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Li"on, n. Etym: [F. lion, L. leo, -onis, akin to Gr. Chameleon, Dandelion, Leopard.]

1. (Zoöl.)

Defn: A large carnivorous feline mammal (Felis leo), found in Southern Asia and in most parts of Africa, distinct varieties occurring in the different countries. The adult male, in most varieties, has a thick mane of long shaggy hair that adds to his apparent size, which is less than that of the largest tigers. The length, however, is sometimes eleven feet to the base of the tail. The color is a tawny yellow or yellowish brown; the mane is darker, and the terminal tuft of the tail is black. In one variety, called the maneless lion, the male has only a slight mane.

2. (Astron.)

Defn: A sign and a constellation; Leo.

3. An object of interest and curiosity, especially a person who is so regarded; as, he was quite a lion in London at that time.
Such society was far more enjoyable than that of Edinburgh, for here he was not a lion, but a man. Prof. Wilson.
American lion (Zoöl.), the puma or cougar.
-- Lion ant (Zoöl.), the ant-lion.
-- Lion dog (Zoöl.), a fancy dog with a flowing mane, usually clipped to resemble a lion's mane.
-- Lion lizard (Zoöl.), the basilisk.
-- Lion's share, all, or nearly all; the best or largest part; -- from Æsop's fable of the lion hunting in company with certain smaller beasts, and appropriating to himself all the prey.

The lion is one of the largest felines in the world. It lives in Africa.

Lion (LI-on)

The name lion is derived from the ancient Greek λεων (leōn), which in Latin is leo. The ancient Egyptian rw and the Hebrew לָבִיא (lavi) may also be related. Panthera is probably of East Asian origin, meaning “whitish-yellow” or “the yellowish animal.”



Adult lions have 30 teeth lining their strong jaws: 4 canines to pierce the neck or spinal cord of prey, 12 carnissal teeth to shear through flesh, and 14 molars to crush bones. Like all cats, their tongues are covered with tiny projections and is used to rasp meat off bones and groom fur. Every individual lion has a unique whisker spot pattern, making the number and relative position of whisker spots on the top row aids in identifying individuals. Their large amber eyes are larger than those of humans, since a human's eye is 23 mm in diameter, while a lion's eye is 37.5 mm in diameter.

Three-year-old males usually grow manes, ranging in color from light yellow or gold to black, usually growing fullest in open habitats. The lion's mane is unique among felines and provides an excellent form of intimidation in confrontations with other lions and the spotted hyena, its chief competitor in Africa. The mane signals to other lions the presence of a male and indicates individual fitness, since mane development is mostly controlled by testosterone, making lions with fuller, darker manes generally healthier than those with absent or light, wispy manes. Climate, genetic preconditioning, sexual maturity, are also factors in determining the size, color, and presence or absence of the mane. Longer manes also signal fighting success in male-male relationships. Darker-maned lions generally have longer reproductive lives and a higher rate of offspring survival, but suffer more from the heat in the hottest months of the year. In prides of more than one male, it may be possible that lionesses solicit mating more actively with the more heavily maned individuals. The male's shaggy mane increases his apparent size, making him look more opposing, and protects his head and neck during fights with other males. Healthy Asiatic lions usually have shorter manes than their African counterparts, and some African lions have absent or almost unnoticeable manes. Some lions in North American and European zoos grow heavier manes, due to the cooler ambient temperature. Maneless lions exist in the wild in Kenya; even the original male white lion from Timbavati was maneless. Inbreeding of lion populations can also result in lack of manes and poor fertility. Serengeti National Park has a wide variety of small, large, short-maned, blonde-maned, and dark-maned individuals.

Their short legs are powerful and muscular – suited to sprinting and bringing down prey with leaps up to 12 m. The lion keeps its hooked claws sharp for grasping prey by retracting them into protective sheaths. Cubs have brown spots on their grayish coats until they are three months old, with spots occasionally remaining on the stomach when they are adults, especially in east Africa. The adults' short, tawny coats range in color from a light cream or “white” to light buff, yellowish, reddish or dark ochraceous brown, having lighter underparts. White lions are rare forms of the subspecies Panthera Leo Krugeri having leucism, a condition that causes paler coloration of the skin. The unusual cream color is occasionally encountered in the wild, but is more common in captivity. For hundreds of years, the people of South Africa believed the white fur of the animal represented the goodness in all creatures. Though albinism has been known to occur in lions, there are no cases of melanism (black fur). The lion's long tail has a black tuft at the end, which begins developing when the cub is about 5 ½ months old and covers a horny spine about 5 cm long of the final sections of its tail bones that are fused together. On rare occasions, the leopard can also possess this spine. The lion is the only feline possessing this tuft, which can be easily noticed by the time the cub is 7 months old.

