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Southern African lion

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Southern African lion
Die pure Kraft - Löwe im Etosha-Nationalpark.JPG
Male lion in Etosha National Park, Namibia
Lioness (Panthera leo) (12025528245).jpg
Lioness at Kruger National Park, South Africa
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Pantherinae
Genus: Panthera
Species: P. leo
Subspecies: P. l. melanochaita[1]
Trinomial name
Panthera leo melanochaita[1]
(Ch. H. Smith, 1842)


  • P. l. bleyenberghi
  • P. l. krugeri
  • P. l. vernayi

The Southern African lion (Panthera leo melanochaita) is a lion subspecies in Southern Africa.[1][3][4] In this part of Africa, lion populations occur in Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, but are regionally extinct in Lesotho.[5] Lion populations in intensively managed protected areas in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have increased since the turn of the century.[6]

The type specimen for P. l. melanochaita was a black-maned lion from the Cape of Good Hope, known as the Cape lion. The lion population in this part of South Africa is extinct.[7] Living lion populations in other parts of Southern Africa were referred to by several regional names, including "Katanga lion", "Transvaal lion", "Kalahari lion",[8][9][10] "Southeast African lion", and "Southwest African lion".[11]

In the 1980s, the Southern African lion has been described as the largest living African lion subspecies.[12][13]


Taxonomic historyEdit

Lion subspecies as recognized between 1930s and 2005[14]

In the 19th and 20th centuries, several lion type specimens from Southern Africa were described and proposed as subspecies:

Proposed subspecies Description Image
Cape lion (P. l. melanochaita) (Smith, 1842) In 1842, Charles Hamilton Smith described a black-maned lion from the Cape of Good Hope under the name Felis (Leo) melanochaitus.[15] Naturalists and hunters of the 19th century recognized it as a distinct subspecies because of its dark mane colour.[7] In the 20th century, some authors supported the view of the Cape lion being a distinct subspecies.[9][16][17][18] In 1975, Vratislav Mazák hypothesized that the Cape lion evolved geographically isolated from other populations by the Great Escarpment.[7] In the early 21st century, Mazák's hypothesis about a geographically isolated evolution of the Cape lion was challenged. Genetic exchanges between populations in the Cape, Kalahari and Transvaal Province regions and farther east are considered having been possible through a corridor between the Great Escarpment and the Indian ocean.[3][4]

In 2016, IUCN Red List assessors subsumed all African lion populations to P. l. leo.[5] In 2017, the Cat Classification Task Force of the Cat Specialist Group reduced the number of valid lion subspecies in Southern Africa to P. l. melanochaita.[1]

Cape lion in Jardin des Plantes, Paris
Katanga lion or Southwest African lion (P. l. bleyenberghi) (Lönnberg, 1914) In 1914, the Swedish zoologist Lönnberg described a male lion collected in the Katanga Province of Belgian Congo as type specimen of Felis leo bleyenberghi.[8] In 1939, the American zoologist Allen recognized F. l. bleyenberghi as a valid subspecies in Southern Africa.[16]

In 2005, the authors of Mammal Species of the World recognized P. l. bleyenberghi as valid taxon.[2] In 2016, IUCN Red List assessors subsumed the lion population in Southwest Africa to P. l. leo.[5] In 2017, it was subsumed to P. l. melanochaita.[1]

Male lion in the Okavango Delta of Botswana
Kruger lion (P. l. krugeri) (Roberts, 1929) In 1929, Austin Roberts described an adult male lion with a dark brown mane from the Sabi Sand Game Reserve as type specimen for the Kruger lion Leo leo krugeri, named in honour of Paul Kruger.[9]

In 2005, P. l. krugeri was considered a valid taxon.[2] In 2016, IUCN Red List assessors subsumed the lion population in the Transvaal region to P. l. leo.[5] In 2017, it was subsumed to P. l. melanochaita.[1]

Male lion in Kruger National Park
Kalahari lion (P. l. vernayi) (Roberts, 1948) In 1948, Roberts also described a yellow-maned male lion specimen from the Kalahari as type specimen for the Kalahari lion Leo leo vernayi. It had been collected by the Vernay-Lang Kalahari Expedition in 1930.[10] In 1939, Allen recognized F. l. krugeri as a valid subspecies.[16] In the 1970s, the scientific name P. l. vernayi was considered synonymous with P. l. krugeri.[19]

In 2016, IUCN Red List assessors subsumed the lion population in the Kalahari to P. l. leo.[5] In 2017, it was subsumed to P. l. melanochaita.[1]

Male lion at a waterhole in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa


Results of phylogeographic studies support the notion of lions in Southern Africa being genetically close, but distinct from populations in Western and Northern Africa and Asia.[20][21] Based on the analysis of samples from 357 lions from 10 countries, it is thought that lions migrated from Southern Africa to East Africa during the Pleistocene and Holocene eras.[20] Results of a DNA analysis using 26 lion samples from Southern and Eastern Africa indicate that genetic variation between them is low and that two major clades exist: one in southwestern Africa and one in the region from Uganda and Kenya to KwaZulu-Natal.[22]


Male with a light mane in Eastern Cape, South Africa
Male with a darker mane at Phinda Private Game Reserve, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa
White lions owe their coloring to a recessive gene[23]

The lion's fur varies in colour from light buff to dark brown. It has rounded ears and a black tail tuft. Average head-to-body length of male lions is 2.47–2.84 m (8.1–9.3 ft) with a weight of 148.2–190.9 kg (327–421 lb). Females are smaller and less heavy.[24] A few Southwest African lion specimens obtained by museums were described as having manes that vary in size, colour and development.[19] The Cape lion's mane covered the belly,[15][7] similar to that of the Barbary lion.[4]

