Derivation of scientific name

The common name, lion is similar in many languages, for example the Afrikaans leeu, and comes from the Latin word leo. The lion was one of the species originally described by Linnaeus, who gave it the name Felis leo. The genus name Panthera means panther, and refers to all the large cats, including lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar. Smaller cats are included in the genus Felis, while the monotypic genus Acinonyx only has the cheetah as representative.

Common names

Lion, African lion (Eng.); leeu (Afr.); ibhubesi (Zulu); tau (Sesotho, Setswana and Sepedi); ingonyama (Xhosa), nghala (Xitsonga)


Historically, lions roamed the length and breadth of southern Africa, but currently they are restricted to large conservation areas such as the Kruger National Park and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and game farms. This largest of the big cats of Africa plays an important role in luring international ecotourists to southern Africa, as they are arguably the most charismatic of the ‘Big Five’ of Africa and no visit to the well-known Kruger National Park is complete without a lion sighting.

Lions, especially males, are also sought after by national and international trophy hunters and bring large amounts of foreign revenue into the country. This has spawned the unethical practise of breeding lions in captivity for the sole purpose of having these semi-tame lions ‘hunted’ by unscrupulous trophy hunters – a practice called ‘canned lion hunting’. There have been ever increasing outcries from the public about this so-called ‘canned hunting’, leading to many international airlines starting to refuse to carry these ‘trophies’ back to the hunters’ countries of origin.

Panthera leo (lion)

How to recognise a lion

Lions are the largest of the big cats of Africa, with the male reaching a length of 2.5–3.3 m (tail included), a height at the shoulder of 1.2 m and a mass of 150–250 kg. Females are slightly smaller with a length of 2.3–2.7 m (tail included), a height at the shoulder of 1.0 m and a mass of 110–152 kg. They are slightly smaller than the largest cat, the tiger (Panthera tigris), which does not occur in Africa. Lions are a more-or-less uniform tawny colour, although some males may have a darker reddish-brown or even black (rare) mane.

The mane of the adult male lion extends from the top of the head and the sides of the face to the neck, shoulders and chest. Faint spots are present on the sides of cubs and sub-adults, but these spots are usually lost by the time they reach adulthood. This body colour is a type of camouflage called ‘concealing colouration’, when the body colour of the animal is more-or-less the same as that of the habitat that it generally finds itself in – in the case of lions, the tawny yellow of the dry season bushveld grasslands it spends most of its time in.

This helps them to blend in, and make them less likely to be spotted by their intended prey. Rare white lions found in the Lowveld of Mpumalanga are not true albinos, which have no colour pigmentation at all, but genetic variants with strongly reduced pigmentation. This type of albinism is called leucism.

Getting around

When moving from place to place, lions walk at a fast lope, covering large distances quickly while expending as few calories as possible. When hunting, they will lie in hiding, often downwind from the prey and slowly crawl closer until they are close enough to jump from cover and chase down their intended prey in a fast sprint. Lions are not elegant tree climbers, like leopards, but they will climb trees for various reasons – e.g. to get away from pests like flies or from hyenas, or to get a better vantage point to look for prey, or to steal a leopard’s kill. They will swim to cross rivers, but then they look like most cats when they get wet – not happy!


The roar of the lion can be heard from several kilometres away. It is an extended, repeated hmnf hmnf hmnf sound that reduces in loudness as the lion continues roaring.

Panthera leo (lion)Distribution

Historically, lions have been widely distributed in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Currently, however, they are restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and mostly only occur in protected areas such as large game reserves and national parks. In South Africa, most of the estimated 2 500 wild lions are found in the Kruger National Park (about 2 000) and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (about 450 lions). These are naturally occurring lion populations. Lions occur or have been reintroduced in small numbers in smaller game reserves and parks such as Hluhluwe/Imfolozi in KwaZulu-Natal, Pilanesberg in North West Province and the Karoo National Park in the Western Cape.


Lions tolerate a wide range of habitats, from semi-desert conditions in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, to lusher bushveld in the Kruger National Park around Lower Sabie, and they thrive in open savanna, such as around Satara, also in the Kruger National Park. They are also doing well in the grasslands of Hluhluwe/Imfolozi. The reintroduction of lions to the dwarf shrublands of the Karoo National Park was fairly recent, so it remains to be seen how well the population of lions does there. However, as lions thrived in the Cape in earlier years, they will like do well now also. Lions are absent from equatorial forest.