Group organization

Lions have two types of social organizations. Some lions are residents, living in prides usually consisting of about five to ten related females, their cubs of both sexes, and a coalition of one to four males who mate with the adult females. Pride members come and go as they please, making it rare for them to all be together at once. In Kruger and Serengeti National Parks, pride size was an average of 13 lions with approximately 1.7 males, 4.5 females, 3.8 sub-adults, and 2.8 juveniles. Larger prides exist however, since a pride can range from 2 to 40 lions. Nomads, which live either singularly or in pairs, have a wide range and move sporadically. The area a pride occupies is called a pride area, whereas nomads occupy a range. In either case, they usually occupy a 20 to 400 km² area, depending on the variety and total biomass of hoofed animals and prey in the area, with some 100 km² areas able to support up to 12 lions. Lions may switch lifestyles, with residents becoming nomads and vise versa, though membership usually only changes with the births and deaths of lionesses. Male lions generally move through large areas, with the strongest ones attaching themselves to different female and sub-adult groups from time to time. Young lionesses will on occasion wander off from the pride, but in general, lionesses remain together.

Prides are generally stable social units, often remaining intact for years. Lionesses are usually lifelong residents in their mother's territory, but do not compete or display the dominant behaviors observed in many matriarchal systems. Males, in contrast, are very aggressive with other pride members, especially while eating. Males and females alike defend the pride against intruders, with some individuals leading the defense against intruders while others lag behind. Laggards are not punished by the leaders, suggesting there may be rewards for leaders who fight off intruders or the laggards providing other services to the group. Females do not tolerate outside females, finding it better to share food with a related lion than a stranger, but will tolerate strange males. Males, on the other hand, will chase away strange males, but will accept and mate with non-pride females. In either case, non-pride lions are driven out of the area sooner or later by some member of the pride. At times, lions will attack each other, sometimes fighting to the death with the winner occasionally eating the loser. Lions generally have a calm family life, but in rare instances, male lions will fight each other, occasionally leaving traces of blood behind them when the family moves on. Sometimes a family member will even be killed in a fight, but this is very rare, and is not how lions typically operate.

Males patrol the territory and protect the pride, leaving the less obvious and more agile females to do most of the hunting, since they lack the conspicuously showy mane. In every lion pride, the weakest male is always higher in the social structure than any female, due to the social-dominance hierarchy of the prides. There is not a clear hierarchy regarding food, but with larger kills, there is generally more sharing. Males are the most aggressive during feeding, often eating animals killed by females, but rarely share their kills; they often take food from cubs, but prefer to share their food with cubs than with females, who are more likely to share with each other. No pride member has any particular rights at mealtime, but the strongest member eats all it can. Lions will defend their food from other pride members with growls, hisses, and paw-swats, returning to their calm pride life after the meal is finished. Lions have certain sporting rules, with a pride generally being able to feed peacefully on a zebra. Male lions take about 75% of their food from lionesses, 12.5% from other predators, and 12.5% they catch themselves. Lionesses do not actually catch food for the males, the males just come and eat what the lionesses have caught, though the lionesses are doubtlessly “used” by the males. Lions will rarely eat a dead lion, though they have been known to eat non-pride cubs, and a female was once seen eating her own cub that an invading male had killed. These are rare instances, though, and not typical behaviors.

Lions are the top predators on the African savanna, usually eating ungulates between 50 and 300 kg, such as antelope, giraffe, zebra, kudu, hartebeest, gemsbok, warthogs, eland, topis, and wildebeest, which account for 90% of their diet on the African savanna, but will on occasion eat cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs. In India, they seem to prefer nilgai, wild boars, and several species of deer. When necessary, they will also eat smaller species, such as Thompson's gazelle, springbok, amphibians, reptiles, birds, ostrich eggs, and fish. If the opportunity arises, they will also eat carrion, taking cues from hyenas and vultures. Due to the possibility of serious injury, lions rarely attack buffalo bulls, fully grown male giraffes, and adult hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, and elephants. At the Savuti river, some lions, driven by extreme hunger, started taking down baby elephants, then moved on to taking down adolescents, and occasionally adults. In Kruger National Park, giraffes are commonly eaten by the lions. Lions will also eat domestic livestock, especially in India. Prides seem to have their individual preferences for food.

