The African lion is arguably the world’s most iconic animal. With various depictions in Hollywood, Disney and documentary films, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know what a lions is in any corner of the globe!

The ‘King of the Jungle’ is a majestic creature that is equally admired for its beauty, as it is for its innate savagery. Getting close to a lion in the wild is an almost spiritual experience.

What is the African Lion?

The African lion is the second largest big cat species in the world, after the tiger. They are unique in the cat world for a number of reasons; their social structure, roar and the male lion’s mane – all of which are not readily found in any other species.


What Does The African Lion Look Like?

The African lion’s entire body is covered in short fur, which is usually a tawny brown colour. Again, this varies slightly depending on location. All lions have a white underbelly and white markings around their mouth, chin and inner thighs.

Typical of all cats, lions have large retractable claws embedded into their giant paws. These claws are around 1.5 inches (38mm) long and razor sharp. They sit within the soft paw pads and are brought out at will for use when hunting or fighting.

An African lion’s long, thin tail stretches to around 3ft (1m) with a brown ‘pom pom’ like tuft of hair on the end.

Male African lion with Shaggy mane
Large male African lion with shaggy mane in Liuwa Plains, Zambia | © Andrew Macdonald (@a_mac_photo)

How big is the African lion?

Lions are large predators, powerfully built in order to be able to handle the toughest of situations. Males average at around 4ft. (1.2m) tall at the shoulder, while females tend to be slightly shorter. Both males and females possess thick bodies, with impeccably designed muscular system that allows them to be equal parts bulk, and sophisticated hunting machine.

A large male African lion can weigh up to 550lbs. (250kg), while females tend to average between 265 and 395 lbs. (120 to 180 kg).

African lion mane

Male lions boast an impressive head of hair called a mane. Contrary to what you might think its not a fashion statement, nor a way to differentiate between males and females. Its actually a defence mechanism.

The mane helps protect a male lion’s neck, throat, ears and skull dAfruring ferocious fights with other lions. The coarse hair provides a protective layer which lessens the effect of their rivals sharp teeth and powerful bite force. The same can be said for powerful paw swipes with razor sharp claws – a favoured weapon in a male lion’s arsenal!

African lion with beautiful male
Male lion walks confidently through the savannah in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya | Nili Gudhka (@thejunglechic)

The size and colour of a male lion’s mane varies according to genetics and the geographical area in which they live. Males with larger, darker manes are generally considered to be stronger and fitter and therefore less likely to be ‘messed with’.

Darker manes are also thought to be more attractive to lionesses who see it as a sign of strength and therefore a better chance at protection.


What do African lions eat?

Lions are carnivorous predators and their preferred prey items are large mammals like buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, antelope and at times even giraffe or hippo.

They are opportunistic hunters that will kill and eat almost anything, should the opportunity arise. African lions have been photographed eating baboons, tortoises and even porcupines.

Male lion with zebra kill in Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya | Nili Gudhka (@thejunglechic)

How do African lions hunt?

They work together using incredibly synchronised hunting tactics to stalk, chase and kill their prey, which is what allows them to go after such large prey items. The hunt usually starts with the element of surprise, but is brute force that usually gets them over the line.

A hunting pride at full force is arguably one of nature’s most powerful predatory forces, however the majority of lion hunts fail. It is thought that lion hunts are only successful 25% of the time.

They generally kill by asphyxiation, but have also been known to attack the genitals of their prey items to encourage blood loss. On very rare occasions lions have also been seen eating their prey alive.

With so many mouths to feed, even an 800kg buffalo only lasts 2-3 days before nothing but scraps are left over for scavengers to pick at.

African lion habits

Contrary to what most think, lions are incredibly lazy animals. They spend around 20 hours a day sleeping. Yes you read that right! All the action you saw on that Nat Geo doc happens for just a couple hours a day.

Young lion cubs drink from a shallow pond | Jon Warburton (@rangerkidafrica)

The warm day time hours are mainly spent lazing away in a shady spot under a tree. Lions are most active at dusk and dawn, and do the majority of their hunting during this time or overnight when its easier to catch their victims off guard.

They have an incredibly well-adapted eye sight which gives them an advantage over other mammals who are better suited for day time visual.

What is a lion pride?

African lions are one of the only social cat species, and live in family groups called prides. 

A pride is usually led by a single male, or a coalition of brothers/cousins. A typical coalition will consist of 2 similar aged males, however certain parts of Africa have seen prides led by 5 or more males.

Pride females remain with the family for life and together share the responsibility for raising cubs. The number of females in a pride is usually relative to the number of males, and the average pride generally ranges between 5 and 20 individuals.

Male lions claim a large territory for themselves and their prides. They defend this with their lives and many ferocious battles have taken place in the African bush.

The size of a pride’s territory will be determined by the size of the pride and usually ranges between 8 and 150 square miles ( 20 – 400 sq km). Males will fight for territory in the richest hunting grounds, near the best water sources. To the victor go the spoils.