Lions are the only cats that live in groups, which are called prides. These are family units that may include up to three males, a dozen or so females, and their young. All of a pride’s lionesses are related, and female cubs typically stay with the group as they age. Young males eventually leave and establish their own prides by taking over a group headed by another male.
Lions are competent predators that work together to bring down prey. They have a number of distinctive behaviors and adaptations that help them survive in the harsh African savannah.
Only male lions boast manes, the impressive fringe of long hair that encircles their heads. Males defend the pride’s territory, which may include some 100 square miles (259 square kilometers) of grasslands, scrub, or open woodlands. These intimidating animals mark the area with urine, roar menacingly to warn intruders, and chase off animals that encroach on their turf.
African lions have a number of subspecies separated by large, lion-less expanses. Historically, lions could be found across the vast majority of Africa, but their current range has been restricted to a smattering of locations in Central and Southern Africa.
Outside of Africa, lions used to be found from Greece all the way to India. Humans slowly decimated these populations over the centuries. Currently, only a small population of the Asiatic lion subspecies can be found in the Gir Forest National Park in Western India.
Female lions are the pride’s primary hunters. They often work together to prey upon antelopes, zebras, wildbeest, and other large animals of the open grasslands. Many of these animals are faster than lions, so teamwork pays off.
After the hunt, the group effort often degenerates to squabbling over the sharing of the kill, with cubs at the bottom of the pecking order. Young lions do not help to hunt until they are about a year old. Lions will hunt alone if the opportunity presents itself, and they also steal kills from hyenas or wild dogs.
Lions have been celebrated throughout history for their courage and strength. They once roamed most of Africa and parts of Asia and Europe. Today they are found only in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, except for one very small population of Asian Lions that survives in India’s Gir Forest.
IUCN Red List Assessment
With only 23,000-39,000 mature individuals estimated to remain in the wild and with three quarters of populations in decline, the African Lion is currently classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List assessment. Although most likely not in imminent danger of extinction, the range and population of the African Lion will drastically decrease and it is highly likely to become Endangered if conservation measures are not successful at reversing current trends in the near future.
More resources on lions:
Blood Lions – A call to stop canned hunting