Prides will generally hunt as a group, preying mostly on large ungulates to procure food for sick or weak pride members. If the opportunity arises, they will resort to scavenging. Lionesses do most of the hunting, usually stalking until they are about 98 feet (30 m) or less from their targeted prey. When hunting in a group, each lioness has a favored position in the group, either stalking prey on the "wing" then attacking, or moving a smaller distance in the center of the group, capturing prey in flight from other lionesses. Some prides have a setup where two or three lionesses will hide in the tall grass near a herd, while others circle about it. When the circling lionesses attack, the herd is driven toward the hidden lionesses, who quickly dispatch the oncoming animals. This is an instinctive pattern, as was realized when Elsa, the Adamson's lioness herded a group of giraffes toward her human “pride”. Lions usually jump at their prey from behind, and with their hind legs on the ground, they grab the prey's neck with a paw, jerking the animal's head back. They will usually bite the animal's throat to suffocate it, though some lions will bite the animal's nose. By killing their prey quickly and efficiently without torturing them, they run less of a risk of getting injured themselves. Some young lions who are not with their mothers sometimes unintentionally torture their prey because they have not learned precisely how to kill them, proving that some of their hunting habits are learned, not instinctive. The herding is instinctive, but the actual killing of the prey takes a lot of learning and practice. Individually, lions succeed in hunting 17% of the time, but their rate of success increases to 30% when they hunt in a group. Cooperation not only increases their likelihood of success, especially with larger prey, but enables them to more easily defend their catch from hyenas and vultures. Though the whole group may hunt together, the prey is usually landed by an individual lioness. Males attached to prides generally do not hunt, but will help bring down larger prey, such as giraffes and cape (water) buffalo. Lions often take advantage of their prey's reduced visibility, with many kills being made near some form of cover or at night. They can sprint at speeds of 50 mph (80 km/h), but can only keep that speed for a short time, often catching their prey with a fast rush and final leap, killing them by strangulation. Adult males require an average of about 15.4 lb. (7 kg) of meat per day, while females usually only require about 11 lb. (5 kg). Some lions, however, may eat up to 68 lb. (31 kg) in one sitting. If they are unable to consume the entire kill in one sitting, they will rest a few hours before consuming more. On hot days, the pride may retreat to the shade to digest their food, leaving one or two males to defend the prey from scavengers. Lions do not eat every day, but may kill prey on days they do not eat. Whatever they do not eat in a meal is consumed by jackals, hyenas, and vultures. Lions have been known to chase spotted hyenas away from their prey. Hungry lions may take on larger prey with amazing fights that put them at a disadvantage. A giraffe bull can charge at a lion and break its scapula, and buffaloes can break their ribs. When lions are injured during a hunt, they remain with the pride and are given food, but can not engage in pride hunts. If an animal goes limp in a lion's mouth, the lion will no longer try to bite the prey, since it is stimulated by moving prey. Some lions have stopped to drop an antelope, only to have it jump up and run. In cases like this, the animal can get mad and attack the lion or any person or animal in the vicinity.

A single lion will usually make nineteen kills a year, each weighing about 117 kg. About 60% of the animals lions kill are males, with three quarters of them being gnu, zebra, or Thompson's gazelle. The average lions kills about 13% of its weight in food every day. Most prides will move about 1.9-10 km every night, with the number of lions in a particular area being more dependent on the height of the grass than on the number of prey available. Since lions cannot stalk their prey in short grass, gnu, zebra, and gazelle herds in the Serengeti move to these areas to bear their young.

The lion's behavior betrays whether or not it is hunting. If a lion is peacefully walking by or fully in view, antelopes and zebra's will continue grazing, though they will keep the lions in sight. Lions in this position will not attempt to chase them. Water buffaloes and elephants have even been known to drive lions from their freshly killed prey, staying around for such a length of time that the lions could not return to eat. Lions will stop chasing their prey after 50-100 m, unless it is a smaller animal that cannot run as fast. Lions, therefore, cannot overtake a horse at full speed.

Various Facts About Lions

People can usually refrain from lion attacks by climbing into trees and sleeping there overnight, but in some cases, lions have been known to climb very high trees whose branches were not even close to the ground. The lions in Manyara National Park, near Arusha in Tanzania, sit in the trees all the time. Lions have been known to drown in water-filled moats in zoos because they were unable to climb out on the steep, slippery sides. Though they do not like water as much as tigers, Elsa, the Adamson's lioness, enjoyed swimming in the sea for hours with her human companions. Some lions have even been known to swim 200 m to Ukerere Island in Lake Victoria. Lions can be so lazy, they will not take a single step if they always have their food put in front of them, as can be witnessed when one sees lions lying under a shady bush for hours or even the whole day. In some cases, though, lions will wander about for hours with no apparent reason in an area with abundant prey. Nomads may travel through areas that are 1,000 km².

Breeding Habits and Care of Young

Lionesses usually reach maturity at four years of age, with males reaching maturity about one year later.

