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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 5 Countries known to hold more than one thousand individuals are marked on the map to the left. There are now believed to be two subspecies of Lion (Panthera leo) listed 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 (pictured bottom right) 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.

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The Asiatic Lion

The Asiatic Lion population (pictured top left and centre) is currently listed as endangered having been downgraded from Critically Endangered in 2008. However when compared to the West African Lion which is still depleting in number the Asiatic Lion is slowly rising and growing out of its historic range in the Gir Forest where there are now estimated to be around 650 in the wild. In appearance they 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 educational pages here aim to give a brief overview on all aspects of lion behaviour and biology as well as the threats that face them in the wild. These can be downloaded as a PDF (see icon below) to be used for educational purposes. More detailed information can be found on our other educational pages based on specific topics.

Lion Biology

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.


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. 


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. Despite the lionesses being considerably smaller than their male counterparts they make up for it in their ability to work together. Even though they are smaller than female tigers because they cooperate they can take down prey that are a lot larger. Lionesses can kill wildebeest alone and when they hunt together they are capable of taking down Cape Buffalo, young giraffe and even young elephant. 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 have this privilege and because of this their lifespan is considerably higher than that of the males, reaching anywhere between 8 - 14. 

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 140kg 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.

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. The males for competition and comradeship and the females for cooperation and defence. The size difference between both genders can be noticeable incredibly early on with males becoming larger from only a few weeks old.

Lions are the only cat species that live socially with the ancestral roots of the lionesses held in their family territory. The lions that we see in the wild today are only a remnant of a population that would have covered all corners of the African continent, spanned into the middle east and into parts of Asia.

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