Lions are carnivores – they eat primarily meat – and predators who will hunt for their prey. However, they will also scavenge (unlike house cats) and chase other predators (for example cheetahs or hyena) away from their kills. Their main prey is medium- to large-sized mammals such as zebra, buffalo, impala, kudu etc. They are the only predators able to take down very large mammals such as giraffe or young (not full grown) elephants. This is only possible because of their co-operative hunting, where several adults collaborate to hunt and kill one prey animal.

They are also opportunistic and will catch mice, porcupine and guineafowl when one happens to stray too close. Lone lions usually kill smaller prey. Lions are mostly active and hunt during the night, preferring to spend their time lazing about in the heat of the day. However, true to their opportunistic nature, they will take down a prey animal during the day if the prey animals strays too close to where the pride is resting or during times of starvation, when more time may need to be spent hunting.

Panthera leo (lion)



Lions do not have a fixed breeding season. A male and receptive female will move some distance away from the rest of the pride and copulate many times over a period of several days. Like other cats, lions need to copulate repeatedly to ovulate and conceive (a process which is called ‘induced ovulation’). The female will accept any male, regardless of dominance, and it is possible that this delayed ovulation is a mechanism to give the dominant male time to track the female down, displace the inferior male and ensure the propagation of the dominant male’s genes.

They have an extensive courtship ritual, which includes the female swaying in front of the male, swatting him in the face with her tale and making a low, grumbling growl. She will then lie down in front of the male with her tail to one side, inviting him to mount. The female often shows much resentment and aggression at being mounted, especially earlier during the mating process. The male will also nip at the female and lay a paw over her neck to try and force her to remain submissive. After copulation the female will roll over, possibly to aid fertilisation.

Family life

Lions are the most sociable of all cats. The live in large prides of up to about 30 individuals – although pride size depends on the habitat and the availability of prey. In arid areas such as Botswana and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, prides consist of less than six individuals, while prides in the Kruger National Park average about 12 individuals. A mega pride consisting of more than 30 individuals has also been recorded from around the S100 road (near Satara) in the Kruger National Park.

Prides usually consist of 1 to 4 adult males, several females and variable number of subadults and cubs. Young males are evicted from the pride when they reach adulthood and will spend a few years alone or in male–male coalitions. Male coalitions will often, when they are older, take control of a pride and continue to co-operate. Coalitions are at a distinct advantage when they want to take over a pride as even two weaker males may drive off or kill a stronger lone male. Coalition males are also likely to live longer than solitary males due to the security that ‘strength in numbers’ brings. Coalition males share the duty of protecting the pride and its territory from other lions.

Panthera leo (lion)

Females engage in various strategies to ensure the survival of their cubs. After a pride takeover by a new male or coalition of males, the males often kill all the cubs as these cubs do not carry their genes. However, the females may try to hide the cubs from the new males by hiding them far away and going into a false oestrus so that the males think the females are not suckling cubs and can be impregnated.

However, the hidden cubs do not always survive as the females are forced to stay around the new males for several days. These cubs that are still suckling or dependent on their mother for food may starve while waiting for the females to return. As pride takeovers induces a state of flux and change for the pride, even females that do not have small cubs anymore will go into false oestrus, thereby delaying the birth of any new cubs for several months until things have settled down and the chances of the survival of any cubs born are better.

Lionesses engage in allosuckling, which is the suckling of any cub by any lactating female. Mostly, each female suckles her own cubs, but the mutual suckling and communal care of any cub of the pride by any female reduces the chances of mortality for all cubs.

Panthera leo (lion)

Both males and females hunt, although the male will claim the first chance to eat even if a female has made the kill. Females eat once the males are done and cubs are only allowed to eat once all the adult members of the pride have had enough. Although a male may allow his cubs to play around him, he plays no paternal role in provisioning food for the cubs.