The Southern African lion has been described as similar in general appearance and size as lions in other African countries. Shoulder height is 0.92–1.23 m (3.0–4.0 ft). Males are around 2.6–3.2 m (8.5–10.5 ft) long including the tail. Females are 2.35–2.75 m (7.7–9.0 ft). On average, males weigh 150–250 kg (330–550 lb), while females weigh 120–182 kg (265–401 lb).[14] Male and female lions in Zimbabwe, the Kalahari and Kruger National Park reportedly average 187.5–193.3 kg (413–426 lb) and 124.2–139.8 kg (274–308 lb), respectively.[12]

White lionEdit

The white lion is a rare morph with a genetic condition called leucism, which is caused by a double recessive allele. It has normal pigmentation in eyes and skin. White individuals have been occasionally encountered only in and around Kruger National Park and the adjacent Timbavati Private Game Reserve in eastern South Africa. They were removed from the wild in the 1970s, thus decreasing the white lion gene pool. Nevertheless, 17 births have been recorded in five different prides between 2007 and 2015.[23] White lions are selected for breeding in captivity.[25] Reportedly, they have been bred in camps in South Africa for use as trophies to be killed during canned hunts.[26]


In 1936, a man-eating lion shot by Lennox Anderson, outside Hectorspruit in Eastern Transvaal weighed about 313 kg (690 lb) and was the heaviest wild lion on record. The longest wild lion reportedly was a male shot near Mucusso in southern Angola in 1973.[27][13]

Distribution and habitatEdit

The lion population in what used to be the Natal and Cape Provinces of South Africa had been locally extinct since the 1850s to late 1860s. The last lions south of the Orange River were sighted between 1850 and 1858.[7] Eventually, lions were relocated to Addo Elephant National Park.[28]

Elsewhere in Southern Africa, lions are confined to 23 unfenced and 16 fenced reserves; 10 of the fenced reserves are located in South Africa. Lion populations are also present in Namibia, Angola and northern Botswana. In the southwestern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they are considered regionally extinct.[5][29]

The lion range in nine Southern African protected areas totals 1,540,171 km2 (594,663 sq mi), of which the following protected area complexes are considered lion strongholds:[30]

Ecology and behaviourEdit

Lions mating in Etosha National Park

Lions predominantly hunt large ungulates like zebra, warthog, blue wildebeest, impala, gemsbok, Thomson's gazelle, kob, waterbuck, kudu, giraffe and Cape buffalo. Their prey is usually in the range of 40.0 to 270.0 kg (88.2 to 595.2 pounds).[31] Predation on adult African bush elephants has been observed in Chobe National Park, Botswana.[32] Sympatric predators include the leopard, cheetah, hyena and African wild dog.[33]

Lions in Botswana's Okavango Delta have learned to swim in the delta's swamps. They hunt large prey like buffalo,[34][35] and occasionally also African elephants when smaller prey is scarce.[36]

Attacks on humansEdit

  • In the 19th century, north of Bechuanaland, a lion non-fatally attacked David Livingstone, who was defending a sheep in a village.[37]
  • In February 2018, a suspected poacher was killed and eaten by lions near Kruger National Park.[38][39]
  • Towards the end of the same month, conservationist Kevin Richardson took three lions for a walk at Dinokeng Game Reserve, near Pretoria in South Africa. A lioness then pursued an impala for at least 2 km (1.2 mi), before unexpectedly killing a 22-year-old woman near her car.[40][41]
  • In July 2018, a "loud commotion" coming from lions was heard by an anti-poaching dog in Sibuya Game Reserve near Kenton-on-Sea, South Africa. The next day, human remains were found in the lion enclosure. They were suspected to have been rhino-poachers, as they had equipment such as a high-powered rifle and wire cutters.[42][43]


In Africa, lions are threatened by pre-emptive killing or in retaliation for preying on livestock. Prey base depletion, loss and conversion of habitat have led to a number of subpopulations becoming small and isolated. Trophy hunting has contributed to population declines in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia.[5] Between 2008 and 2013, bones and body parts from at least 2621 individual lions were exported from South Africa to Southeast Asia, and another 3437 lion skeletons between 2014 and 2016. Lion bones are used to replace tiger bones in traditional Asian medicines.[44]

In 2015 and 2017, two male lions, Cecil and his son Xanda, were killed by trophy hunters in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park.[45][46]


Captive lion in Philadelphia Zoo

African lion populations are included in CITES Appendix II. In several South African countries local communities generate significant revenue through wildlife tourism, which is a strong incentive for their support of conservation measures.[5]

In 2010, the small and isolated Kalahari population was estimated at 683 to 1,397 individuals in three protected areas, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the Kalahari Gemsbok and Gemsbok National Parks.[47] More than 2000 lions exist in the well-protected Kruger National Park.[48] In June 2015, seven lions were relocated from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to Akagera National Park in Rwanda.[49]

In captivityEdit

In 2006, the registry of the International Species Information System (ISIS) showed 29 lions that were derived from animals captured in Angola and Zimbabwe. In addition, about 100 captive lions were registered as P. l. krugeri by ISIS, which derived from lions captured in South Africa.[50][51] Interest in the Cape lion had led to attempts to conserve possible descendants in places like Tygerberg Zoo.[52][53]


Cultural significanceEdit

Between 1910 and 1932, the Coat of arms of South Africa featured a lion

See alsoEdit


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  3. ^ a b Yamaguchi, N. (2000). "The Barbary lion and the Cape lion: their phylogenetic places and conservation" (PDF). African Lion Working Group News. 1: 9–11. 
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Further readingEdit

External linksEdit