Lifespan: 12 – 15 years in the wild, 20 – 25 years in captivity
Fondly known as the ‘king of the jungle’, lions are the only cats to live in groups, which are called prides. Here, we’ll look at all the interesting facts related to the African lion.
African lions are very strong animals, yet beautiful to look at too. The males typically have a yellowish-brown coat, and thick dark-brown mane which encircles the neck. Their tails are long, and at the end there is a horny spine covered with a tuft of hair. Lions are the 2nd largest living feline species, after the tiger. A male is approximately 4 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet in length. A female is approximately 3.5 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet long. A lion can weigh anywhere in between 350 to 550 pounds, whereas, a lioness could weigh somewhere between 250 to 400 pounds.
African lions used to live in most parts of the continent of Africa. Due to various reasons, their numbers have halved since the 1950s, and today they stand at a population of just around 20,000. Their habitat spans the savannas, grasslands, dense bush, and woodlands. At present, they are found only in sub-Saharan Africa, with a very few populating India.
A surprising fact is that lions are big scavengers. More than half the food that they eat is taken over from cheetahs, hyenas, and leopards. And of course, they hunt in packs, which allows them to make big kills like wildebeests, zebras, buffaloes, young elephants, rhinos, impalas, wild hogs, hippos, and giraffes. They even tend to hunt and eat lizards, mice, tortoises, antelopes, crocodiles, and warthogs. In captivity, they are mostly fed chickens, rabbits, beef, and mutton.
Lions live in large groups called prides, which consist of about 15 lions. One to three males are part of a pride for around three years, until another group of males take over. The rest in the pride are females and the young. These are affectionate animals, and love touching, licking, purring, and rubbing. Most of the hunting is done by the females. They have the tendency to creep stealthily toward their prey and suddenly ambush them. The males are territorial, and their job is to protect the pride. Ironically, the males eat first, and that too most of the share of the prey, followed by the females and young. Lions are actually pretty lazy, and spend 16 – 20 hours of the day either resting or sleeping.
African lions mate all year round. The gestation period is 110 days, and a female usually has a litter of three to four cubs, with each weighing 3 pounds. The young begin hunting when they are nearly a year old, and live with the mother until they are two years of age. The cubs are very vulnerable to predators like hyenas, leopards, black-backed jackals, etc., and less than half that are born make it past the first year.
Humans are the main predators of lions. For centuries, these magnificent animals have been killed as hunting trophies and for certain medicinal values. Loss of habitat has also contributed to their dwindling numbers, which is why they are at present categorized as ‘vulnerable’.
- The males defend their territory fiercely, and mark it with urine to demarcate the area. The territory may include 100 square miles (259 square kilometers) of grasslands or open woodlands. Once they sense intruders, they are known to roar menacingly as a sign of warning. Their roars are powerful enough to be heard as far as 5 miles away.
- These majestic lions prefer to spend a hot day in some shady and dense vegetation. Their activity begins after dusk. Hunting mostly occurs from nighttime to dawn. These lions, although inactive when they are not hunting, can walk close to 15 miles a day, if required. A pride can stick to a specific area if it finds sufficient quantity of water and a good hunting ground.
- These lions are generally tawny. At times, their color may vary. This could be from silvery yellow to ocher-tinted gray or dark ocher brown with paler undersides. The young ones have faint spots (like a leopard), which disappear as they come of age. Sometimes, these are retained even if they reach adulthood. The tuft of the tail is generally black.
- They are known to have a variety of facial expressions. These serve the purpose of visual gestures. They also have a variety of different roars with variations in the intensity and the pitch of the roars. Lionesses use grunting sounds to call their cubs. The roar of a female lion is slightly softer than the male. The sounds of the African lion include snarling, hissing, coughing, roaring, and purring. A full roar is possible only when they reach adulthood.
- They are known to prefer larger prey, which provides ample food for the whole pride. The prey usually consists of zebras, impalas, wild boars, deer, giraffes, etc. There is a peculiar manner in which they stalk their prey. The females hunt in groups and sneak up to the prey. They use short bursts of speed and encircle the herd. They rush onto the nearest victim and kill it by means of strangulation.
- Males are known to kill the cubs in any pride they conquer. This is because, the lioness does not become fertile and receptive to a new male until her cubs grow up.
- When a lion breeds with a tiger, the result is a liger or tigon. When it breeds with a leopard, the cub is called a leopon, and with a jaguar, the result is a jaglion.
- These beasts can run as fast as 50 mph, for short distances, and can leap as far as 35 feet.
- The mane of a male acts as protection when it is involved in a fight.
- While walking, the heels of a lion do not touch the ground.
- They love to drink water every day, but these animals can go up to 5 to 6 days without having any water.
The condition of African lions in captivity is known to have improved off late, but the fact remains that they do not always have the freedom to move around, as would be the case in their natural habitat. It is only recently we can see these majestic creatures being housed in naturalistic areas with closer attention being paid to their needs.