One animal that everybody wants to see on safari, the lion is Africa’s largest predator, and the most sociable and least furtive of the world’s 40-odd cat species. It favors grassland, savanna and woodland habitats, but generally avoids forests. Unlike most cats, it is highly terrestrial, though there are few specific places – notably Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park and parts of the Serengeti ecosystem – where lions regularly climb trees, probably to avoid biting insects.
Where to see Lion in Africa
Did you know?
- The mane of the male lion is a distinctive characteristic of lions as no other big cats have them. It makes male lions appear larger, thus allowing them to be more intimidating. It also signals sexual maturity and health status; lionesses tend to favour denser and darker manes.
- Lions are symbols of strength and courage and have been celebrated throughout history for these characteristics. They are also common symbols for royalty and stateliness, hence the phrase ‘king of the jungle’.
- Ancient Egyptians venerated lions as their war dieties due to their strength, power and fierceness. The famous sphinxes are just one of many mythical depictions of the lion in Egyptian culture
Lions are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but a steady numerical decline from perhaps 400,000 individuals in the 1950s to fewer than 30,000 today makes it likely this status will soon be revised to Endangered. Furthermore, while substantial numbers of lion still occur in many African national parks, they are practically extinct outside protected areas, which has led to increased population fragmentation and a danger of inbreeding.
Key lion conservation areas include the Serengeti-Mara (Tanzania/Kenya), Nyerere-Selous)-Niassa (Tanzania/Mozambique) Ruaha-Rungwe (Tanzania) the Luangwa Valley (Zambia), Kavango–Zambezi (Zimbabwe/Botswana) and Greater Kruger (South Africa), each which supports a population of at least 1,000. In many smaller reserves, conservationists try to refresh the genetic stock every couple of generations by translocating males of a breeding age from elsewhere.
Lions are most active at night, when they often move long distances and vocalize loudly, seldom roaring but rather emitting a loud anguished grunt that can be heard from miles away. During the day, prides tend to rest up in the shade, and might go hours without so much as raising their head. The most rewarding lion sightings usually occur in the first hour of daylight or towards sunset, when you are likely to see adults greeting, cubs playing and other such action.
Lions’ main prey is medium to large ungulates such as zebra and antelope, but larger prides will often take down a fully-grown buffalo, and one population in Botswana’s Savuti region famously specializes in hunting elephants. The vast majority of hunts occur at night, but opportunistic diurnal kills are not uncommon, particularly in Tanzania’s Nyerere National Park.
Lions live in prides of 5 to 20 individuals, typically comprising a dominant male or fraternal coalition, up to 5 adult females, and several sub-adults and cubs. Competition between males is fierce and pride takeovers are often fought to the death. When lions mate, a male and female pair off for several days, coupling briefly and violently at intervals of about 20 minutes until they are too exhausted to continue.