IUCN- (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Classification:
Grade of endangerment: 3 – slightly endangered
Lions are the king of the jungle. They have a massive build and abundant strength. They can weigh up to 250 Kilogramms; reach a body length of more than three meters and a shoulder height of up to one meter; and are said to be ten times stronger than any human being. It only takes one stroke of the paw for a lion to break the necks of their prey. Hence, it is no surprise that the lion is found on so many crests, seals and flags, as it stands for power and dignity. Findings show that the first lion species lived over 1.75 million years ago.
A typical characteristic is the illustrious lion mane. It takes up to five years for it to grow to its fullest splendor. The mane serves as protection to the male in battles with other animals. For this reason, the female lioness does not have a mane. Moreover, it would be more of a handicap, as the females are entrusted with hunting and breeding. To a further extent, studies show that male lions living in colder regions tend to have a fuller mane than those that are found in warmer climates. Thus, they serve as a protection against the cold.
A lion’s age can be calculated by the gradual discoloration of their teeth, called Melanism. They can live up to 20 years.
Another famous feature is the tassel at the tip of a lion’s tail. The tassel conceals a rudimentary spine.
Today, lions are found mostly south of the Sahara in the vast plains of West and East Africa. They have been extinct in North Africa since the 1940’s, became highly endagered this past century in Asia and only a few hundred reside presently at Gir-Nationalpark in India.
Lions are group animals. They are social wild cats and said to be one of the most intelligent animals. They are not as clean as house cats, as they only tend to clean the bridge of their nose regularly. However, cross-cleaning does occur in extreme cases.
Lions live and hunt in prides of up to 30 other cats. The work distribution is well-defined among the animals. Prides can live in territories that range to 400 squared kilometers. They mark their territory by spraying their urin. Males are busy defending their territory while females care for the cubs and prey. Usually, a pride consists of about three males and related females with their cubs. The males are the head of the hierarchy. The hierarchy is sustained even when it comes to cosuming prey: first, the males eat, then the females and last, the cubs. Typically, if the young cubs are of the pride male, they precede the females. A male lion can devour up to 20 kilos of meat per meal. A lion’s roar serves as a defense mechanism and can be heard up to 8 kilometers away.
Lions hardly have any natural enemies because of their known strength. Only hyenas must be defeated occasionally because of the food rivalry between these two species, which has existed since primeval times. Saber tooth cats, for example, an extinct wildcat line, often left at least half of their game for hyenas, mostly because back then, they had undeveloped teeth that did not allow a full comsumption. Hence, only the lion breed with the shorter teeth survived, which, in turn, resulted in the extinction of the refered to type of hyena. Thus, through evolution, a new type of hyena evolved that had to fight the lions for food from then on. Usually the lions win the fights and kill the hyenas. However, they never eat them.
Battles among a pride occur for the sake of the hierarchy. It is rare that they result in death. Yet, if a male „outsider“ tries to take over the pride a violent power struggle does arise. In the event that the intruder wins the fight, all the pride’s cubs are killed. This way, the female lions are willing to mate quicker so the new pride leader can spread his genes. This insemination process can take up to four months.
If the inferior loser happens to survive the battle it becomes a nomad and must forever fend for itself. Though usually it dies due to the effects of the brawl. Male lions tend to lead a pride for an average of 2-3 years, before a younger, stronger single male banishes or kills them. Some are even able to reign over two prides at the same time. On the contrary, females usually stay associated with the same pack their whole lives.
Young males must leave their pride when they have reached their third year of birth. These single lions, known as nomadic males, graze through the plains until they are sexually mature, which is around the age of five. Frequently, two or more nomadic males will form their own association and take on new territories and their females. This is crucial to the lion species, as this way, they are able to intermix their genes.
There is a 90% chance that a pride takeover is successful when there are three nomadic lions involved. The quota for one nomad to succeed is only 1:6. Naturally, single males favor weaker coalition partners, as to increase the chances of spreading their own genes.
Lions hunt in groups. They prefer hunting in the morning or at night. They wait in ambush, encircle the prey, and then take it down by using their claws to attack. The act of striking usually results in a tear of the prey’s aorta. Hence, it bleeds to death. Most often, lions attack antilopes, gnus, buffalo and zebras, but in the national parks of Botswana they even hunt young elephants and hippopotami.
First, the mouth is eaten, intestines and organs follow. Lions also enjoy eating the entrails of ruminants, as they are highly rich in vitamines. Whoever is initially at the kill and begins eating first claims primacy. However, lions do eat collectively. Unlike leopards they will eat carrion. In fact, they account for 1/7th of a lion’s diet. An adult wildcat will typically eat up to 20 animals a year.
