The lion (Panthera Leo) has always been known as a very regal looking cat. They have smooth, tawny coats with white or light underparts. Likewise, the inside of their ears tend to be lighter, while the outside is darker in shade than the rest of their coat. A lion's tail is often qutie long, and carries a black tassel at the tip. Large and robust, standing roughly 4 feet tall and measuring anywhere from 5.5 to 8 feet long -- while weighing an average of 430 lbs., male lions develop their trademark manes in the beginning of their third year. Its thickness depends primarily upon how overgrown the land in which the male lives is -- becoming thicker in plains areas and thinner in lands with more brush. The color of the mane varies from blond to black. After five years, male lions reach sexual maturity. The male of the Asian species has a less prominent mane compared to that of the African male, and both sexes display a long fold of skin that runs the length of the belly which is not found on the African species. Female lions develop slightly faster than males do, reaching sexual maturity within four years. They usually measure about 3.5 feet in height and 5 feet in length, while weighing a mean of 320 lbs. Lacking the heavy mane a male lion must carry, females are faster and more agile cats. This physical distinction gives them a natural advantage when hunting. Therefore, females -- not males, do most of the hunting in a pride (a group of lions). Males, given their greater size, are called upon for protection from enemies -- which may include rogue lions.
Diet and Habitat:
The African lion is found in eastern and southern parts of the continent and is commonly protected on reserves, although hunting is still common. The Asiatic Lion (P.l.persica), once to be found throughout India, the Middle East and Southern Asia, is today, only to be found in the Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, western India, where the population is estimated to be about 290. Though labeled by mankind as the "king of the jungle", lions actually prefer more expansive grasslands or savannas and woodlands. The openness of the land permits them greater mobility for hunting. They will consume almost anything from tortoises to giraffes, and have been known to attack humans when extremely hungry-- but this is very rare. Mostly, their diet consists of antelope, gazelle, warthog, smaller carnivores.
Reproduction and Rearing:
Highly social creatures, lions live in groups known as prides that may hold anywhere from 3 to 40 members. Led by either a single or small number of males, these prides are made up mostly of females and the offspring of unions within in the select group. Mating occurs year-round, although it tends to peak during the rainy seasons. Gestation lasts usually 98 to 105 days, after which time 2 to 4 cubs are born. The responsibility of rearing newborns lies exclusively with the female. A lioness protects, hunts for and feeds her babies alone. A male lion's only responsibility being protection of the pride as a whole. Once the cubs reach adolescence, females always remain close to their home, and very rarely leave the territory of their mother. Males, on the other hand, must leave the pride. They may live nomadically for 2 to 3 years until they reach physical maturity. At which point, they begin to seek a pride to takeover and dominate. If successful and able to drive the previously dominant lion away, the male (or possibly two males) will begin to breed with the pride's females. The lion(s) will also kill any existing offspring to encourage the future survival of their own cubs.
Mentioned previously, the Asiatic Lion (P.l.persica) has all but disappeared in recent decades. Once roaming lands in India, the Middle East and Southern Asia, it can only to be found today at the Gir Forest National Park of western India. Though African lions are not endangered in the wild, this scenario could change very easily without proper forethought. Since they are large animals that travel in sizeable groups, lions need vast areas of land in which to live. In this regard, they are very similar to humans. Mankind must be careful to preserve enough space for these creatures as both our populations continue to expand.
Note: Some information has been excerpted from Seaworld.org and the National Audubon Soc. African field guide.