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African and Asian Lions (Panthera leo) Fact Sheet: Summary

African and Asian Lions (Panthera leo) Fact Sheet


African Lions (Panthera leo)

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Taxonomy Physical Characteristics

Describer (Date): Linnaeus (1758)

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae

Genus: Panthera 

Species: Panthera leo

Subspecies currently recognized (IUCN revisions in progress):
         P. l. leo
         P. I. melanochaita


Pelage: Short, tawny-colored hair on body, face, and tail. Many males with mane; some without. Black tuft on tail tip. Cub have spots that fade with age.

Body weight: 
Males: 150-225 kg (331-496 lbs)
Females: 122-192 kg (269-423 lbs)

Head-body length:
Males: 172-250 cm (5.6-8.2 ft)
Females: 158-192 cm (5.2-6.3 ft)

Shoulder height:
Male: 123 cm (4 ft)
Female: 107 cm (3.5 ft)

Tail length: 60-100 cm (2-3.3 ft)

Distribution & Status Behavior & Ecology

Distribution: Sub-Saharan Africa and southwest India (population in Asia). Populations often small and isolated. Occupy a mere 8% of their historic range.

Habitat: Broad habitat tolerance. Africa: woodlands, savanna grasslands, semi-desert, and desert areas. In India, mainly deciduous forest.

IUCN Status: 
Africa: overall, Vulnerable (2014 assessment)
West Africa subpopulations Critically Endangered (2014 assessment)
Asiaic subpopulations: Endangered (2008 assessment)

CITES Status:
Africa: Panthera leo, Appendix II
Asia: Panthera leo persica, Appendix I

U.S. Endangered Species Act:

Population in Wild:
Africa: Considerable uncertainty in abundance estimates. 23,000-39,000; likely closer to 20,000 than 30,000 lions remaining.
India: 523 lions in and near Gir Forest

Locomotion: Walking speed of 3-4 km/hr (1.86-2.49 mph). Bursts of speed up to 45-60 km/hr (24-37 mph) for short distances (100-200 m).

Activity Cycle: Inactive for much of the day. Rest 20-21 hours a day. Most active at night, dawn, and dusk. Hunt, feed, and mate at all times of day/night.

Social Groups: Form matriarchal prides. No dominance hierarchy among females. Explore territory and hunt, either by forming subgroups or spending time singly (fission-fusion social dynamics). Male coalitions challenge each other to hold residency with prides of females.

Communication: Many forms. Reinforce social bonds with social licking and head/body rubs. Use facial expressions, body postures, and behavioral displays to convey mood and intent. Variety of vocalizations: roar, grunt, growl, miaow, purr, puff, to name a few. Scent marking and smell an important channel of communication with other lions.

Prey: Large variety of prey. Medium to large-sized ungulates make up bulk of diet. Hunt and scavenge. Wildebeest, zebra, water buffalo, impala, warthog, and waterbuck frequently taken. Will also feed on smaller or unsual prey.

Predators: Humans

Reproduction & Development Species Highlights

Sexual Maturity: Males: about 24 months. Females: first conception at about 43 months, but varies substantially with habitat.

Gestation: 110 days, on average (range: 100-114 days)

Litter Size: Most litters 1-4 cubs; range 1-6

Birth weight: 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs)

Age at Weaning: 6-7 months

Typical Life Expectancy:
Wild populations: median life expectancies unknown; males rarely live past 16 years and females rarely live past 18 years (maximum)
Managed care: median life expectancy of about 17 years

Adaptable hunters

  • Most lions live in Africa, but a small population lives in India
    • Populations were once connected
  • Once lived on nearly every continent, having the largest contiguous range of any large land mammal (except modern humans)
    • Today, occupy a mere 8% of their historic range
  • Found in many habitats, including deserts. Do not need to drink water. Can survive on moisture from prey and plants.
  • Opportunistic hunters and scavengers. Surprising prey items include porcupine, mice, ostrich eggs, fish, termites, and on Namibia's beaches, even fur seals

The only truly social cats

  • Rub cheeks, chins, and foreheads together in greeting
  • Cubs communally raised in crèches. Females nurse one another's cubs. Male cubs from the same crèche may form lifelong alliances.
  • Vocalizations and scent marking used to deter "trespassing" lions
  • Males hold residency with a pride for only 2-3 years, on average, before new males take over
    • Females then enter an infertile 'testing period,' which is thought to cultivate social bonds with the stranger males
  • Conception rates in the wild are low, considering frequency of mating
  • Expectant mothers withdraw from their pride to give birth and safeguard cubs

Disappearing from large parts of Africa

  • Only ~20,000-30,000 lions left in the wild
  • Poaching and humans killing lions to protect livestock are two major threats to lion survival
    • African lion bone finding its way to Asian traditional medicine markets (similar to tiger bone)


  • Lions were associated with royal power in many ancient cultures
  • Lions were exhibited in the Tower of London's Royal Menagerie for 600 years
  • A lion was the first exotic animal exhibited in North America

Lions and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

  • A roaring lion inspired Dr. Harry Wegeforth to found the San Diego Zoo
  • Disney animators visited the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to gain inspiration for The Lion King (1994)
    • "Simba" means lion in the Swahili language
  • Lions at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park go on "meatball hunts" to keep their hunting skills honed
  • San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance works to protect lions


About This Fact Sheet

© San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance 2016-2019. Taxonomy updated Oct. 2018. CITES status updated Apr. 2019.

How to cite: African and Asian Lions (Panthera leo) Fact Sheet. c2016-2018. San Diego (California, USA): San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance; [accessed YYYY MM DD].
(note: replace with actual date accessed, e.g., 2016 Aug 01)

Disclaimer: Although San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance makes every attempt to provide accurate information, some of the facts provided may become outdated or replaced by new research findings. Questions and comments may be addressed to


Thank you to these lion experts for generously providing content review of this fact sheet.


Dr. Laura Bertola: Taxonomy

  • Dr. Bertola, postdoc at Leiden Univeristy, Netherlands, applies the study of genetics to issues in conservation biology
  • During her PhD research, she applied various genetic techniques to gain insight into the distribution of lion genetic diversity


Dr. Paul Funston: Behavior & Ecology, Reproduction & Development


Dr. Zeke Davidson: Diet & Feeding

  • Through his expertise in behavioral ecology and conservation, Dr. Davidson lends scientific support and leadership to projects in Kenya related to large carnivore resource use, human-wildlife conflict, and habitat conservation.
  • He helps to develop research initiatives and teaches for Marwell Wildlife in Kenya, Smithsonian Institution, and York University.
  • Link to research profile


Mr. Tony Franceschiello: Managed Care

  • Mr. Franceschiello, a Senior Mammal Keeper with the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, has a wealth of experience in caring for big cats, including lions, cheetahs, mountain lions, and tigers (plus many other mammals).
  • He has been working with the Safari Park’s lions since 2005.
  • Mr. Franceschiello says the most rewarding aspects of his work are having been involved with all lion litters born at the Safari Park, from conception through adulthood, and being viewed as a pride member by the lions he cares for.


Recommended Reading

Lion by Deidre Jackson (2010)

A bold, fascinating read that brings together historical, biographical, cultural, and conservation perspectives on lions. Eloquently written and researched. Incredible collection of art history photographs and literary references.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance staff and volunteers
Email the SDZWA Library to request to checkout this book:

"Hot on Your Tail"

Two young cubs play a game of chase.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

SDZWA Library Links