Up until about 10,000 years ago, lions were the the second most widespread terrestrial mammal on the planet — second only to humans. Today these iconic, majestic cats are found only in sub-Saharan Africa and in very small numbers in India. In the past two decades, up to 50% of the world’s remaining lion population was lost, almost entirely due to habitat destruction and conflicts with humans. Lions have long captured the imagination and fears of humans, with the distinctive mane of the male lion being one of the most repeated symbols of strength and power across cultures. To lose the lions would be to lose a part of ourselves. And unless we act to protect them, lions may well be lost to history.
The lion is the second largest member of the cat family, behind only the tiger. Famously, they are also the most social of all the cats, living in groups — or prides — and hunting and eating together. Contrary to what you may have learned from the Lion King, prides of lions are centered around a group of related females, with only one or sometimes two adult males who spend most of their time patrolling the outside perimeter of the pride’s range.
Lions display complex social organization within their prides. Both male and female lions will sometimes leave their prides and adopt solitary, nomadic existences. For males, this nomadic lifestyle is mandatory, as males are essentially kicked out of their pride when they reach maturity, around the age of 3. Some of them will join other prides, while others will remain nomadic for their entire adult lives. Sometimes though female lions will also leave the pride to become nomads. Nomadic females have a particularly hard time joining a new pride, as typically all the females in a group are related, and will shun other females from outside their own family.
It is the lionesses who are responsible for most of the hunting. While lions do share food with other members of the pride, they are after all cats and tend to do so reluctantly. A lion will aggressively attempt to get the most food for herself, and fighting over food is a leading cause of injury for the big social cats. The males, meanwhile, seldom share any food they catch themselves, but are more than happy to eat what the females catch. In return, it is their duty to defend the pride’s territory from invaders.
While the males are the primary defenders, female lions will also mobilize to defend their pride range. In a display of social complexity, certain members of the pride will tend to be more active in defending it than others, suggesting a form of organization that researchers do not fully understand. The willingness to face danger in defense of the pride may be a reflection of the lion’s social rank, or it may be that the individuals who hang back have other important roles and so are not expected to risk themselves unnecessarily.
In an interesting departure from what you might expect, it is actually the male lion who watches over the cubs when the females are out hunting. Just like humans, some lions are more or less tolerant of exploratory, playful cubs. While some males will let the little ones play with their tails or manes, others will snarl and shoo them away. And interestingly, lionesses who have cubs of their own are more patient with the cubs of others than lionesses who are not themselves mothers.
Sadly, the population of these fascinating, complex beings is dropping. Fast. There are estimated to be only 23,000-39,000 individuals left in the wild. There were estimated to be over 1 million lions in 1880. This decimation of the lion population is almost entirely to be blamed on pointless sport hunting. Despite the catastrophic reduction in population of these beautiful animals, which have always existed on the borders of human civilizations, trophy hunting continues. The sordid 2015 case of the American dentist who shot and killed the famous lion Cecil in Zimbabwe helped to temporarily shine a light on this barbaric practice, wherein rich Westerners pay outrageous sums of money for the right to kill the few remaining lions that still walk the Earth.
The global population of the most famous large cat is now smaller than the population of what we would generally consider to be a small town. It is almost impossible to fathom the narcissism and selfishness exhibited by hunting these amazing creatures for sport. It is time to end the pointless slaughter of these incredible, intelligent and complicated social beings. No matter how wealthy the hunter might be. To learn more about lions (and other big cats) and the additional challenges they continue to face visit Big Cat Rescue and support them if you can.
For more information on how you can help to build a more compassionate and caring world for all, visit our Ways to Help page.