East African lion

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East African lion
Murchison falls lion.jpg
A male at Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
Lioness Samburu 2.jpg
Lioness at Samburu National Reserve, Kenya
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Pantherinae
Genus: Panthera
Species: P. leo
Subspecies: P. l. melanochaita
Trinomial name
Panthera leo melanochaita
(Ch. H. Smith, 1842)

The East African lion is a Panthera leo melanochaita population in East Africa.[1] During the 20th century, lion populations in this part of Africa became fragmented and declined in several range countries due to loss of habitat and prey base, poaching and killing of lions to protect livestock and human life.[2] In 2005, a Lion Conservation Strategy was developed for East and Southern Africa.[3] Today, lion populations are stable only in large protected area complexes.[4]

The scientific name P. l. melanochaita was proposed for the Cape lion in 1842 that was eradicated in the mid-19th century.[5] P. l. melanochaita differs genetically from P. leo leo; the two subspecies probably diverged at least 50,000 years ago.[1]


Lions shot in Kenya's Sotik Plains in 1909

Charles Hamilton Smith described the type specimen for Panthera leo melanochaita in 1842 using the scientific name Felis (Leo) melanochaitus.[6] In the 19th and 20th centuries, several naturalists described zoological specimens from East Africa and proposed subspecies, including:

Dispute over the validity of these purported subspecies continued among naturalists and curators of natural history museums until the early 21st century.[14][15][5][16]

In 2017, the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group revised lion taxonomy based on results of phylogeographic research on lion samples. Two lion subspecies are now recognised:[1]

Genetic research[edit]

Since the beginning of the 21st century, several phylogenetic studies were conducted to aid clarifying the taxonomic status of lion samples kept in museums and collected in the wild. Scientists analysed between 32 and 480 lion samples from up to 22 countries. They all agree that the species lion comprises two evolutionary groups, one in East and Southern Africa, and the other in the northern and eastern parts of its historical range; these groups diverged about 50,000 years ago. They assume that tropical rainforest and the East African Rift constituted major barriers between the two groups.[17][18][19][20][21][22]

Among six samples from captive lions that originated in Ethiopia, five samples clustered with samples from East Africa, but one clustered with samples from the Sahel.[20] For a subsequent study, also eight wild lion samples from the Ethiopian Highlands were included in the analysis. Of these, three clustered with the Central African lion and five with samples from East Africa. Scientists therefore assume that the Ethiopian Highlands east and west of the Rift Valley is a genetic admixture zone between both phylogeographic groups.[22]


Adult male lions with long brown manes in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Male with a partially black mane in Narok County, southern Kenya

The lion's fur varies in colour from light buff to dark brown. It has rounded ears and a black tail tuft. Average head-to-body length of male lions is 2.47–2.84 m (8.1–9.3 ft) with a weight of 148.2–190.9 kg (327–421 lb). Females are smaller and less heavy.[23] Until the late 20th century, mane colour and size was thought to be a distinct subspecific characteristic.[15]

Male lions killed in East Africa were less heavy than lions killed by hunters in Southern Africa.[24]

In 2002, research in Serengeti National Park revealed that mane darkens with age; its colour and size are influenced by environmental factors like temperature and climate, but also by individual testosterone production, sexual maturity and genetic precondition. Mane length apparently signals fighting success in male–male relationships.[25]


In the 19th and 20th centuries, lion type specimen were described on the basis of mane size and colour.[26] Male East African lions are known for a great range of mane types. Mane development is related to age: older males have more extensive manes than younger ones; manes continue to grow up to the age of four to five years, long after lions have become sexually mature. Males living in the highlands above 800 m (2,600 ft) elevation develop heavier manes than lions in the more humid and warmer lowlands of eastern and northern Kenya. The latter have thinner manes, or are even completely maneless.[27] Hence, lion manes reflect ambient temperature. The mane colour is also influenced by nutrition and testosterone. Its length is an indicator for age and fighting ability of the lion.[25]


An exceptionally heavy male near Mount Kenya National Park weighed 272 kg (600 lb).[28] The largest East African lion reportedly measured 3.33 m (10.9 ft).[23]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The Serengeti and Maasai Mara National Parks are a lion stronghold in East Africa with a stable lion population[29]

