Celebrating World Lion Day

Oliver Greenfield

10 Aug 2015

Lion conservation in the spotlight

With the recent uproar surrounding Cecil the lion’s death, lion conservation has been thrust into the forefront of headlines worldwide. Today, we celebrate World Lion Day 2015 to commemorate these fascinating creatures and raise awareness of the plight of the world’s most iconic species!

Although they may not be the most endangered big cat in the world, the ever-increasing loss of habitat and threatening human conflict - both from outsiders and locals alike – mean lion numbers are deteriorating worldwide. Their current extinction risk, according to the WWF, is vulnerable and with a 30% loss in the last 20 years we need to be doing all we can to protect these precious animals.

Subspecies of lions have been notoriously difficult to determine and the exact number is somewhat disputed. There is only one subspecies of lion outside of Africa which is the Asiatic lion found solely in Sasan-Gir National Park in India.  Amongst the African subspecies however, there are certain characteristics that can be used to differentiate animals based on their location.

So, what are the differences between lions in Africa?

Lions in Uganda and Zambia have often been seen climbing trees, a habit more commonly associated with leopards or cheetahs.  There are various reasons for this but the most likely reasons are so they can get away from irritating flies, cool down in the breeze or look for prey from a higher vantage point. These are known as northeast Congo lions despite being located in countries other than the Congo. Lions aren’t known for their grace when dismounting trees though, and often decide just to fall out of trees rather than climb down!

Black-maned lions in the Kalahari are famed for their striking dark manes. This signifies older and healthier males and denotes to females that they would be a genetically attractive mate. These are not only found in the Kalahari and it is unknown as to whether these are a subspecies in themselves.

Well-developed pale-maned lions in southeast Africa called Transvaal lions are the only subspecies of lion in which leucism occurs. This is a colour mutation creating rare white lions (NB not albino lions). This compromises their camouflage and thus long-term survival is more difficult. The reason for this mutation caused by a recessive gene is still unknown.

Short-maned lions in west Africa (which sometimes have no mane at all!) are known as the Senegal lion and are smaller than other African subspecies of lion. These are most closely related to the extinct (in the wild) Barbary lions and the endangered Asiatic lions which may be why they are the most endangered of all remaining African subspecies of lion.

Masai (east African) lions and Katanga (southwest African) lions are the hardest to tell apart as these are the most stereotypical looking subspecies’ and exist throughout eastern and south western Africa. Katanga lions are the largest of all African subspecies though, so this is one way to differentiate them.

Learning about a species is the first step towards aiding animal conservation. Here at NWS we have compiled some of our favourite facts about “the king of the jungle”:

Unusual facts about lions

1. Despite being called “the king of the jungle” lions actually only live in plains or grasslands.
2. However, they are “kings” of the eco-system due to being the only truly social cat. Having a pride and the social structure this creates, has enabled lions to be one of the most successful big cats.  They are needed to maintain a healthy balance of numbers of other species which in turn influences the condition of the flora and grasslands.
3. It could be argued they should be called the “queens” though, as lion prides are actually quite matriarchal societies. Due to the males being away protecting the territory, females end up making a lot of the pride decisions.
4. Lion cubs develop their hunting skills through playing with their siblings and other young. Their mothers also use this play to determine where their hunting skills would be best placed e.g. chasing and cornering prey or catching and killing it.
5. Even though the female lions catch the prey the males are the ones that eat first – this is where the phrase “the lion’s share” comes from.
6. Male lions can hunt though - contrary to popular belief - however, this is usually when they are individually patrolling their territory and therefore forced to feed themselves.
7. Lions are the only big cats to show sexual dimorphism (difference between genders) – most notably in size and males’ manes.
8. Lions' heels don't touch the ground when they walk.

Lion conservation

As with all vulnerable species on the WWF extinction risk list, it is vital we try to conserve lions now before it is too late. The small numbers of Senegal lions are already perhaps too spread out to successfully continue reproduction but for other subspecies with larger numbers we can still ensure preservation and longevity. 

Due to the decline in tigers worldwide, lions have been put at greater risk. Traditional Chinese medicine believed that powdered tiger bones could cure ailments such as ulcers, cramp, rheumatism and malaria. Since this has almost wiped out tigers they have now moved on to lions believing that their bones may also cure these ailments. The Chinese often buy lion skeletons from hunting operators after they have taken the head and skin as their trophy. This is another reason to put a stop to trophy hunting and associated killings.

Sustainable tourism has a positive impact on wildlife conservation and it is important to raise awareness of this today, on World Lion Day.

Check out our Big Cat Safaris and contact us now if you want to to encounter lions in the wild.

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