adult hippos and giraffes or even sub-adult rhinos and elephants. In Savuti, Botswana, lions are known to regularly prey on elephants, sometimes almost full-grown, when their usual prey has deserted the area.

The lion's method of hunting is similar to that of other felids, especially if hunting medium-sized prey such as zebras and antelopes alone. After stalking and crawling undetected as close as possible to the ground, the lioness or lion will accelerate to catch up with its prey, grab it by the rump or shoulders with its front paws to throw it off balance, and finally suffocate it by by a fatal bite to the throat once it is down. When hunting in a group, a lion will sometimes push the prey towards the other members of the pride in ambush. When attacking larger prey such as buffaloes, hippos and sub-adult elephants, the lion uses a harassment strategy of jumping on the backs of these large animals, biting them to keep them off balance while the rest of the pride harasses the prey with bites that eventually bleed it to death. In the case of adult giraffes, after chasing it, the lions surround it while avoiding its deadly kicks until one lion finally jumps on its neck, which is enough to throw the giraffe off balance and onto the ground where another member of the pride can apply the throat bite to finish it off. Lionesses hunt more often than males and are better at hunting than males because of their superior speed and agility. Contrary to popular belief, male lions also hunt either alone or with lionesses. Male lions are slower and less able to conceal themselves than females, but their superior strength is very useful in bringing down larger and more dangerous animals such as buffaloes and giraffes. An adult male lion can single-handedly kill a full-grown buffalo and even a hippo, as videos on YouTube show. At the other end of their diet, lions also capture small animals such as rodents, small antelopes like dik-diks, sunis, duikers or gazelles but these are prey generally avoided as the energy expenditure to capture them would outweigh the energy gain.

The lion is a scavenger, especially the males. They do not hesitate to deprive other predators of the product of their hunt, in particular spotted hyenas. It is more common to see lions robbing hyenas of the proceeds of their hunt than vice versa. Lions frequently steal prey from wild dogs and cheetahs. They also do not hesitate to climb trees to steal prey from a leopard as long as the prey is not placed on the upper branches. Lions also do not hesitate to compete with crocodiles for carcasses as long as the carcass is close to the shore. Unlike hyenas and wild dogs, lions often squabble among themselves once the prey is killed, especially when food is scarce or if the prey is small. The most powerful members of the pride and the thus the males have privileged access to food, sometimes to the detriment of the cubs, who suffer particularly when prey is scarce and competition for carcasses is fierce.

Behaviour and social structure: The troop is the basic social structure which may consist of two to twenty members, mainly females and their young, and one to four adult males. There are also troops without adult males. The females in the troop are usually affiliated as the females remain in their natal troop. The young males leave the troop just after maturity or are sometimes ejected by the adult males of the troop. They wander for long periods on their own or sometimes by associating with their brothers from the same litter or with other young nomadic lions they have met during their wanderings and form lifelong coalitions. This wandering life continues until they are accepted by a pride of lionesses or are strong enough to drive out the resident males of a pride. This is a delicate period for young male lions as they live on the fringes of the territories of the various lion troops to avoid the resident adult males, feeding mainly on carrion sometimes stolen from other predators as they are not yet proficient hunters. When these young lions feel strong and confident enough, they challenge the adult males of a pride. If the latter are outnumbered, they may leave the pride on their own to avoid a fatal fight. In the opposite case, a violent battle ensues. If the invading lions are victorious, they kill the cubs of the pride not only to wipe out the gene pool of the vanquished but also because the loss of the cubs will trigger the receptivity of the lionesses to mate. When male lions are ousted from a pride, they become nomadic, especially if they are old (which is most often the case) and become scavengers, but they may also form another pride. It is not uncommon for adult male lions to belong to more than one pride.

