There was a time, in the not too distant past, when Lions roamed across the entire continents of Africa and Asia and much of Europe. Their numbers were vast and their territory was too. But as human populations expanded and so did their hunting grounds, the two species began to clash more and more.
Many Lions were killed for hunting and sport, their hides and meat were in demand. Many more were killed to protect livestock and people and in some areas entire species of Lion became extinct. Lions today, have disappeared from around 94% of their historical range!
While some species may now be relics of the past, there are still thriving populations in some corners of the world. So where do Lions live now? And what are the existing threats to their habitats?
Where Do Lions Live?
Lions are capable of living in a variety of different environments. From scrubland and savanna to sparse forests and mountains. Each subspecies has its own preference. While their territories may be vastly smaller than they were historically, different species and subspecies are quite widely dispersed.
As a rule, they prefer grassland and savanna, open woodland and scrub to areas of thicker cover. They also tend by and large, to live in close proximity to water where groups of vulnerable prey congregate. But in areas such as the Kalahari dessert where water is scarce, lions get most of their water from the prey they kill. So they are very adaptable.
Where lions live depends both on the species, and the geography of their surrounding environment. They are spread far across Africa and there are populations in India too. Anywhere that a lion has access to shelter, water and food has potential as a home.
What is a clade?
The map above refers to different ‘clades’ of lions, and where they are distributed. What this means in this example, is an area where the different species share a common ancestor that is distinct from other species.
For example the North African/Asian clade share ancestry with the Panthera Leo Leo. The different subspecies in these areas share common ancestry that is distinct from other species. The Southern and South Eastern African lion share common ancestry with the Panthera Leo Melanochaita.
The ‘type’ specimen of Melanochaita – the Cape Lion, is extinct, but the lions of the southern clade that exist today share ancestry with the extinct species. In 2017, it was decided that the Cape lion was so closely related to populations in the south and east of Africa, that the species that live there (Transvaal and Masai) should also be considered Panthera Leo Melanochaita.
The correct taxonomy of lions is something still debated today.
African Lions – The Subspecies
There are a few subspecies of African lion that exist today. While some live in close proximity to each other, they all live in their own defined areas. You won’t find a Senegal lion in South Africa for example, and vice versa. While all lions are now considered to either be Panthera Leo Leo or Panthera Leo Melanochaita, here is a breakdown of the subspecies and the areas in which they live.
Transvaal Lion (Kalahari Lion) – subspecies Panthera leo krugeri
Habitat: – The Transvaal lion is native to the south of Africa. They are the southern-most sub species of the African lion. Populations stretch across the continent from Namibia to Mozambique. It get’s it’s name from the Transvaal region in South Africa where they are also known to live. They enjoy semi-arid habitats, open grasslands and the savanna.
The standout feature of the Transvaal lion is it’s long, impressive mane. They are one of the most social species of lion, living in groups of up to 15.
Populations are relatively steady in the south and west, with 2000 lions in the Kruger national park alone. However, in the east, these lions have become regionally extinct. In Lesotho, Djibouti and Eritrea they were hunted into extinction both by hunting for sport and bounties, and by farmers protecting livestock.
Southwest African Lion (Katanga Lion) – subspecies Panthera leo bleyenberghi
Habitat: – As the name suggests, the Southwest African Lion, is found in the Southwestern countries of Africa. Populations are known in:
- Northern Botswana
- South Africa
- Western Zimbabwe
The Southwest African Lion is another species that was nearly annihilated due to trophy hunting. Managed conservation efforts in reserves have helped to bring the population back but they are still a vulnerable species.
The Katanga lions are one of the largest species of lion alive today. These lions can be found living in the deserts, the grasslands, forests and the mountains. Those that live wild in the savanna share territory with the Kalahari lion.
East African Lion (Masai Lion) – subspecies Panthera leo nubica
Habitat: – The Masai lion live in the countries of East Africa. Particularly:
These lions can vary in appearance depending on the area they live in. In Kenya for example, Males that live in higher altitudes develop a heavier mane than those living in the lower, more humid areas. The Masai lion also tend to have longer legs than other subspecies of lion.
West African Lion (Senegal Lion) – subspecies Panthera leo senegalensis
Habitat: – The West African lion is the smallest of the African lions, and populations are critically low. They live in Senegal, and Benin across to the Central African Republic.
It is thought that as few as 20 lions currently live in Senegal in the Niokolo Koba national park. Live stock attacks outside the national park by the animal is often a cause of retaliation, and trophy hunting, killing for bushmeat are also a factor in the dwindling populations. Active efforts are ongoing to try and protect the lion.