Related lionesses in the same pride usually give birth about the same time, allowing them to cooperate in the raising of the young. When a lioness is ready to give birth, she finds a place to keep her young. This is a place that will protect them against moisture, drafts, the sun, and visibility by enemies. In the rainy season, they are usually born at a higher elevation, such as between rocks or in natural depressions along a hill, but in the dry season, they are usually born in a gallery forest along a river or in the reeds. Gestation usually lasts about 100-116 days (usually 105-108, about 3½ months), after which the female gives birth to 1 to 9 cubs, but usually 3 in the wild and 5 or 6 in captivity. The actual number of cubs per litter depends on the age and dietary condition of the mother, with younger and older lionesses having fewer cubs, as do those in areas lacking abundant food sources. However, there are rarely more than four surviving cubs from one litter in the wild. The helpless cubs weigh 1-2.1 kg at birth, beginning to crawl at one or two days old, walking by 15 days, and running by one month of age. Their eyes typically open by 11 days after their birth, but can remain closed for three weeks. Some cubs have open eyes when they are born, but the eyes do not seem to be functional at that time. After three weeks, their milk teeth erupt, enabling them to eat morsels of meat when they are four weeks old. At six weeks old, lionesses will bring their young to the pride, as was shown when Elsa, the Adamson's tame lioness, brought her cubs to her human “pride.” Male lions rarely hurt their own offspring, at the most make a little hiss and grimace while the young play about, but in rare instances they will attack cubs from a strange pride. They will even tolerate the cubs as they try to seize food from their mouths. Lionesses keep their cubs hidden for about 8 weeks, but are still extremely vulnerable to predators, especially hyenas. At about three months old, young lions accompany their mother on hunting forays and start displaying stalking behavior, but do not participate in actual hunts until they are almost a year old, hunting more effectively when nearing two years of age. After six to ten months, the cubs are weaned. When they are nine to twelve months old, their permanent teeth erupt, causing much pain, which can result in restlessness and fevers. The mortality rate increases at this time, but those who survive are ready to fend for themselves and procure their own food. Most young lions, however, will continue to hunt with their mothers for at least another year, making them grow faster and have a higher chance of survival than those who leave immediately after their permanent teeth erupt.

Food competition in the wild is fierce, causing as many as 80% of cubs to die before their second year, some being abandoned when they cannot keep up with the pride. Though lionesses are generally good mothers, first-time mothers may not know what to do with their young and may reject them or even eat them. Some mothers may become disturbed the first few days after giving birth and drag their cubs about, eventually abandoning them. Even good mothers may leave their cubs alone for up to forty-eight hours while they search for food. Cub mortality is lowest when the pride synchronously reproduces and cross-suckles, with cubs being born in crèches where the entire pride raises several litters. Some lionesses will form groups when the cubs are old enough to run about, with each lioness caring for the other cubs as she does her own. Even lionesses without cubs will lick and guard the young in the group. The lack of dominance and teamwork in females makes cub-raising easier for all the pride members. Until they are at least 16 months old, they are dependent upon the adult members of the pride. Females are primarily responsible for the care of the young. When the mothers have a new litter, they leave the older offspring, with no lionesses being spotted with varying ages of young. At this time, the young form a juvenile group. When they reach maturity, juvenile groups will usually disperse, with the males beginning to establish their own territories. Lions do not reach their full size until they are about six years old.

Adolescent males usually leave their natal pride at about two or three and a half years of age, when their fathers, or the new male members, view them as competition. After leading nomadic lives for two or three years, they form a coalition, usually consisting of brothers, and look for a pride to take over, forcefully gaining control of it from its previous male members. Male coalitions of two rarely rule a pride for more than two and a half years – just long enough for one set of cubs to be reared. Coalitions of three or four usually rule for over three years. Coalitions of more than four members are rare, possibly because of the difficulty of keeping them together.

Males reach maturity at about 3 years old, being capable of taking over a pride at 4-5 years of age. They are conspicuously large and showy because of their opportunity to control the reproduction of many females when they rule a pride. They begin to weaken at 10 to 15 years at the latest, leaving a short window for their own offspring to be born and raised before another coalition takes over the pride. Pride takeover battles are often violent and usually lead to serious injury or death of the loosing male or males. When a pride is taken over by a new male or males engaging in physical aggression with the previous masters, remaining cubs under two years old are often killed, but may not be on some occasions. The fierce competition among males and the social structure of the prides can lead to infanticide by males and females alike. Females will often attempt to fight off invading males to protect their cub, occasionally being killed while doing so, but succeeding most often when a group of three or four join forces against one male. Though males do not care for the cubs directly, the cubs he has sired are at a lower risk of infanticide if he maintains control of the pride by preventing other males from taking over.


Lions spend about 20 hours per day resting if food is plentiful, with most of their activity beginning late in the afternoon, as they socialize, groom each other, and defecate. Bursts of activity continue intermittently through the night hours to early morning, when they do the most hunting, after which they spend about 50 minutes eating. On average, they spend about two hours a day walking.

