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Biology & Appearance

Lions are the largest carnivore species found throughout Africa and the second largest of all cats second to the Amur Tiger.

Both genders tend to reach sexual maturity at around 2-3 years old. Males will not be fully grown until about four years of age and the mane can take about five years to grow fully. The colour of the mane is determined by the testosterone levels within the individual and start of blonde but gradually darken with age. Dominance status can affect the extensiveness and how dark the mane gets so its colour can change given a change in circumstances. The mane in the males allows them protection whilst fighting, these are animals evolved to fight and the mane protects the neck as it is one of the most vulnerable areas of their body. Because of the constant competition amongst male lion coalitions, the lifespan of a male lion is considerably lower when compared to the females and can be anywhere between 5 - 10. Many young lions will fail to reach full maturity as they are evicted by older males from their birth pride and are possibly killed in the process. Male lions are built for power and strength, ambush hunting is not really possible due to their large mane and their lack of ability to stay hidden due to their appearance. They are known to scavenge and will take carcasses off other lions and smaller predators if they can. Male lion coalitions have also been known to take down fully grown hippo and buffalo as a group. 

In comparison the Asiatic lion population currently isolated to the Gir Forest, India will mainly feed on wild pig, deer and wild cattle. In appearance their coats are greyer and normally thicker, especially on the females. They are ever so slightly smaller in size and the manes are not as extensive but generally darker than lions found throughout Eastern and Southern Africa. Their pride systems are also smaller which could be due to their smaller wild population and denser habitat as they are found in scrub and forest land. Male lion coalitions normally number up to two with females living in groups of around two or three.

Even though the lion is the largest of all African cats when they start their life everything hangs in the balance. Lionesses are pregnant for approximately 110 days. When lion cubs are born they only weigh between 1-2kg and are blind and completely helpless. They are only capable of crawling until a couple of weeks of age when their vision starts to set in and they can start to walk. Lionesses are capable of giving birth to litters of up to 7 but the mortality rate is very high and most litters are around 2-4. When the cubs are young the mothers will stay away from the pride and will change den sites regularly to avoid predation from other lions and other carnivores. They re-join the other pride members when the cubs reach about 2-3 months of age. The size difference between both genders can be noticeable incredibly early on with males becoming larger from only a few weeks old.

A Safina Connection...

Our conservation partner the Mara Predator Conservation Programme works to monitor and survey all predator populations within the greater Mara eco-system. One of our trustees has been to visit this area twice in 2017 and 2020 and was able to observe some of the lions within their study area. In 2017 the lioness known as Esiriwua seen in the picture above was spotted several times living with her niece Lokoman and their five young cubs. Esiriwua's appearance was exactly what you would expect from a lioness of a fairly mature age. The two of them where the core of the Sampu Enkare Pride. Females like Esiriwua can measure on average about a meter in height, around 1.5 meter in length and weigh around 130kg on average.

One of the male lions observed in 2020 known as Doa in the picture above is part of the famous 'six-pack' coalition and currently controls several prides around the Paradise Plain area of the northern side of the main reserve. Doa was a very impressive male typical of a male lion in his prime. Males like Doa can measure over a meter in height, around 2 meter in length and weigh around 200kg on average.

Capable of hunting on their own, these apex predators are well known as being effective group hunters working as a team.

Lionesses on the other hand are fully grown at around three to four years old and will generally stay within their birth pride territory. Lionesses use their sleek and slender build to become expert hunters in the wild usually hunting in groups. They are the top apex predator inhabiting the African continent. Despite the lionesses being considerably smaller than their male counterparts they make up for it in their sleek build and better hunting ability and their acceptance to work together. Even though they are smaller than female tigers because they cooperate they can take down prey that are a lot larger. On their own the lionesses are able to take down prey such as wildebeest and antelope but by working together as a group they are capable of taking down much larger prey including buffalo, hippo, young giraffe and even young elephant. The lionesses are the perfect ambush hunters, their coats blending in with the African grasses whereas the male lions are a lot easy to spot with their manes making ambush hunting near on impossible.

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Because of this, male lions are often scavengers, stealing food off smaller predators such as cheetah or jackals. Some male lions have been known for hunting together as a group, mainly on animals such as hippo and buffalo where brute strength is more important than chasing down a quick antelope for example. If the males are with the females with a kill present, the males will use their strength to take the first fill, it is often seen that they let their cubs feed with them and let the lionesses wait their turn. This allows the males to ensure the survival of their genetics, to them the lionesses enable them to do so but they are not as important as their own cubs. On larger carcasses the pride may all feed together and this is where the dominance structure is seen to work, the most dominant animals feeding first and the less dominant having to wait for their turn. The respect seen here allows the pride to function in a stable fashion, feeding time is where it all matters.


While it is the males that patrol the territory keeping intruders at bay, the lionesses are still incredibly protective of their pride area and will not tolerate any other lionesses from other prides in their land. Within the group sick or old individuals may have to wait, but they will normally be allowed to feed on large carcasses. No other big cat has this privilege and because of this their lifespan is generally longer than that of the males, reaching anywhere between 8 - 15. No other species of cat shows this amount of difference between the two genders both in appearance and in behaviour, showing how each have evolved for very different purposes.

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