Food for thought on this World Lion Day:
Little more than a century ago, there were more than 200,000 wild lions living in Africa. Today, there are only about 20,000; lions are extinct in 26 African countries.
The lion is listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, owing mostly — though not exclusively — to habitat loss.
Other facts of interest about lions, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF):
• Lions live in prides with related females and up to three unrelated males; female lions live together their entire lives. A typical pride has about 15 members, though some prides as large as 40 individuals have been observed.
• The lion is the second largest of the big cats, by length and weight: A male weighs about 500 pounds and grows to eight feet in length. It sounds impressive, but tigers are actually larger, reaching 850 pounds and 11 feet long.
• A lion may sleep up to 20 hours a day.
• A lion’s heels don’t touch the ground when it walks.
• Even though the lion is sometimes referred to as the “king of the jungle,” it actually lives in grasslands. The expression may have come from a misplaced association between Africa and jungles, or may refer to a less literal meaning of the word jungle.
• A lion can run for short distances at 50 mph and leap as far as 36 feet.
• A lion’s roar can be heard from as far as 5 miles away.
• The lion was once found throughout Africa, Asia and Europe but now exists only in Africa with one exception. The last remaining Asiatic lions are to be found in Sasan Gir National Park in India, which was primarily created to protect the species. Currently, there are roughly 350-400 lions in the park.
• Lions live for about 10-14 years in the wild, but have been known to live as long as 20 years in captivity.
This last figure raises any number of moral, ethical
and emotional questions. Since lions live longer in captivity, that would seem to suggest they are happier there, but the reality is that life in a cage, or even a large, outdoor pen, is no life for a predator.
The truth, too, is more complicated for lions in the wild, where it’s all too easy to infer that the combination of stress and constantly having to hunt for food wears knocks years off the back end of a lion’s life.
The hard truth is that few if any lions die of old age. Pride males are deposed by younger challengers; evicted from the pride and are often injured from a fight and so are incapable of hunting on their own. Long before they have a chance to starve, they’re set upon by other predators, especially hyenas and other lions, because they’re perceived to be a threat to a finite amount of food resources.
Older females are not chased out of the pride, but as they lose their ability to hunt, they’re often relegated to the back of the line when food is scarce. Lions are social animals — the most social of the big cats — but that sociability only goes so far.
“Lion conservation is expensive,” University of Minnesota field biologist and Serengeti lion researcher Dr. Craig Packer explained recently. Packer, author of Into Africa (2004) and Lions in the Balance (2015), is widely considered to be the world’s leading authority on lion behaviour and conservation. “The price is far too high to be borne entirely by the poorest countries on Earth. Lions sometimes eat people and livestock; these devastating losses are suffered by impoverished rural communities. In the U.S., U.K. and European Union, national parks are funded by tax revenues. African parks are funded by visitor entrance fees or hunting fees. However, these revenues are far too small for wildlife to ‘pay its own way.’”
The future, as always, looks uncertain. World Lion Day celebrates one of nature’s most iconic, recognizable animals, but who’s to say what the future holds?