5 Strange Big Cat Facts for World Lion Day

It’s World Lion Day! To celebrate and educate, here are five facts about our most iconic big cat:

1) Lion Populations Range from Vulnerable to Endangered

You don’t hear as much about lion conversation as, say, tigers, but all lion populations are classified as one of three categories of “threatened” on the IUCN Red List scale. Some of the people I’ve mentioned this to were surprised to find it out. Most recognized sub-species are classified as vulnerable, but the only non-African population, the Asiatic Lion is classified as endangered.

The Asiatic Lion subspecies once lived in Ancient Persia, Mesopotamia, and Turkey but has been reduced to only one population in Gir National Park in India. There are currently about 650 Asiatic Lions left. Biologists think lions first evolved in Asia before spreading throughout and from the continent, but it is the remaining Asian population that is most at risk.

The major issue for all lions is habitat loss. Fortunately, it has protected status in India and the population has been trending upward. Let’s keep it up!

2) Lions Have Gone Extinct Before

Lions throughout northern, western, and central Africa are more similar genetically to India’s lions than to lions found in eastern or southern Africa, across the Great Rift Valley. It’s likely that the lion populations here previously died out and the land was later reclaimed from lions coming out of Asia.

More dramatically, two sub-species of lions died out at the end of the last ice age as part of a major extinction event. The late Pleistocene extinctions 10,000 years ago, which humans spreading to new areas is believed to have contributed to, resulted in the disappearance of the American Cave Lion and the European Cave Lion, reducing the lion’s range from four continents to two.

While it’s strange to imagine lions sauntering around the South of France or the Arizona desert, there are plenty of fossil remains which reveal this former range.

3) Lions Have Cousin Species

Lions, with the species name panthera leo, have four cousins within the panthera genus: tigers (panthera tigris), leopards (panthera pardis), snow leopards (panthera uncia), and jaguars (panthera onca). The unique roar is shared. Note that cheetahs are not closely related.

Jaguars are the closest cousin of lions found in the Americas, formerly in Mexico and the southern United States but today mainly Central and South America.

What about the mountain lions, found throughout Canada and the United States? Despite their name and appearance they are not closely related to the panthera big cats, just as marsupial koala bears are not actually bears.

And cougars, pumas, even the Florida panthers? Still the same non-panthera species, puma concolor, with different local names. Lions are the only big cats with manes, however.

4) Lions Really Are King of Their Ecosystem (Which Isn’t the Jungle)

Lions are most famous for their stalk-and-ambush hunting strategy, getting close to prey animals like gazelle or wildebeest without being noticed and then leaping out of the tall grass in a short burst of speed in the hot Savannah afternoon.

But lions often hunt at night when it is cooler, and they have been known to coordinate to tackle huge prey animals. Lions can even take down elephants, something no other big cat could do, lacking either the size or the teamwork of lions.

Lions are also opportunists, driving off leopards or even hyenas from a fresh kill, limiting the smaller predators to what they can cram in their mouths as the lion pride leisurely approaches to take over. Their resourcefulness and innovation is why the lions are at the top of their food web, with other top predators bowing down to them.

5) Lions Were Semi-Mythical in Many Cultures

If you’re familiar with Chinese culture you may have seen the common architectural feature of stone lions guarding an entryway. Although lions were never native to the country, they have a millennia-long history in Chinese art and culture as a symbol of strength and protection, alongside dragons and other never-seen creatures.

The path to manhood in Maasai tradition involved facing a lion, and the connection to this culture is one reason the Maasai people have adjusted their practices to protect the population. This was no mythical creature, but it was a near-sacred and respected opponent.

In Britain, again, far from any living lions at the time, the species was known to scholars and the general public, albeit in somewhat of a folklorish way, as illustrations depicted them alongside unicorns and dragons. And of course, King Richard of England styled himself “the lion-hearted” rather than referencing a local, but less impressive animal.

The lion exemplifies the word iconic. I mean that in the most literal way, as it has become an icon, appearing in battle standards, family and royal crests throughout Europe, even national and regional flags in places as disparate as Tibet and France. There may not be any dragons or unicorns around, but we can help lions thrive for generations to come.

Image credit: Wikimedia/Briton Riviere 1881


bob Petermann
bob Petermann3 hours ago

Thank you for sharing

William C
William C11 hours ago

Thank you.

Margie FOURIE1 days ago

I am reading about cave lions at the moment.

Maria Papastamatiou

Thanks for posting.

Veronica-Mae soar

Everyone - take a look at what CAN be done http://tinyurl.com/lsk4s7g it will cheer you

Chris Ringgold
Chris R3 days ago

I learned a lot more about Lions from reading this particular article.

Mike McGowan
Mike McGowan4 days ago

I wonder how many people would sign my petition to make it legal to hunt hunters?

Nicole Heindryckx
Nicole H4 days ago

.... the male lion population. May be I am too severe, but I am of opinion that this trophy hunting of these magnificent male lions is to be considered as MURDER. and such MURDER should be sentenced the same way as murdering a human being, viz. jail for the rest of their lives, no parool. In case of need, we have to make agreements with the concerned African countries to provide them with specialized people to train the local population to protect their national richness. And even to provide them with a certain number of specially trained guards. We can not put all the job and expenses on the shoulders of these poor African countries. If we want to safe this population, we have to take our share of the job and the consequential expenses as well. It is not enough for the Western World to have a certain amount of organizations, to sign petitions, or even to protest in the streets. NO NO NO, we want to save these lions, so we have to do part of the job a well. Many countries have a dictatorial regime, and corruption is the nr. 1 enemy. I do hope our politicians will understand that as well and start negotiations with the local authorities soonest possible.

Nicole Heindryckx
Nicole H4 days ago

Trophy hunting : the most horrible thing people ever did to these animals. Rich and wealthy people go on safari to African countries and in groups of 4 or 5 people, with plenty of guns, they have the audacity to drive in their landrovers along the National Parks. Once they catch a lion that trespassed the border (how in Heaven's name can this lion know he is no longer in the National Park ??) they take their weapons and kill the most beautiful animal of the African continent. Oh, they are so proud of themselves. They have a most beautiful head to put on their walls, and a big "carpet". Horrifying, disgusting and outrageous. Why do we people, think we have the right to kill those magnificent animals. When Cecil was killed I was really heartbroken. Just because of his beautiful, strong male head, they brutally killed him. When his son Xanda was killed early July, I have been crying a whole day. It could not stand it any longer. I am even writing a kind of a poem to honour him and all other male lions who have been killed by trophy hunters. Trophy hunting must absolutely be BANNED. And not in the year 2030, but NOW.... Too many victims have fallen already, and when we do not ban now, it will possibly be too late to have sufficient number of male lions to keep a sound future for all lions. I certainly do hope that the Western World will come to terms with these African countries to provide enough guards to survey the male lion popula

Nicole H
Nicole H4 days ago

It is indeed very sad that people take more and more of wildlife's habitat, and then they have to find their prey in the neighborhood of villages, where people keep cattle. Of course, when their cattle is killed by lions, village people get very angry and killing lions is not rare at all. We have to make decent and acceptable plans for both the local people and the wildlife, so that within a couple of years, the lions will only be seen in sanctuaries. This can not be the solution !! They need large areas for their territories, and this is not possible, even in the best sanctuaries. Local people must understand that first of all lions were there before they came to live there, and that they either have to move or take good and appropriate measures to leave this land to their original habitants.