They are highly social in comparison to the other cats, spending much of their resting time socializing through a number of expressive movements. They often moan while rubbing their forehead, face, and neck against another lion with tails looped in the air as a form of greeting when one has been away or after a fight or confrontation. Cubs and females will generally rub females, while males tend to rub each other. This often occurs in conjunction with social licking, a generally mutual form of socialization which appears pleasing to the recipient. They most often lick each other's head and neck, which lions cannot lick individually. They have a large repertoire of facial expressions, body postures, and vocalizations.

When males are about one year old, a little older for females, lions will begin roaring, a form of acoustic communication. A male lion roars louder and deeper than a female. Roaring serves to communicate with pride members, advertise territory, and demonstrate aggression toward enemy lions. Communication relies more on variation of intensity and pitch rather than discrete signals. Lions can produce many sounds, including meowing, purring, hissing, snarling, coughing, woofing, and roaring. As with all big cats, lions can only purr when exhaling, while small cats can purr continuously. Lions roar most often at night, usually to advertise their presence and control of their territory. Lions are the only cats that can actually roar, a sound which has been said to be the most magnificent and impressive sound in all creation. A lion's roar can be heard fro 8-9 km away in favorable conditions. Although they can roar in any position, they usually roar while standing and tilting the head slightly toward the ground, drawing their flanks in while expanding their chests like mighty balloons. At times, they will roar in unison as a pride as a form of social bonding. Their roaring is loudest for about an hour after sunset. The reason for lions roaring as they do is not quite known. It is possible that they roar to express satisfaction or signify possession of territory. Zebras, antelope, and gazelles have been observed while lions roared, and they did not flee in all directions, dismissing the belief that lions roared to scare and drive their prey.

Sociality among lions is the most pronounced in any cat species. Living in a group has many benefits, including protection of the young from infanticide, maintenance of territory, and individual insurance against injury and hunger due to increased hunting success. Coordinated hunting has a higher rate of success than hunting individually, but non-hunters seem to have a reduced per capita caloric intake. Lions live in a higher density area than most other cats, making it necessary for pride members to collectively defend their area from takeovers by other lions. Pride members, especially those of similar age and sex, must refrain from fighting each other, due to the risk serious injury to themselves and the loss of a valuable team-member to fight against invaders. Furthermore, small prides have a tendency to be more gregarious so as to defend their territory.

Resident males, and occasionally females, will mark their territory by scuff-marking larger trees and logs, utilizing both visual and chemical communication signals.

Threats to Lions

Poachers frequently kill lions using wire snares, rifles, arrows, and poisoned carcasses. It was estimated that in the 1960's alone, approximately 20,000 lions in Serengeti National Park were killed by poachers. In six African countries, hunting lions as trophies is allowed. Currently, habitat loss and conflicts with humans are considered the most significant threats to the species.

Spotted hyenas have been known to kill lion cubs, juveniles, and weak or sick adult lions. They will even defend their food from immature or female lions, but will leave it if a large male comes for it.

Frequently, lions are infected with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), a disease similar to HIV. It occurs with high to endemic frequency in several wild populations, but is very rare in Asiatic and Namibian lions. In Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and Kruger National Park, 92% of lions tested had FIV, which does not seem to adversely affect lions, but will kill domestic cats. However, it is worrisome enough that the Species Survival Plan recommends systematic testing in captive lions. In captivity, lions are especially vulnerable to Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) which is spread through domestic dogs and other canines, Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), and FIV. In 1994, an outbreak of CDV in Serengeti National Park resulted in many lions developing seizures and other neurological conditions, with several lions dying from pneumonia and encephalitis.

Various species of ticks commonly infest the ears, necks, and groin regions of many lions. Tapeworms in their adult forms have been isolated from the intestines when the lions ingest larval forms from antelope meat. In Ngorongoro Crater, lions were afflicted by an outbreak of stable flies (Stomoxys Calcitrans) in 1962. This resulted in the lions climbing trees and crawling into hyena burrows to evade the flies, which made the lions covered in bare, bloody patches and emaciated. Many lions perished or emigrated, causing the population to drop from 70 to 15 individuals. The flies returned in 2001, killing another six lions.

Lions are also vulnerable to starvation and attacks from other lions, which often result in the death or serious injury of one or both parties. Infanticide is a common contributer to cub mortality, increasing when prey is scarce. Females usually live longer than males, normally reaching 15-16 years with some females in the Serengeti National Park living up to 18 years. Males rarely survive past ten years of age, reaching their prime between five and nine years, after which they are usually attacked by other males. Surprisingly, some males have survived until 16 years in the wild.

