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The African lion is the biggest of Africa's predators, and the biggest of the big cats (except for the Siberian tiger), reaching up to nine feet (2.75 m) long. The heaviest wild lion on record is one of 690 pounds (314 kg) shot in 1936. 'Simba', a male lion at Colchester Zoo in England weighed 826 pounds (375 kg) when he died in 1973. Wild lions vary in color from a honey-white to a chestnut brown, with some regional variation.

Males have a mane, which covers the neck and shoulders, although on some it may be only a beard. These distinguish them from lionesses, which are also smaller. The function of the mane is to intimidate subordinate males and to impress females.

Prides, which usually number ten to twenty individuals, consist mostly of related females: mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts. Only the single mature male—the patriarch—and young males are accepted. Females have regular litters of two or three young but in most years only one will survive. Cubs are usually weaned around three months. During growth, cubs may have spots until they mature at four or five years old.

Once males mature they leave the pride and roam around, usually in small bachelor groups. If lucky, they will find another pride with an ailing king who can be ousted. The old male becomes a loner and will die at ten to fifteen years of age (perhaps as old as twenty-five). The young male will join the pride and then cannibalize cubs of the previous male.

This system seems cruel but it ensures only healthy genes remain in the pride. The death of their cub brings the lioness to estrus and, after four months gestation, new cubs are born. In this way, a new male assures that only his progeny are raised by the pride. Once the male is established, females may come into heat at any time of year and will mate several times a day. They are one of the few animals to mate for bonding purposes as well as reproduction. However, because of the regular usurpation of males by one another, lions do not mate for life.

For their large size, lions have relatively small teeth because they rely mainly on their claws to grab and hold onto prey. When a lioness leaps on to the back of an antelope or zebra, she grabs its head between her paws and jerks back, instantly breaking the animal's neck. Immature and old animals use their teeth to kill but this method of killing is not very effective so the unfortunate victim may not die as quickly as with the other technique. This is one reason that the notorious 'man-eaters' that occasionally make the headlines are usually old solitary lions that have been rejected from the pride. However, the most famous, the 'man-eaters of Tsavo' named after a region in Kenya, were healthy animals. Perhaps they were being opportunistic, and making the most of the easy eating offered by the railway workers who comprised their victims.

Most people have seen a house cat stalk a bird in their yard and the instinct is exactly the same for the lion. Very carefully and incredibly slowly, it creeps belly to the ground until the last instant... then a sudden rush and the prey is caught. Females always administer the fatal blow but males often do initial tracking and prey selection. Sometimes a male will roar and charge to frighten animals toward the waiting lionesses.

Cubs are usually indulged by their elders. At a kill, they are not so coddled. Males eat first, then the females, followed by the immature animals and then the cubs feed last. When food is scarce, older animals often end up with all available food and the cubs quickly starve. Again, nature seems cruel, but she is efficient. If an individual has already grown to a certain age, it must be more advantageous for that individual to grab all the food they can get and ensure their own survival than to give it to a younger individual who is smaller and may not live anyway.

Lions are animals of the grassy plains although they will move into forest. Lions have even been seen in the suburbs of large cities. They will eat most animals but usually hunt antelope and zebra, and occasionally ostrich or buffalo. If they are hungry, any animal will do including man, which is why it is so dangerous to be in the open when a lion is about. They are also extremely protective of their young and a person foolish enough to approach their cubs is in extreme danger.

Lions are distributed over a large geographical area from Southern Africa to East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. They are found in every habitat from desert to alpine, except dense closed forest.

In protected areas, lions are numerous and in no immediate danger of extinction. However, they need hundreds of square miles to support a pride and plentiful prey. These can be quickly reduced or lost by human activities such as urbanization, ranching and agriculture. These 'developments' and poaching must be controlled to preserve healthy lion populations for future generations to appreciate.

Links (Maneaters of Tsavo)

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