Distribution & Status
Lions were once the most widespread large land mammal second to man and are thought to have disappeared from over 90% of their historic range.
The Lion was once one of the most widespread large land mammals on the planet, evolving out of East Africa the lion spread quickly throughout the continent to Europe, the Middle East and throughout Asia. The lion is the only cat species where both genders differ hugely this is known as 'sexual dimorphism'. The male lion with its huge mane of hair around it's neck has been long prized as one of the most iconic animals on the planet and revered throughout human history. After years of persecution over the past three thousand years lions have now been isolated to life just on the African continent with a tiny population still surviving at the top of Northern India in the Gir Forest.
The African Lion population was estimated at 200,000 at the beginning of last century. Within 21 years (1993 - 2014) the population is said to have declined by 42% leaving an estimated 23,000 lions. The African lion is now extinct in all but 27 African countries and are split in isolated populations throughout the continent with only five countries now known to hold more than one thousand individuals are marked on the map to the left.
Map showing the historic and current distribution of wild lions and
the two recognised subspecies
Distribution map credit from Africa Geographic and do not belong to the SLCF.
After many years of taxonomic discussions there are now believed to be two subspecies of Lion (Panthera leo) as opposed to the previously recognised 11 subspecies. These two subspecies have been accepted by the IUCN and the African Lion Working Group and are as below:
Panthera leo leo commonly referred to as the 'Northern Lion' found throughout central, west and northern Africa and India, encompassing the last Asiatic Lion population in the Gir Forest.
Panthera leo melanochaita commonly referred to as the 'Southern Lion' found throughout Eastern and Southern Africa.
The West African Lion population is now listed as critically endangered with an estimated population of 400 wild lions with less than 250 mature individuals. The Asiatic Lion was recognised as it's own subspecies (Panthera leo persica) up until 2017. This was reversed by the IUCN felid classification task force after new evidence showed that lions in west and central Africa are more closely related to Asiatic lions rather than those in Eastern and Southern Africa and are now classified as a subpopulation of the Northern Lion and is listed as endangered.
In 1880 only 12 lions were found living in the Gir Forest in India, these were the last remnant of the lions who once roamed outside of Africa...
The Asiatic Lion population is currently listed as endangered having been downgraded from Critically Endangered in 2008. Not many years prior to 1880 lions were still widespread in places like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. The last wild lion in Iraq was only said to be killed in 1918. Their decline in these areas occurred very dramatically and fortunately the Gir Lions were placed under immediate protection. Their decline can be largely attributed to colonial hunting and the increased availability of firearms, due to the growth of the human population lions were often seen as a pest species. At the beginning of the 20th century lion numbers in the Gir were thought to have risen to 31 and by 1936 the first official census recorded 287 lions, the protection was working.
The most recent census in 2020 recorded 674 lions with a large number now dispersing outside of the protected area. This is a vast increase from 523 in 2015. While the lion population in India has seen a steady increase over the last century lions in Africa have seen further decline in particular those in West Africa.
In appearance the lions from India are greyer in colouration and slightly smaller than the African Lion. The females are also known to have slightly longer fur particularly around the neck and face. Both genders also have a 'belly fold' - a fold of skin along the belly which is more characteristic of lions from India than those from Africa. The pictures to the left show the Asiatic Lions at the Cotswold Wildlife Park, the male Rana has the characteristic belly fold and the smaller, darker mane with the shoulder still visible. The African lion to the right, a wild lion from the Maasai Mara, Kenya does not have this belly fold, the mane is much more extensive and his overall coat colour is lighter in comparison.