Some lions in India have been poisoned by the pesticides farmers use to maintain plants for their “holy cows.” Other lions suffer from the reduced shrubbery from the cattle eating all the shrubs and grass, making it difficult for them to stalk their prey

The Lion as a Symbol

The lion has been an icon for humanity for millennia, appearing in European, Asian, and African cultures, enjoying a positive depiction as a strong and noble beast. Commonly depicted as “king of the jungle” and “king of the beasts,” the lion has become a popular symbol of royalty, nobility, and stateliness, being featured in several of Aesop's Fables. Lions have been depicted in cave drawings in southwestern Germany and southern France. The lion became a classic motif in the Old Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian Empire periods, and can be found as a statue or carved or painted on walls. It is often referred to as the “striding lion of Babylon.” It was in Babylon that Daniel, a prophet from the Old Testament, was twice delivered from the lions' den by the power of God. The lion itself is mentioned no less than 130 times in the bible as a Palestinian animal. The symbol was also appropriated by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq for their “Lion of Babylon Tank,” which adopted technology from a Russian model. Lions also appear in stone figures in palaces in China.

Richard I of England was known as Richard the Lionheart in the medieval period, even before he had ascended to the throne, due to his military reputation. Lions are frequently depicted on coats of arms, either as a device on shields themselves or as supporters. The kings of England, Scotland, Norway, and Denmark have had lions on their family crests, while the coats-of-arms of Wales, Zurich, Luxembourg, and the state of Hesse, Germany proudly display this animal. Blazon, the formal language of heraldry, employs French terms to describe the posture of the lion precisely by specifying if they were rampant (rearing) or passant (crouching).

The lion continues to be used as a heraldic symbol or epithet, finding notoriety as a symbol and mascot for sports teams and famous clubs. Modern literature continues to see the presence of lions as iconic symbols. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios used Leo the Lion as their mascot, featuring his roar at the beginning of every movie they made since the 1920's. Elsa, a Kenyan lioness, was seen in the movie Born Free, based on the true story of a book by the same title. Many animated films have also portrayed the lion as King of the Beasts, with some featuring popular songs about them.

Uses and Domestication

Well-known throughout the wold, lions are a glamorous species, a cultural icon in England and one of the highest valued eco-tourism species in Africa. They are part of a group of exotic animals that have formed the core of zoo exhibits around the world since the late 18th century, with other members of this group including elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, larger primates, and various big cats. At that time, zoos sought to gather as many of these species as possible, but most modern zoos are more selective in their exhibits, with only about 1,000 African and 100 Asiatic lions kept in zoos and wildlife parks around the world. Lions are considered an ambassador species, being kept for tourism, education, and conservation purposes. Lions in captivity can reach over 20 years of age; Apollo, a resident lion of the Honolulu Zoo in Hawaii, died at the age of 22 in August 2007, but his sisters, who where born in 1986, are still alive. In Africa, when a hunter becomes satiated with hunting, lions are usually the first things he no longer hunts, with some men only picking up their rifles again to shoot a zebra for an old or sick, starving lion.

As early as 850 BC, Assyrian Kings kept and bred lions. Alexander the Great was said to have been presented with tame lions by the Malhi of northern India, and in the days of the Romans, lions were often kept by emperors to take part in gladiator arenas. Some Roman officials, including Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar, often ordered the mass slaughter of hundreds of lions at a time. In the East, Indian princes tamed lions, with Kublai Khan even keeping lions inside, according to Marco Polo. In the 13th century, noble and royal European families kept zoos, which were called seraglios until the 17th century, when they became known as menageries, an extension of the cabinet of curiosities. During the Renaissance, they spread from France and Italy to the rest of Europe, with England's seraglio tradition being the least developed. At the time, seraglios served as expressions of a noble's power and wealth and demonstrated the dominance of man over nature. Animals like big cats and elephants were some of the greatest symbols of power and were often pitted against each other or domesticated animals. However, the defeat of lions by a cow in 1682 to astonished the spectators, and the flight of an elephant before a rhinoceros to drew jeers, making these fights slowly disappear in the 17th century, spreading the menagerie and their appropriation to commoners. During the 19th century, the keeping of big cats as pets became viewed as highly eccentric.

In the 19th century, the wild animal trade flourished alongside improved colonial trade, with lions being fairly common and inexpensive. At that time, they would barter higher than tigers, but were much less costly than giant pandas and easier to transport than giraffes and hippopotamuses. Like other animals, they were seen as little more than a natural, boundless commodity with many losses resulting from their capture and transportation. Explorers and hunters exploited a popular religious division of animals into “good” and “evil” to add thrilling value to their adventures, leading to the image of the heroic hunter chasing lions, which dominated a large part of the century. This resulted in big cats, which had always been suspected of being man-eaters, representing the fear of nature and the satisfaction of having overcome it.

