The lion is a big cat belonging to the Panthera genus and family Felidae. The lion is the second largest cat species in the world after the tiger. Currently, wild lions are found in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and India. Prior to 2017, the two main types of lions were thought to be African lions and Asian lions. The former was believed to be a group of seven extant lion subspecies inhabiting the African continent while the latter was considered to be a single subspecies of lion living in Asia. However, today two subspecies of lions are recognized:
- P.I. leo, which consists of the Asiatic, West African, Central African, and Barbary lions.
- P.I. melanochaita, which consists of Southern African lions including the Cape lion and the East lion.
By this new classification, the same species of lion occupies Asia and Northern/Central Africa, and the same species occupies Southern and Eastern Africa.
Strangely, unlike other cat species, lions are highly social in nature and live in large groups called a pride consisting of several females, their offsprings, and a few adult males. Lions tend to prefer savanna and grassland habitats but are also found in forests and bush. Lions are expert predators and scavengers and mainly nocturnal by nature. Wild lions survive for about 10 to 14 years while captive ones survive as long as 20 years. Below is an overview of some of the lion populations living in the world.
Barbary Lion (P.I. leo)
The barbary lions (Panthera leo leo) is also known as the North African lion. This lion subspecies previously occurred in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. Currently, it is extinct in the wild due to indiscriminate hunting. The last known wild Barbary lion was killed in 1920 in Morocco. Today, some lions kept in captivity are believed to be descendants of the wild Barbary lions, especially those residing in the Rabat Zoo. The Barbary lion is one of the largest subspecies of lion and individuals with lengths ranging between 9.8 feet and 10.8 feet, and weights of over 200 kg have been previously reported.
West African Lion (P.I. Leo)
The critically endangered West African lion or the Senegal lion (Panthera leo senegalensis) inhabits western Africa from the Central African Republic to Senegal. The West African lion is the smallest among the sub-Saharan African lions. Only about 1,800 individuals remain as small and fragmented populations in West Africa.
Southwest African Lion (P.I. melanochaita)
The Katanga lion or the Southwest African lion (Panthera leo bleyenberghi) is found in southwestern Africa in the countries of Angola, Zaire, western Zambia and Zimbabwe, Namibia, and northern Botswana. These lions are one of the largest among the all the types of lions. Males attain lengths between 8.2 feet and 10.2 feet while females have a length between 7.5 feet and 8.7 feet. Males weigh around 140–242 kg while females weigh about 105–170 kg. The Katanga lions have a lighter colored manes than other lion subspecies.
Masai Lion (P.I. melanochaita)
The East African lion or the Masai lion (Panthera leo nubica) is found in East Africa where it occurs in the countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. The Masai lions have less curved backs and longer legs than other subspecies of lion. Moderate tufts of hair are present in the knee joints of males. The manes of the Masai lion appear to be combed backwards, and older males have fuller manes than the younger ones. Male Masai lions living in highlands above 2,600 feet, and have heavier manes than those living in the lowland areas. Male Masai lions attain a length between 8.2 feet and 9.8 feet. Lionesses are smaller with length ranging from 7.5 feet to 8.5 feet.
Transvaal Lion (P.I. melanochaita)
The Southeast African lion (Panthera leo krugeri) , also known as the Kalahari lion or the Transvaal lion is found in the southern parts of Africa with significant populations in South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Swaziland’s Hlane Royal National Park. Most of the males of this subspecies have a black, well-developed mane. The length of males ranges between 8.5 feet and 10.5 feet while females attain a length between 7.7 feet and 9.0 feet. Male Kalahari lions have a weight of about 150–250 kg while females are 110–182 kg in weight.
Ethiopian Lion (P.I. melanochaita)
The Ethiopian lion or the Abyssinian lion or the Addis Ababa lion (Panthera leo roosevelti) is a type of lion that though originally considered to be the East African lion was classified as a separate subspecies after phenotypic and genotypic analysis on lions kept in captivity in the Addis Ababa's zoo. Ethiopian lions have darker manes and smaller bodies compared to other lion subspecies, but this could also be the result of living in captivity.
Asiatic Lion (P.I. leo)
The Asiatic lion or the Indian lion (Panthera leo persica) though once widespread from Turkey across Southwest Asia to the Indian subcontinent, is currently confined to the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in the Indian state of Gujarat. Only about 523 of this type of lion remain in this forest.
The Asiatic lion is smaller than the largest of the African lions but is similar in size to the Central African lion. The weight of adult male Asiatic lions ranges between 160 kg and 190 kg while that of females ranges from 110 kg to 120 kg. A longitudinal fold of skin running along the belly is the striking morphological feature that helps in the identification of the Asiatic lion. The fur color of the Asiatic lion ranges from ruddy-tawny, buffish-gray or sandy to heavily speckled with black. The lions have a moderate mane growth unlike the African subspecies, and their ears are always visible. The Asiatic lions also exhibit less genetic variation than the African subspecies. These lions are classified as endangered by the IUCN.
All the types of lions mentioned above are threatened to variable extents. Hunting, especially unregulated trophy hunting practices are responsible for the decline of the African subspecies of lions. During trophy hunting (a practice where lions are hunted, and their body parts like the head are offered as a trophy to the hunter) the dominant male lion of the pride is often targeted for hunting since it is the largest and most valuable trophy to the hunters. The death of the dominant male disturbs the structure of the pride. Males from outside now invade the pride and kill off the progeny of former males. Thus, lion cubs are lost, and this causes a lion population decline. Besides hunting, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation also threaten the survival of all types of lions of the world. Sadly, the threats continue to exist despite the implementation of large-scale conservation efforts. There is a greater need to create awareness about the need to save the lions among the public of the countries inhabited by the lions in order to save this big cat species.