Friends and Foes

The main enemy of lions are humans. Lions are now absent from the majority of their historical distribution as humans have taken over the land, changing the land-use to agriculture and mining, or building large towns and cities. Unlike leopards, lions do not roam free in the wild anywhere in South Africa except in game reserves, game farms (where they are often in camps separated from other game) and national parks.

Hunting has also severely impacted their numbers, especially in the 1800s and early 1900s when excessive big game hunting was still an acceptable pastime. Lions have few enemies other than humans. Elephants and buffalo will kill a lion to protect their calves. Hyenas have been known to take and kill lion cubs and also adult lions when they can corner one. Lions can also contract bovine tuberculosis from infected buffalo meat (buffaloes contract the disease from infected domestic cattle), and about 25 lions die annually of bovine tuberculosis in the Kruger National Park.

Lions kill each other (including cubs) at pride takeovers and during periods of starvation or low prey availability, they may kill each other over food – usually only while feeding, when each lion try to get as much food for him/herself as possible. Ecotourists, who support the conservation of lions through their willingness to spend money to visit game reserves and national parks, are the friends of lions and other wildlife in southern Africa.

Smart Strategies

The sociable nature of lions in forming large prides allows them to hunt large prey, which no other predator can do. Their willingness to scavenge, or to opportunistically take any small prey that crosses their path, also increases their success. Allonursing or allomothering by the females increases the chances of survival for all the cubs of the pride.

Panthera leo (lion)

Poorer world without me

Lions are top predators in the ecosystem. They play an important role in keeping prey numbers in check, thereby protecting the vegetation from over-browsing or over-grazing and resultant degradation. They are the only predators with the strength and numbers to prey on large mammals such as buffalo, giraffe and young elephants.

People and I

Lion body parts are used in African traditional medicine (muthi) preparations and lions are sometimes poached for this reason. Lion bones have also recently been targeted by the Chinese for use as an alternative to tiger bones in ‘tiger bone strengthening wine’, which has raised concern that lions may be targeted by more intensive poaching efforts in future.

Unless provoked, lions will rarely attack humans, but it is probably a good idea to move away slowly (not running!) when accidentally happening upon a lion in the wild. A lion exhibits aggressive warning signs such as dropping into a crouch, flattening its ears, and flipping its tail from side to side and then up and down before it attacks. Rest assured, however, that the likelihood of ‘happening upon’ a lion in the wild is exceedingly small – especially if you adhere to the rule of not getting out of your vehicle in a game reserve or national park.

Conservation status and what the future holds

Lions are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN red list. The justification for this classification is that the lion population has undergone a reduction of about 43% over the past two decades, although increases has been recorded for specific areas, such as in the Kruger National Park. However, as lions are currently restricted to protected areas such as game reserves and national parks, it is imperative that these areas continue to expand and receive funding from government to ensure the survival of not only lions but all other wildlife found in these parks. Prey animals may be under pressure due to drought and the pollution of rivers upstream of the protected areas, and if prey numbers fall, lion numbers will also fall in these areas.

Panthera leo (lion)


Other members of the genus Panthera include the leopard (Panthera pardus), tiger (P. tigris), jaguar (P. onca) and snow leopard (P. uncia). Only the lion and leopard occur in southern Africa. Members of other genera in the family Felidae that occur in southern Africa include the caracal (Caracal caracal) and the serval (C. serval), as well as the African wildcat (Felis silvestris) and the black-footed cat (F. nigripes).

Scientific classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Panthera
Species: P. leo (Linnaeus, 1758)

References and further reading

  • Bakalar, N. 2005. Lions in South Africa pressured by TB outbreaks, hunters. National Geographic News. <accessed 25/11/2015>
  • Bennett, J. & Tsoeu, N. 2006. Multilingual illustrated dictionary. Pharos Dictionaries, NB Publishers, Cape Town.
  • Carnaby, T. 2008. Beat about the bush mammals. Jacana Media, Johannesburg
  • IUCN. 2015. Panthera leo. <accessed 25/11/2015>
  • Stuart, C. & Stuart, T. 2007. Field guide to mammals of southern Africa. 4th edition. Struik Nature, Cape Town.
  • TRAFFIC International & WildCRU. 2015. The African lion bone trade. Africa Geographic <accessed 25/11/2015>

Author: Yolande Steenkamp
SANBI Graphics and Editing
November 2015

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