In 1125, Henry I of England kept a menagerie at his palace in Woodstock, near Oxford where lions had reportedly been stocked by William of Malmesbury. In the 13th century, King John established a seraglio, probably with the animals from the menagerie in Woodstock, and kept the lions in the Tower of London. The presence of lions there was intermittent, only being restocked when a monarch or his consort, such as Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI, either sought or were given animals. Records from the 17th century indicate they were kept in poor conditions, in contrast to the more open conditions of Florence at the time. By the 18th century, the menagerie was opened to the public, with admission being three half-pence or a cat or dog to feed the lions. Until the early 18th century, the Exeter Exchange had a rival menagerie which also exhibited lions. William IV closed down the Tower menagerie, transferring the animals to the London Zoo, which opened its gates to the public on April 27, 1828. lions at the zoo were kept in cramped and squalid conditions until a larger lion house with roomier cages was built in the 1870's.

Further changes took place in zoos in the early 20th century when Carl Hagenbeck designed more open enclosures, which resembled a natural habitat, with concrete rocks, more space, and a moat instead of bars. He designed lion enclosures for several zoos, including the Melbourne Zoo and the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Despite the popularity of his designs, the bars and cages prevailed in many zoos until the 1960's, after which many zoos began utilizing wire mesh and laminated glass instead of lowered dens, allowing visitors to come closer than ever to the animals, with some attractions placing the den on higher ground than the visitors, such as the Cat Forest/Lion overlook of the Oklahoma City Zoological Park. Modern guidelines dictate larger naturalistic areas for lions, with closer attention to the lions needs by having dens in separate areas, elevated positions in sun and shade, and adequate ground cover and drainage with plenty of room for them to roam.

Lions can be tamed for protection, as was probably the reason for the art's introduction, or more commonly, for entertainment as in a circus. Lion taming has become a stereotypical dangerous occupation, due to the risks of being in such close proximity to powerful carnivores. Many zoos around the world tame their lions to enable less dangerous feeding and profit from programs like cub petting. However, taming an individual lion is not the same as domestication of a species.

Relationship with Humans

Although lions generally do not prey on humans, some – usually males – have been know to become man-eaters and hunt humans. Some common examples are the Tsavo man-eaters, which ate 135 railway workers during the nine months they were working on a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya in 1898, and the Mfuwe man-eater which killed six people in the Laungwa River Valley in Zambia. In both instances, the hunters who killed the lions wrote detailed accounts of the animals' behaviors and appearances. The lions in both cases were larger than normal, lacked manes, and suffered from tooth decay. Other causes may include prey depletion in human-dominated areas and access to livestock and human corpses. Many cases of lions attacking humans occur in conservation areas, where large populations of lions exist with a possibility of prey depletion. During segregation in South Africa, Mozambican refugees crossed Kruger National Park at night because it was closed off to blacks, resulting in many casualties and more often deaths. For nearly a century before, Mozambicans had walked across the park during the daytime with little harm. It is estimated that over 200 Tanzanians are killed every year by lions, crocodiles, elephants, hippopotamuses, and snakes, although it could be double that amount, with lions thought to kill at least 70 of these. Sick and injured lions are also more prone to eating humans.

In April 2004, a man-eating lion, believed to have eaten at least 35 people from villages in the Rufiji Delta coastal region, was killed in Southern Tanzania. This lion was also large, lacked a mane, and had an abscess under a cracked molar, causing extreme pain when it chewed.

Between 1990 and 2005, at least 563 villagers in rural areas of Tanzania near Selous National Park in the Rufiji District and in the Lindi Province near the Mozambican Border were attacked by lions, many of them being eaten. In some of these cases, lions seized humans from the center of substantial villages, raising concerns about the conservation efforts being made. It is argued by many that the conservation efforts are directly contributing to human mortality.

In the late 1930's to the late 1940's, George Rushby, a game warden and professional hunter, dispatched a pride in the Njombe district, which over three generations was thought to have killed and eaten 1,500 to 2,000 people, making it the “All-Africa” record of lions eating people.

Many humans fear lions, believing they will attack them and their livestock, though this is not always the case. Historically, the lions in east Africa have peacefully coexisted with the Masai and their cattle because they had plenty of other prey. In most instances, lions will run in the opposite direction if they see a human on foot. The problem comes when lions lose their habitat and enter inhabited areas, making attacks on humans more likely. Some people who have been attacked by lions and dragged off by them had dogs or companions who chased the lions down. When a lion is dragging a person or animal away, they may feel anesthetized, having no pain, fear, or fright of death. Sometimes lions drop their prey - people or animals - just to have them get up and dart away.