Each pride of lions occupies a territory whose size is inversely proportional to the density of prey found there. The greater the density of prey, the smaller the territory and vice versa.  In areas rich in prey, territories are up to 20km2 but can be several hundred km2 in areas where large ungulates are rare, such as in West Africa and the Kalahari. The territory is defended by all members of the troop who all mark the territory. When two rival troops are fighting over a piece of territory or a prey kill in the other troop's territory, members of one troop will attack members of the other troop of the same sex. These fights are violent and deaths are not uncommon. In general, the larger troop wins. The fact that the fight takes place in the territory of a given troop seems to give the troop a psychological advantage. Adult males play a dominant role in patrolling the territory and keeping other males at a distance, whose presence can be dangerous to the cubs in the pride. Intruders usually flee when they hear the roar of the adult males in a pride or perceive their presence. The more adult males in a pride, the longer they will be able to hold onto the associated territory, thus providing greater security for the cubs. It is much more difficult for a male lion without an ally to maintain leadership of a pride for very long. Male lions in coalition also have more opportunities to reproduce. There is generally little competition between males in a pride to mate with females, although dominance relationships may exist between males. The presence of adult males can be beneficial to females in defending their prey. Indeed, the mere presence of an adult male is enough to repel spotted hyenas, however numerous they may be, which in their absence could dominate the lionesses due to the effect of numbers. Indeed, one study found that lionesses without an adult male gave up 20% of their prey to spotted hyenas, which almost never happens when an adult male lion is present. These data show that, contrary to what is widely believed by the general public, the male lion plays an important role in a pride, far from the image of parasite that is often attached to him. On the other hand, it is a fact that male lions do not hesitate to confiscate the proceeds of their hunt from lionesses, and feed first on the carcasses, particularly in times of dearth and if the prey is small. However, this is not the complete picture. When the prey is large, the male lion may leave the females and cubs to feed alongside him. It is not uncommon for the cubs to have access to the carcass without incurring the male's wrath.

Although lions live in a pride, it is rare that all members of the pride are present at the same time. The pride often splits into sub-groups in what zoologists call a fission-fusion society in that some members leave the pride only to rejoin some time later. The presence of males is also peripheral. Troop members communicate with each other by roaring, growling and by olfactory signals spread by urine and faeces that attract the attention of other lions and allow the identification of individuals. The cohesion of a pride is also maintained by tactile communication. Lions show affection for each other by rubbing their heads and licking each other in greeting or after an ordeal such as an attack by hyenas or an opposing pride.

Not all lions live in a pride, Schaller in his study of the Serengeti lion has shown that there are nomadic male and female lions who may have been ejected from a pride or simply follow the migrating antelope herds. These lions live on the fringes of troop territories and keep a low profile to escape detection. Sometimes nomadic lions associate to increase their chances of survival.

Lions are nocturnal, especially when hunting, resting in the shade during the hottest hours of the day. They start to be active at the end of the day. They can spend more than 20 hours a day resting.

Breeding behaviour: Lions breed all year round. Males in a pride have privileged access to females. When the female is receptive, the male follows her. The female usually repels his advances by snarling and slap him. She initiates mating by crouching in front of the male. He bites her neck lightly during mating. At the end, the male leaps away to avoid the female's slap. Lionesses give birth to a litter of one to three cubs after a gestation period of three and a half months. The cubs are born blind. Their eyes open after about ten days. The mother isolates herself from the troop to give birth in a burrow or in the vegetation during the first month. The young join the troop after one month and the mother leads them to the kill after 7 to 8 weeks, when they are able to follow the troop. They are weaned after 7-8 months. The greatest sources of mortality for cubs are abandonment and hunger, especially in the dry season when large prey items are scarce. Females sometimes abandon their cubs over five to seven months old if they are unable to keep up with the pride.

Predators and competitors: A healthy adult lion has no predators. Only a large Nile crocodile could successfully attack an adult lion provided it is swimming in deep water. There are videos on YouTube of adult lions being attacked by Nile crocodiles, but the lions manage to fend them off even when they are in the water. The lions dominate and can kill a crocodile if it is on land or even on the shore.

Spotted hyenas are the only land predators that can kill a healthy adult lion provided that greatly outnumber them. Hyenas avoid adult males in the prime of life but will sometimes harass lionesses and young male lions to get their prey provided there are at least four hyenas for every lioness or young lion in the pride. Sometimes spotted hyenas will finish off a wounded or dying lion.

There are rare cases where a pack of wild dogs has managed to kill a lone lion, again using the advantage of numbers.

Leopards, spotted hyenas, pythons and jackals, on the other hand, kill cubs under six months of age.

Best places to see them: It is very easy to see lions in the large national parks of eastern and southern Africa. The Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti-Ngorongoro ecosystem in Tanzania are among the best places to see lions in sub-Saharan Africa, as are the Moremi and Chobe reserves in Botswana and the surrounding private reserves. The Kruger National Park and surrounding private reserves are also good places to see lions, as is the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Etosha is also a good bet. Seeing lions in the major national parks of eastern and southern Africa is not a big challenge, being able to see lions in these parks without a horde of tourists around is another.