The lion (Panthera leo), once widely distributed across most of Africa and parts of Europe and Asia, is now confined to a number of isolated areas as shown on the map, amounting to only about 20% of its historic range.
Around a hundred years ago there were likely as many as 200,000 lions living wild in Africa. Recent surveys put the number of wild lions at around 30,000 or even as low as 20,000.
Around a third of African lions are thought have disappeared in the past 20 years. Much of this shrinking distribution has been due to hunting and loss of habitat.
Lions (Panthera leo) are the second largest living cat, after the tiger. This iconic animal is renowned for its majestic appearance and is often referred to as “the king of beasts”, possessing both beauty and strength.
Lions, particularly male lions, have been an important symbol for thousands of years and appear as a theme in cultures across Europe, Asia, and Africa.
They are commonly employed as an emblem in heraldry, and have been widely featured in sculpture and statuary to provide a sense of majesty and awe, especially on public buildings. We even use ‘lionize’ as a term of adulation, celebration and admiration.
Lions currently face three main interlinked threats:
- Continued loss of habitat
- Loss of their prey base
- Conflict with humans
The human population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by the year 2050, which will result in more conversion of habitat to agriculture, more hunting of the wild ungulates the lions depend upon for prey, and more instances of hungry lions attacking livestock and then being killed in retaliation.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), retaliatory or pre-emptive attacks against lions are the worst threats the species faces. The IUCN lists African lions as a whole as vulnerable to extinction.
Poaching also poses a major threat since lion bone is used for medicinal purposes in countries such as Laos, Vietnam and China.
Legal sport hunting of lions is also viewed by many conservation groups as a significant threat, although it is more controversial. Many people view it as a senseless and fundamentally immoral activity that should be stopped, while others such as IUCN and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are willing to tolerate it, but only if the revenues generated are used to support conservation efforts.
On a more positive note, conservation efforts have had some success, especially in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Kruger National Park in South Africa, each of which is home to large numbers of lions.
In recent years conservation efforts have also resulted in an 11 percent growth in lion populations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. However, most of these live within fenced reserves which have reached their carrying capacity.
Pre-historic lions were even more widespread than the maximum range of modern lions shown on the map.
The Eurasian cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea), evolved around 370,000 years ago and ranged widely across Europe and Asia.
It is depicted in Paleolithic cave paintings, such as those found in the Lascaux and Chauvet Caves in France. It was somewhat larger than the modern lion.
The American lion (Panthera leo atrox) evolved around 340,000 ago and ranged throughout much of the Americas from Yukon to Peru. It was about 25% larger than the modern lion.
Both of these lions became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, around 11,000 years ago. Paleontologists are divided on whether to classify these pre-historic lions as sub-species of modern lions or as separate species.
Modern lions are thought to have originated around 124,000 years ago in eastern and southern Africa.
They then spread throughout most of Africa and from there into southeastern Europe, the Middle East, the South Caucasus, southern Russia, southern Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent.
There is some inconclusive historical evidence to suggest that they may also have inhabited other parts of Europe, including modern-day Portugal, Spain, southern France, southern Germany, Italy, and the Balkans.
Although lions have long since disappeared from Europe, according to reports by Ancient Greek writers such as Herodotus and Aristotle, they were common in Greece around 480 BCE.
They became endangered around 300 BCE, and finally became extinct in Greece around 100 BCE. Lions feature heavily in Ancient Greek mythology and writings.
These include the myth of the Nemean lion, a monstrous supernatural beast with armour-piercing claws and golden fur that could not be penetrated by mortals’ weapons. It had the nasty habit of preying on the local population, but was eventually dispatched by Hercules in the first of his twelve labours.
In the Middle East increased use of firearms in the nineteenth century led to the extinction of lions over most of the region. Lions survived in parts of Mesopotamia and Syria until the middle of the 19th century.
By the late 19th century, they had been eradicated in Turkey. They survived much longer in Persia, where the last pride of five was hunted as recently as 1963.
By the late 19th century lions had disappeared from most of India, largely due to hunting.
