The Southern African lion is a Panthera leo melanochaita population in Southern Africa. 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. In 2005, a Lion Conservation Strategy was developed for Southern and East Africa. Today, lion populations are stable only in large protected area complexes. In intensively managed protected areas in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, they increased since the turn of this century. The scientific name P. l. melanochaita was proposed for the Cape lion in 1842 that was eradicated in the mid-19th century. P. l. melanochaita differs genetically from P. leo leo; the two subspecies probably diverged at least 50,000 years ago.
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. The Cape lion had a black mane extending beyond the shoulders and under the belly. Black-maned lions also occur in the Kalahari and eastern Okavango Delta alongside those with a normal tawny mane colour. A few male Southern African lion skins in museum collections were described as having manes that vary in size, colour and development. Until the late 20th century, the colour and size of lion manes was considered to be a distinct subspecific characteristic. 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.
White lions have occasionally been encountered in and around Kruger National Park and the adjacent Timbavati Private Game Reserve in South Africa. Their whitish fur is a rare morph caused by a double recessive allele.
A lion from South Africa’s Cape Province was the type specimen for Felis (Leo) melanochaitus described in 1842 by Charles Hamilton Smith. In the 19th and 20th centuries, several naturalists described zoological specimens from Southern Africa and proposed lion subspecies including:
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:
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.
In 2018, a lion recorded in Gabon's Batéké Plateau National Park was found to be closely related to historical lion specimens from this area and the neighbouring Republic of the Congo, which grouped with lion samples from Namibia and Botswana.
Southern African lion populations are confined to 23 unfenced and 16 fenced reserves today. In the past, they declined in:
Contemporary lion distribution and habitat quality in Southern Africa was assessed in 2005, and Lion Conservation Units (LCU) mapped. Between 2002 and 2012, educated guesses for size of populations in the Southern African LCUs ranged from 13,482 to 12,036 individuals.
|Range countries||Lion Conservation Units||Area in km2|
|Mozambique||Cahora Bassa, Gilé, Gorongosa-Marromeu||82,715|
|Mozambique, Zambia||Middle Zambezi||64,672|
|Mozambique, South Africa||Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park||150,347|
|Zambia||Liuwa Plains, Sioma Ngwezi, Kafue Sumbu Complex||72,569|
|Zambia, Malawi||North-South Luangwa||72,992|
|Botswana, South Africa||Kgalagadi||163,329|
|Angola||Kissama-Mumbondo, Bocoio-Camacuio, Alto Zambeze||393,760|
The LCUs Luangwa, Kgalagadi, Okavango-Hwange, Mid-Zambezi, Niassa and Greater Limpopo are currently considered lion strongholds in Southern Africa. They host more than 500 individuals each, and the population trend is stable.
In Kruger National Park, lions have been monitored since the 1970s. Results of a long-term study on hunting behaviour revealed that female lions were more successful at hunting medium-sized prey than male lions. Hunting success decreased in moon-lit nights and in areas with short grass.
In Etosha National Park, 11 lion prides were observed between 1991 and 1996. Two of the prides had one male resident lion each, and two shared three males. The remaining prides had at least two males. Samples of 164 lions were analysed to figure out relatedness of pride members. Results showed that cubs born in prides with one male and sharing males had fathers that were not members of their pride.
In Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, lions have been monitored since 1999. In 2003, 50 lions were radio-collared in Hwange National Park and tracked until 2012. Results show that adult male and female lions preferred grassland and shrubland habitat, but avoided woodlands and areas with high human density. By contrast, subadult dispersing male lions avoided grasslands and shrublands, but moved in human-dominated areas more frequently. Hence, dispersing lions are more vulnerable to coming into conflict with humans than adult lions.
In Botswana’s Chobe National Park, African bush elephants dominate at waterholes during the dry season. Large prides of about 20 adult and subadult lions frequently attempt to capture elephants during this time and are successful particularly in moonless nights. Groups of three to five adult lions subdue and kill an elephant. Cubs join the hunting group when the elephant is dead. In the Okavango Delta, lions swim in the delta's swamps and hunt large prey like Cape buffalo.
Lion populations in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia are threatened by trophy hunting, loss and conversion of habitat. They became small and isolated because local people hunt prey species and kill lions in retaliation for livestock losses. In Zambia's Kafue National Park, uncontrolled bushfires and hunting of lions and prey species makes it difficult for the lion population to recover. Cub mortality in particular is high.
Between 2008 and 2013, bones and body parts from at least 2621 individual lions were exported from South Africa to Southeast Asia, and another 3437 lion skeletons between 2014 and 2016. Lion bones are used to replace tiger bones in traditional Asian medicines. Private game ranches in South Africa breed lions for the canned hunting industry.
All lion populations in Africa are included in CITES Appendix II since 1975. Because of the negative effect of trophy hunting, it was proposed in 2004 to list all lion populations in CITES Appendix I to reduce export of lion trophies and implement a stricter permission process.
In 2006, a Lion Conservation Strategy for East and Southern Africa was developed in cooperation between IUCN regional offices and wildlife conservation organisations. The strategy envisages to maintain sufficient habitat and wild prey base, reduce factors that lead to further fragmentation of populations, and make lion-human coexistence sustainable. Local communities in several Southern African lion range countries generate significant revenue through wildlife tourism, which is a strong incentive for their support of conservation measures.