Lions mostly live in sub-Saharan (southern and eastern) Africa in savanna grasslands scattered with acacia trees which provide shade, with a small population in northwest India, living in a dry savanna forest and very dry deciduous scrub forest in the 558 sq. mi. (1412 km²) sanctuary in the Gir Forest in the state of Gujarat. In recent times, their habitat spanned the southern parts of Eurasia, ranging from Greece to India, and most of Africa, except the central rainforest and the Sahara desert. They had also been in the middle East and southwest Asia, with fossils indicating they had lived in western Europe and from the Bering Land Bridge and the Yukon to Peru. Herodotus had reported that lions were common in Greece around 480 BC, and that they attacked the baggage camels of the Persian king Xerxes on his march through the country, but Aristotle considered them rare by 300 BC and extirpated by 100 AD. However, a population of Asiatic lions survived in the Caucasus, their last European outpost, until the 10th century. They were exterminated from Palestine in the Middle Ages and from the rest of Asia in the 18th century when firearms became readily available. By the late 19th century, lions had disappeared from Turkey and the majority of India, with the last sighting of a live Asiatic lion in Iran in 1941, between Shiraz and Jahrom in the province of Fars. However, a corpse of a lioness was found on the banks of the Karun River in the province of Khuzestan in 1944, with mo subsequent reliable reports from Iran. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, lions became extinct in North America and the Middle East. They typically inhabit savannas and grasslands (plains) with large prey bases, but may make their homes in forests, brush, shrubs, and semi-desert habitats, with a population in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia living at an elevation of 13,907.2 ft. (4240 m), proving they are not purely tropical creatures. Their tracks have been found on the snowy peaks of Mount Kenya and Mount Ruwenzori at an elevation of 3,500 m, and at 5,000 m elsewhere. In South Africa, lions are non-existent in the wild, except in Kruger and Kalahari Gemsbok National Parks. Lions can live in almost any habitat except tropical rainforests and deserts. After the spotted hyena, they are the most common predator in the African savanna. It is the largest feline, excluding the tiger. Lions have seen a decrease in wild populations, dropping from about 400,000 in the 1950's to about 100,000 in the early 1990's, with estimates at 16,500 or 47,000 in 2002-2004. The decrease is not well-understood and may be irreversible. Remaining wild lion populations are often geographically isolated, which can lead to much inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity, making the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources consider African lions a vulnerable species. There are about 850-1,160 lions in all of West Africa, according to two surveys taken in 2002 and 2004, but they are isolated from those in Central Africa, with little or no exchange of breeding individuals. The size of the largest individual population in West Africa is a subject of debate, with estimates ranging from 100 to 400 lions in Burkina Faso's Arly-Singou ecosystem. In India, the Gir National Forest Park had about 359 lions, as of April 2006.

Several coordinated efforts have been organized to stem the decline of the lion population, the most notable being the Species Survival Plan, an attempt by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to increase a species' chance of survival. The plan was originally started in 1982 for the Asiatic Lions, which was suspended when it was discovered that most North American zoos had lions that were not genetically pure, due to cross-breeding with African lions. In 1993, the African lion was added to the list, following the discovery of its decline. Most of the focus is on the South African Species, but it is often difficult to assess the genetic diversity of lions, since most are of unknown origin – making maintenance of genetic diversity a problem.

Conservation of lions has required the set-up and maintenance of national parks and game preserves, of which the best known are Etosha National Park in Namibia, Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and Kruger National Park in South Africa. Outside these areas, lions' interactions with people and livestock generally result in their elimination. In India, there are numerous human habitations in a close proximity to the forest, resulting in problems involving lions, livestock, locals, and wildlife officials. To provide a form of life insurance for the remaining Asiatic Lions and to maintain genetic diversity, the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project is planning to establish a second independent population at the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India.

Since Barbary Lions were originally popular zoo animals, many scattered lions in captivity may be descended from them, including twelve lions at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent, England, which are descended from animals owned by the King of Morocco. Another eleven lions in Addis Ababa Zoo, are believed to be Barbary Lions, descended from those owned by Emperor Haile Selassie. In collaboration with Oxford University, WildLink International launched the International Barbary Lion Project to identify and breed captive Barbary Lions, eventually reintroducing them to a national park in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Zoo-based lion breeding programs usually involve the consideration of several matters, including separation of the various subspecies, and prevention of the negative effects of inbreeding, which is often a problem when lions are divided in this manner. Since there are no connecting corridors between the wildlife reserves in Africa, genetic viability will likely become a problem. Some small lion populations require genetic management in order to survive while maintaining genetic diversity. Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park (HUP) in Natal has a population of 120 lions that were produced from only three lions that were introduced to the park in the 1960's. Despite an attempt in 2001 to rejuvenate the genetic pool of these lions by difficult and energy intensive artificial insemination, rejuvenated by introducing adult females, and possibly whole prides, to an area looks like it may be a more viable option.

The majority of wild lions are in eastern Africa, particularly in Serengeti, which has a population of over 1,000 animals. According to recent studies, at least half of the lions still die at an early age. Many lions in eastern Africa and Kruger National Park in South Africa are practically tame.

Animal species disappear when they cannot peacefully orbit the center of gravity that is man.—Pierre-Amédée Pichot, 1891

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