Today, the only place outside Africa where “wild” lions are found is in the Gir Forest in the Indian state of Gujarat, which was “protected” in 1900 by the Nawab of Junagadh, Sir Muhammad Rasul Khanji Babi, as his private hunting grounds.
However, he did not put a stop to trophy hunting and at one point the lion population was reduced to around 20 animals and faced imminent extinction.
His son, Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III, who succeeded him as Nawab, helped to forestall this by preserving vast tracts of the forest in order to provide the lions with a stable habitat.
This led to the establishment of the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in 1965, which includes a number of areas where the lions are fully protected.
As a result, the population has rebounded, reaching 359 in 2005, 411 in 2010 and 523 in 2015.
The lions have now spread beyond the boundaries of the park where they seem to have reached a modus vivendi with local farmers many of whom are willing to tolerate the occasional loss of livestock in exchange for lions helping to curb the activities of crop-eating ungulates.
Eight sub-species of modern lions have been identified. They vary somewhat in size, shape and colour.
The Asiatic Lion (Panthera leo persica), also known as the Indian Lion or Persian Lion: Although once widespread across parts of Asia, as noted above they are now confined to the Gir Forest area in India.
The Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo), also known as the Atlas Lion or the North African Lion: Once found across North Africa, the last recorded killing of a wild Barbary lion was in Morocco in 1920, although small groups may have survived into the 1960s. Some may remain in captivity, but it is not clear if these are true Barbaries. The sub-species may be extinct.
The West African Lion (Panthera leo senegalensis), also known as the Senegal lion: This is found in isolated areas in west and central Africa and is considered to be critically endangered. Recent estimates put the number of lions in West Africa at between 400 and 800, mainly in Burkina Faso, Benin, and Niger, while the number in central Africa may be around 900.
The Masai Lion (Panthera leo massaica), also known as the East African Lion: This is found in East Africa, from Ethiopia and Kenya to Tanzania and Mozambique. This subspecies is relatively common and well protected in areas such as the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
The Congo Lion (Panthera leo azandica), also known Northeast Congo Lion or the Uganda Lion: This lion is found in northeastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and western parts of Uganda. Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda may be a potential stronghold for these lions, if poaching is curbed and prey species recover.
The Southwest African Lion (Panthera leo bleyenberghi), also known as the Katanga Lion: This is among the largest subspecies of African lions and is found in Namibia, Angola, Zaire, western Zambia, western Zimbabwe and northern Botswana. As noted, conservation efforts have resulted in some growth in the numbers of these lions in recent years.
The Transvaal Lion (Panthera leo krugeri), also known as Southeast African Lion or the Kalahari Lion: It is found in the Transvaal region of southeastern Africa, as well as in the Kalahari region. There are more than 2000 lions of this subspecies in the well protected Kruger National Park.
The Ethiopian Lion (Panthera leo roosevelti), also known as the Addis Ababa Lion or the Abyssinian Lion: This subspecies was recently identified through genetic analysis of captive lions in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa They were part of a collection of the late Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. It is thought that they may continue to exist in the wild in the east and north-east of the country, although this has yet to be determined.
If you’d you like to learn more about Lions have a look at the following books.
- The Last Lions
- Lions in the Balance: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns
- National Geographic Readers: Lions
- Lion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion
- Fact Sheet – Lion: http://www.defenders.org/african-lion/basic-facts
- Panthera leo spelaea: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panthera_leo_spelaea
- History of Lions In Europe: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_lions_in_Europe
- Modern lions’ origin revealed by genetic analysis: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/26736688
- How many lions are left in the wild?
- Are lions being poached for their bones?
- African Lions Face Extinction by 2050, Could Gain Endangered Species Act Protection: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/african-lions-face-extinction-by-2050-could-gain-endangered-species-act-protection/
- Gir Forest National Park: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gir_Forest_National_Park
- Cultural depictions of lions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_depictions_of_lions
- African Lion Populations Drop 42 Percent in Past 21 Years: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/african-lion-populations-drop-42-percent-in-past-21-years/
- Nemean Lion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nemean_lion
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