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


Marie W
Marie Wabout a year ago

thanks for sharing

Toni W
Toni Wabout a year ago


Toni W
Toni Wabout a year ago


Kay M
Kay Mabout a year ago


Jennifer H
Jennifer Habout a year ago

Wonderful animals.

bob Petermann
bob Pabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing

William C
William Cabout a year ago

Thank you.

Margie FOURIEabout a year ago

I am reading about cave lions at the moment.

Maria Papastamatiou
Maria Papastamatiouabout a year ago

Thanks for posting.

Veronica-Mae soar
v soarabout a year ago

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