Widely known as the king of animals or the king of the jungle, although it lives in savannas and, surprisingly, is not the biggest cat. It owes its title to a beautiful, lush mane, which may be fawn or almost completely black.
Lions have a self-coloured fawn coat. Only the mane can be dark, and the tip of the tail has a characteristic, black tuft of fur.
Sometimes leucistic lions are born, which is an incomplete form of albinism. Their fur is white, but eyes, nose and lips are still dark. In the wild, the white lion gene appears only in one pride, and even within it, most cats are fawn. The white lion cub is much more visible to the animals that threaten it in the first months of life, which is why their mortality is much higher. An adult white lion, or lioness, must have greater cunning to get enough food, because it’s harder for them to make an ambush. In captivity, however, breeding white lions is popular, because people are willing to pay more for a photo with a white lion cub, and for killing an adult white lion.
They differ from other felids because of visible differences between the sexes. The male is easily recognized by the flagship mane that females lack. The healthier the lion, the larger the mane. Lions with a lush mane seem to be larger than they really are and arouse greater respect among other animals, plus over the years their mane darkens.
Fangs of these huge animals are up to 7 centimetres (3 in) long. The lion have a muscular body and it can run up to 80 kmph (50 mph), but it gets tired very quickly. It can survive up to two weeks without drinking water.
Lions stand out from all cats with their behaviour, as they are the only ones living in prides. A family is headed by one male or brothers, other members are females and kittens. The size of the pride depends on the conditions in which it lives. It usually consists of 4-6 females, but they can mount to about 20.
A unique lifestyle allowed these cats to develop an extraordinary hunting technique. Males rarely hunt because in lion families it’s females that provide food. They can devise a common strategy, depending on the number of cats taking part in the hunt, the kind of the prey and terrain. Mostly a group of lionesses drive a chosen prey to one cat waiting in the bushes. The last cat applies the final blow, knocking down and suffocating the animal.
Lions are the largest predators in Africa, so they often use their strength to steal prey from other predators like cheetahs or leopards. They most often hunt for wildebeests, buffalos and zebras. However, they sometimes hunt for a smaller prey and occasionally for a much larger hippopotamus or rhinoceros.
On average, they eat 7 kg (15 lb) of meat a day, but they do not hunt every day, and large prey can provide much more meat. An adult lion can eat up to 30 kg (66 lb) of meat during one meal and not eat for several days after that.
However, first of all, lions are sleepyheads. They can sleep up to 19 hours a day, reviving up at night and during rainfall when the temperature drops. Lions like open spaces very much, but they rest in the shade of trees.
After reaching maturity, young females stay in the pride in which they were born. In adolescence, when their mane begins to grow, males are thrown out of the pride by their own father. They become competition in its eyes, so they are condemned to wandering in search of their own pride. It also happens that they leave by themselves, at the age of 3-4 years. This is one of the few moments in which they are forced to hunt themselves.
When the mane is fully developed, it’s hard for them to make an ambush, because they are clearly visible from a long distance. Instinctively, they are in a hurry to take over the group of females. Young lion or brothers, fight with the guardian of the encountered pride. The defeated lion leaves and the new rulers impregnates the females to pass their genes onto the new generation. The fate of the loser usually means death by starvation.
Ties in the pride are very strong, mothers help each other in bringing up the young, and after losing a member of the pride the cats show mourning. There is a strict hierarchy among lions. The male gets the best pieces of meat, later females eat, and finally the lion cubs.
Lions mark the area with urine and a warning roar that can be heard even from a distance of 8 kilometres (5 land miles). No other cat can produce similar sounds in equally low tones. Lions have the most complex system of communication using different vocalizations. They also send out smell, tactile and visual signals. For example male tempting by the smell of heat, licking to show love or giving signs with tails during hunting.
Lions do not have a specific mating season and can reproduce all year long. Females usually become mothers around the age of three. Cubs are mottled and they are born with blue eyes. At the age of 3 months the rosettes disappear, and eyes turn brown with age. Other predators pose a great threat to kittens as well as would-be victims such as buffaloes, which are very aggressive towards lions when cats are outnumbered and unable to surprise them.
Lion cubs are also killed when the male loses power in the pride. The females fiercely defend them, and suffer greatly when deprived of the young, but very quickly they become fertile again and new cubs are born with the genes of the new ruler. The cubs are presented to older kittens and males only after the eighth week of life, when they are strong enough to face their lack of gentleness. Earlier, they mainly spend time with their mother in thick bushes.
Lions are found in savannas of Africa, but one subspecies also lives in Asia. The entire species is vulnerable and has already lost 90% of its original number of individuals. Their numbers outside reserves and ZOOs are close to zero. Under controlled conditions, there is no problem with their reproduction, because they are not afraid of people, and can even create an emotional bond with them.
They are often bred for the tourism industry. As small kittens, they are used for hugs and photos, and as adults they are released straight into the gunsights of tourists. Such pseudo-breeding farms are very common and sad practice in Africa.
People also hunt lions for Chinese medicine to use their bones for treating people. The natives are increasingly building homes in the lions’ territories and there is a big conflict between them. Weak or hungry lions sometimes hunt for people and their livestock. The natives often kill them in retaliation and set traps, even in protected reserves. Although the lion can kill a human with a single swipe of the paw, it usually avoids contact with people, and buffalos are a much greater threat to humans.
Author: Małgorzata Banaszkiewicz
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