Female lions become sexually mature between the age of three or four years. Males can smell the hormone odor females spread when they are in estrus. That is how they know it is mating season. For this purpose, males have a specific organ called the "Jacobson-Organ", which is found in the lion’s palate. The male cat pulls its upper-lip back and opens its mouth in oder to perceive the lioness’ hormone level. However, it can not mate with a female if she is not willing to. Willingness is projected when a lioness lays down on her stomach, thereby allowing the male to mount her. Females are generally in heat for five days. During this time copulations take place up to 40 times a day. The actual ovulation does not occur until after mating. If the male happens to be reproductively weak the female will seek a different mating partner. Breeding cycles can depend on the amount of prey. Often females of a pride breed synchronously. This serves to raise the cubs’ chance of survival, as there are no older cubs that eat the younger ones food. Lion offspring are blind the first two weeks after birth. They are nursed for 6 months and aren’t weaned from their mother until after a year. They weigh about two kilos when they are born. As a result of food shortage, negligence and the takeover of power by other males, only 20% of lion cubs live to experience more than 2 years of life. 27% of all cubs die from the hierarchy invasion of another male lion. In order to increase the survival rate of a cub and to protect them from hunters, the females relocate to different hiding places every three to four days. During this process, they hold their cubs so they can not be traced. Lion cubs are not just nursed by their mothers, they are raised collectively. After about six months the young lions begin to eat meat.
When they are four months old they join their mother for the first time on a hunt and watch and learn. They do not fully master their hunting skills until they are two years old. They can not roar until then either.
According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) there has been a 50 % decline of the lion population in the past 30 years. Some experts even speak of a 90% reduction. Fact is, whereas in 1980, there were an estimated 250,000 lions, today they only number 20-30,000. The IUCN has red-listed them by giving them the rank of a "threatened species" (rank three). The cause for their level of endagerment is man, as lion hunting has always been a favorite past time to humans.
Reasons for a lion’s threatened species status
1. Trophy hunting
Roughly, since the beginning of man time, humans have been hunting for lions. Todays vast hunting industry is proof enough. It is norm for hunters to hunt male lions. Overall, a total of 4-5000 lions are bred so man can hunt. Often, hunting farms offer lion killings for 16,000 dollars. Apart from the decline in lion population, the hunt for male lions also results in a constant change of pride leader. When the head of a pride dies, a nomad usually takes over and kills the cubs. Such a chain of effects occurs in such short intervals that consequently, the death rate of cubs increases to 70%. Female lions may kill offspring that is not from a pride leader as well. Thus, a young lion’s chance of survival increases when a nomad coalition seizes a pride.
2. Confrontation with farms
Time and again, farmers kill lions out of protection for their herds. Naturally, such farm herds are easy prey to lions that have wandered out of the parks or their territory to find food. In addition, lions are easily lured away beyond their borders when their prey is in search of water. However, there are many projects and ways that can prevent lions from killing farmer’s herds. But unfortunately, farmers usually choose the easy way out and simply shoot the predators (read more in Project Safety Cap). Although they do get compensated by the government for their loss, there are regulations that are difficult to fulfill. The farmers must be able to prove that animals are missing and were killed by wild cats.
Other ways of prevention are driving the herds into stables at night (lions are night active), 24 hour supervision by dogs (studies have shown that lions tend to avoid watch dogs), or errecting pens to keep the lions out and the herds in. Furthermore, wildlife parks could move nomad lions to more remote parks, as the nomads seem to be the ones that keep wandering back to the same farmyards. Additional solutions to avoid lion-wandering are to build water reservoirs and provide enough prey in the wildlife parks.
Fact is, we must find a way to ensure the survival of this species, despite man. And the first most important measures to take are to raise awareness and approach the matter professionally.
3. Diseases such as LLF and the FIV Virus (Feline Immundeficiency Virus)
A dramatic problem among the wild cat populations since 1995 are the diseases LLF and FIV. Especially in the southern part of Kruger National Park in South Africa, tuburcelosis and the FIV virus have taken their toll on lions. To this date, there is no vaccine for these diseases.
Tuburcelosis, which affects the digestive tract, is transmitted to lions through the eating of buffalo, which are virus carriers through domestic cattle. Lions with tuburcelosis lose so much weight in such a short period of time that among other things, they are prone to more illnesses such as the FI Virus. Hence, mortality rates go up. Almost 90 % of the lions living in Kruger National Park have this bacterial infection. In 1962, it was an epidemic of biting house flies that killed many wild cats. As a result, a genetic shift took place, reducing the genetic diversity drastically.
Most likely, the bacteria and viruses are originally brought to Africa by domestic dogs. 1000 lions died in the Serengeti in 1994 because of dogs that carried them. However, since house dogs can not survive in wildlife parks, there must be an animal that acts as an agent. Many study cases were performed and discoveries were made that 96% of all lions have an anti-body for the Feline-Herpes-Virus. 42% have an immune complex for the Feline-Immune-Defeciency-Virus and 26% have one for the Canine-Distemper-Virus. Furthermore, experts found that the viruses in Botswana and Tansania form their own sub type. In Tansania, it is said that the animals were infected by the Fi-virus much earlier than it broke out. Similar to the Human Immundeficiency Virus, it can take up to four years for an outbreak to occur. In cases as such, it is most likely that jackals are the agent. A way to determine the rate of infestation faster and more efficiently would be affordable urine tests.
A simple vaccination for house-held dogs alone would protect from such infectious diseases. Unfortunately, although several of these vaccinations are on the market, they are usually not enforced. Beyond that, a better control and a registration of dogs would also be a productive attempt. A different approach would be to genetically mix the lions from Kenya and South Africa.
Obviously, there is still much to be done when it comes to calling attention to the problem, educating and actually implementing solutions.