In East Africa, lions inhabit a wide variety of habitats including savanna and arid landscapes, open grasslands and miombo woodlands.[30][31] Lion populations declined in:

Contemporary lion distribution and habitat quality in East Africa was assessed in 2005, and Lion Conservation Units (LCU) mapped.[3] Between 2002 and 2012, educated guesses for size of populations in the East African LCUs ranged from 20,485 to 18,308 individuals.[34][4]

Range countries Lion Conservation Units Area in km2
Democratic Republic of Congo Massif D'itombwe, Luama 8,441[3]
Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda Queen Elizabeth-Virunga 5,583[38]
Uganda Toro-Semulik, Lake Mburo, Murchison Falls 4,800[39]
Somalia Arboweerow-Alafuuto 24,527[3]
Somalia, Kenya Bushbush-Arawale 22,540[3]
Kenya Laikipia-Samburu, Meru and Nairobi National Parks 43,706[4]
Kenya, Tanzania Serengeti-Mara and Tsavo-Mkomazi 75,068[29]
Tanzania Dar-Biharamulo, Ruaha-Rungwa, Mpanga-Kipengere, Tarangire, Wami Mbiki-Saadani, Selous 384,489[29]

The LCUs Serengeti-Mara, Tsavo-Mkomazi, Ruaha-Rungwa and Selous are currently considered lion strongholds in East Africa. They host more than 500 individuals each, and the population trend is stable.[4]

Ecology and behaviour[edit]

In the Serengeti National Park, lion prides have been monitored since 1966.[40] Between 1966 and 1972, two observed lion prides comprised between seven and 10 females each that had litters once in 23 months on average.[41] Litters contained two to three cubs. Females suckled cubs of other females, when their cubs were of similar age. Of 87 cubs born until 1970, only 12 reached the age of two years. Cubs died due to starvation in months when large prey was not available, following take-over of prides by new males, or of unknown causes.[42] Male lion coalitions were more successful in taking over prides than single males. Coalitions of six males stayed longer with a pride than smaller male groups.[43] Between 1974 and 2012, 471 coalitions comprising 796 male lions entered a study area of 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi). Of these, 35 nomadic coalitions included male lions that were born in the area but had left and returned after about two years of absence. Coalitions became resident at between 3.5 and 7.3 years of age.[44]

Attacks on humans[edit]

One of the Tsavo Man-Eaters killed by Patterson
  • A man-eating lion was killed by game scouts in Southern Tanzania in April 2004. It is believed to have killed and eaten at least 35 people in a series of incidents covering several villages in the coastal of this region.[45] Dr Rolf D. Baldus, the GTZ wildlife programme coordinator, said it was likely that the lion preyed on humans because it had a large abscess beneath a cracked molar and wrote, "This lion probably experienced a lot of pain, particularly when it was chewing".[46] This lion was large, had no mane and a tooth problem.
  • Tanzania (between 1930s and 1940s) was inflicted by a pride known as the "Njombe lions". The hunter George Rushby eventually dispatched the pride, which over three generations is thought to have killed and eaten 1,500 to 2,000 people in Njombe district.[47]


A mature male lion with an intermediate mane development in Amboseli National Park, Kenya

In Somalia's Lower Shabeelle area, hunters kill female lions and collect cubs to trade them in wildlife markets, where they fetch at between US$ 500 and 600 per cub. In southern Somalia, people also keep lion cubs for export.[48]


All lion populations in Africa have been included in CITES Appendix II since 1975.[2] Because of the negative impact of trophy hunting, it was proposed in 2004 to list them all in CITES Appendix I to reduce exports of lion trophies and implement a stricter permission process.[49]

In 2006, a Lion Conservation Strategy for East and Southern Africa was developed in cooperation between IUCN regional offices and several wildlife conservation organisations. The strategy envisages to maintain sufficient habitat, ensure a sufficient wild prey base, make lion-human coexistence sustainable and reduce factors that lead to further fragmentation of populations.[3]

Cultural significance[edit]

The lion is featured as an animal symbol in East Africa.[50][51] The name 'Simba' is a Swahili word for the lion, which also means 'aggressive', 'king' and 'strong'.[52]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]