- Female – 1,1 m (3,7 feet)
- Male – 1,2 m (3, 11 feet)
- Female – 1,4 to 1,8 m (4,7 to 5,10 feet)
- Male – 1,7 to 2,5 m (5,6 to 8,2 feet)
- Female – 120 to 180 kg (264 to 396 pounds)
- Male – 150 to 250 kg (330 to 551 pounds)
The African Lion (Panthera leo) stands about 1,1 m (3,7 feet) at the shoulder and weighs 120 to 250 kg (264 to 551 pounds), with males being larger than females. Lionesses have a tawny coloured coat and only the males have the characteristic dark brown to black mane. Both sexes have black tipped tails and black markings behind the ears, a lighter colour underneath the eyes and an almost white underbelly.
The lifespan of a male lion is about 10 years, as they compete rigorously for territories and females and often get killed by one another in the process. Thanks to the protection of the males, females can reach about 14 years.
FOOD AND HABITAT: Lions are powerful animals that usually stalk and hunt their chosen prey in coordinated groups. Unfortunately they are only able to run fast in short bursts, which means they need to be as close to their prey as possible before attacking. They take advantage of factors that limit visibility, so many kills take place at night or near some form of cover. The prey is killed either by strangulation or suffocation, the lion enclosing the animal’s mouth and nostrils in its jaws. Their prey consists mainly of large mammals, with a preference for wildebeest, impala, zebra, buffalo and warthog.
They also scavenge animals that died from natural causes or were killed by other predators. Circling vultures aid them in finding food in this manner.
A lion can gorge up to 30 kg (66 pounds) in one sitting, and if it is unable to consume the entire kill in one go, it will rest for a few hours and then eat more. Lionesses do most of the hunting, while males connected to the prides do not actively participate, except in the case of larger quarry such as giraffe and buffalo.
Lions spend much of their time resting and are inactive for about 20 hours per day. They form a group structure known as a pride that consists of 5 or 6 related females, their cubs of both sexes, and one or two males who mate with the adult females.
Both males and females defend the pride against intruders. Females form the stable social unit in a pride and do not tolerate outside females. Sub-adult males are forced to leave the pride when they reach maturity at around 2 to 3 years of age.
Lions tend to roar in a very characteristic manner, starting with a few deep, long roars that trail off into a series of shorter ones. They most often roar at night, and the sound can be heard from a distance of 5 km (3 miles). They roar to advertise their presence.
CONSERVATION: In the recent past, lions occurred throughout the sub-region, but are now only found in the northern and eastern areas. They are largely restricted to the major conservation areas. The main threats to lions are competition by other predators, a high cub mortality rate, human interference and habitat loss.
REPRODUCTION: Most lionesses will have reproduced by the time they are four years old. Lions do not mate at any specific time of the year and the females are polyestrous. A lioness may mate with more than one male when she is in heat. During a mating bout – which can last several days – the couple will copulate twenty to forty times a day, and often forgo eating.
The average gestation period is around 110 days, with the female giving birth to a litter of one to four cubs in a secluded den away from the rest of the pride. She will often hunt by herself while the cubs are still helpless, staying relatively close to the thicket or den where the cubs are hidden. The cubs are born blind and their eyes do not open until about a week after birth.
The lioness moves her cubs to a new den site several times a month, carrying them one by one by the nape of the neck. This is to prevent scent from building up at a single den site, thereby avoiding the attention of predators that could harm the cubs.
The mother will not usually reintegrate herself into the pride until the cubs are six to eight weeks old. However, lionesses are also known to synchronise their reproductive cycles so that they can assist in the raising of the young, who suckle indiscriminately from any or all of the nursing females.
In addition to greater protection, the synchronisation of births also has the added advantage of the cubs ending up being roughly the same size. This gives them an equal chance of survival.
In addition to starvation, cubs also face many other dangers such as predation by other predators, lions and even herbivores. As many as 80 percent of cubs will die before they reach the age of two.
A lioness will defend her cubs fiercely from a challenging male, but such actions are rarely successful and he will usually end up killing all cubs that are younger than two years old.
Van Lill,D. (2005) Wonderful Animals of South Africa. LAPA Publishers: Pretoria. pp. 26 – 36
Stuart, C & Stuart, T. (1988) Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa. Struik Nature: Cape Town.
Walker, C. (2000) A field guide to the spoor and signs of the mammals of Southern Africa. Struik Nature: Cape Town. pp. 97