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African and Asian Lions (Panthera leo) Fact Sheet: Distribution & Habitat


Historic distribution

  • Nearly worldwide distribution of lion-like felids during the Late Pleistocene (Barnett et al. 2014)
    • Lived on most continents
      • Except Australia, Antarctica, and Oceania
    • Africa through northern Eurasia
    • Southwest Asia
    • North America
      • Extending into portions of Central America
  • No other large land mammal has had such a comparatively large and contiguous range, except modern humans (Patterson et al. 2004; Yamaguchi et al. 2004).
  • Changes in climate impacted lion distribution in Africa
    • Today’s geophylogenies likely influenced by differences in climate history between West/Central Africa and southern/East Africa (Bertola et al. 2011)
      • Middle Pleistocene: lions widespread over Africa (Barnett et al. 2014)
        • Occupied savanna and scrub-woodland
      • Holocene glacial periods: north Central Africa becomes hyperarid (Bertola et al. 2011)
        • Distinct genetic lineages may have developed
          • Observed in other African mammals (e.g., elephants)
  • About 10,000 years ago: extinct in the Americas and northern Eurasia (Yamaguchi et al. 2004; West and Packer 2013)
  • 1-3,000 years ago (Holocene): extinct in Europe (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; West and Packer 2013)
  • Last 150 years
    • Disappeared from most countries in North Africa through southwest Europe (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • North and central India following British conquest (Rangarajan 2013)
  • Last 60 years
    • Disappeared from central Saharan Desert on edge of the Aïr Mountains (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Last reports from Iran and other parts of the Middle East (West and Packer 2013)
  • For detailed changes to recent historical range, see West and Packer (2013), p. 150-151

Present distribution

  • Sub-Saharan Africa (West and Packer 2013; Bauer et al. 2016)
    • 27 countries, although populations often small and isolated
    • Most live in East and southern Africa
    • Extinct in North Africa
  • Gujarat, India (Rangarajan 2013; Bauer et al. 2015)
    • Small and isolated population protected within and at the edges of Gir Forest National Park
  • Lions occupy a mere 8% of their historic range (Bauer et al. 2016)
    • West African subpopulation down to ~1% of its historic range (Henschel et al. 2014)
      • Critically Endangered subpopulation
  • Largely restricted to protected areas (West and Packer 2013; Peterson et al. 2014)
  • Isolated populations, with limited migration across a wider landscape (Dolrenry et al. 2014)

Future distribution (Peterson et al. 2014)

  • Large areas of southern and West African may become less suitable due to effects of climate change
  • Increased temperatures and decreased rainfall projected, leading to:
    • Droughts
      • Declines in prey availability
      • Potential for increased human-lion conflicts
        • Decreased livestock survival
        • Pastoralists less tolerant of depredation by lions
    • Increased impact of pathogens and diseases


Lions in Africa: broad habitat tolerance

  • Inhabit nearly all vegetation types (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; Bauer et al. 2016)
    • Except tropical rainforests and interior of the Sahara desert
  • Optimal habitat (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009, and as noted)
    • Vegetation
      • Open woodlands
      • Thick bush
      • Scrub and grass
    • Other requirements
      • Shade in the heat of the day
      • Ungulate prey
        • E.g., African buffalo, antelopes, zebra, and wildebeest
      • Enough cover to stalk and avoid detection by prey
      • Cover for dens to hide newborn cubs (Schaller 1972)
  • Common in semi-desert areas (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Kalahari regions of South Africa and Botswana (West and Packer 2013)
    • Drinking water not essential
      • Able to live on moisture from prey or plants (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; Bauer et al. 2016)
  • Will penetrate deep into desert, especially near water sources (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
  • Wide elevation range
    • Generally up to 4,000 m in Ethiopia (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009)
    • Occasional records as high as 4,200-4,300 m (West and Packer 2013)
  • Habitats not found in (Wilson and Mittermeier 2009; West and Packer 2013; Bauer et al. 2016)
    • Tropical rainforest
    • Interior of the Sahara Desert
    • Dense lowland forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin

Lions in India: Gir Forest National Park

  • Dry, deciduous forest (Bauer et al. 2016)
    • Less than 1300 km² area
    • Teak trees make up much replanted forest

Distribution Map

African Lion Distribution.

Adapted from according to IUCN fact sheet. Click here for detailed distribution (IUCN).

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