Congo Lion – subspecies Panthera leo azandica
Habitat: – The Congo lion is native to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. This species prefers to roam the savanna and grasslands than the dense rainforests. They do like to take shade under trees through the day, but for hunting and roaming they need the open space of the savanna.
The Congo lion is a keystone predator in its environment, keeping populations of wildebeast, African buffalo and zebra controlled in the area. This is a vulnerable species of lion with active conservation efforts in place.
Asiatic Lion – subspecies Panthera leo leo
Habitat: – This subspecies of lion exist in the wild today, only in the Gujarat state of India. Specifically the Gir National Park and surrounding areas. They inhabit the forest and savanna areas around the Gir and Girnar hill regions.
The habitat used to be much bigger, covering most of Northern India and the Middle East. Historically, the species existed as far a field as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. There are other sub species of panthera leo leo lions that live in Africa too.
The Asiatic Lion was almost brought to the brink of extinction. Over the last decade populations of the lion have been increasing, though the numbers are still small. In the 2015 lion census conducted within the Gir National Park and surrounding area, there were an estimated 523 lions. In the 2020 census that number increases to 674.
Extinct Lions and Their Habitats
Cape Lion – subspecies Panthera leo melanochaita
Habitat: – The Cape Lion was a distinct species that lived in the Cape region of South Africa. They were also native to the Natal province.
It was 1858 when the last known wild Cape lion was killed but populations may have survived into the 1860s. It was originally though that this subspecies lived isolated from other species. However, it was later discovered that the Cape lion was closely related to other south and eastern species.
Panthera Leo Fossilis
Habitat: – These cats lived in Eurasia around 600,000 years ago. They are considered to have evolved from a species that entered Eurasia from Tanzania around 700,000 years ago. It is considered to be one of the earliest lion subspecies that we know of today, and was believed to coexist with our early human ancestors.
Eurasian Cave Lion – subspecies Panthera spelaea
Habitat: – This early species of lion originated in Europe and was distinct from the two subspecies that exist today. Studies suggest it originated less than 600,000 years ago, but became extinct around 13.000 years ago.
There is evidence of the Eurasian Cave Lion as far a field as Alaska, probably emigrating from Europe over the Bering straight/land bridge. It was widely distributed around the whole of Europe (including the UK and Russia) as well as Canada and Alaska.
European Lion – subspecies Panthera leo europaea
Habitat: – The European Lion was known to inhabit much of Europe from Portugal and Spain in the west, across to northern Greece. Particularly around the Mediterranean and the temperate forests. There was plenty of prey in these parts, like deer, elk and other Ungulates.
Some argue that the European subspecies is an offshoot of the Asiatic Lion, or very late examples of the Cave lion. Little is known about the species, but what is known is that the last of the species became extinct around 100 AD in eastern Europe.
North African Lion (Barbary Lion) – subspecies Panthera leo leo
Habitat: – These lions lived in the Northern part of Africa from Morocco to Egypt. Particularly the mountains and deserts of the Barbary Coast.
This lion was hunted to the brink of extinction in the 19th Century, when bounties were paid for successful killing of the animals. The last known sighting was in Algeria in 1956.
The Asiatic lion is a sub species of panthera leo leo that still exists today in India.
As you can see, the Lion both extant and extinct lives far and wide and is flexible with the terrain, altitude and fauna in its environment.
Do Lions live in the jungle?
We’ve all heard the song, and we’ve all heard of lions being called ‘kings of the jungle’ but do they actually live in the jungle? Well, no, not really. While they are very flexible with where they do live, the jungle is not on the list.
The jungle is too dense and obstructive for a lion to hunt and stalk prey effectively, or to roam with a pack. There is also a lack of big game in jungle and for better hunting they prefer to be out of the thick trees. They do like to sleep under trees during the hot hours, but in open woodland not thick forest.
While lions do like cover for hiding young cubs from potential predators, and for stealth when hunting, they prefer un-obstructive cover like long grass. They can run through this freely when the time is right.
Even the Asiatic lion in India’s Gir Forest National Park tend to stick to the savanna and dense scrub areas and out of the forest.
Where Do Lions Sleep?
Lions like dense scrub with thick bushes and open woodland for sleeping. Anywhere they can get some shade from the hot sun during the day. The days can be incredibly hot and they don’t have many sweat glands. Also, hunting at that time would use up far too much energy. So Lions tend to sleep during these hours and hunt at dusk when it is cooler.
They can be at rest for up to 18-20 hours a day, conserving their energy for the few hours hunting or roaming at night. Like many other cats, lions are nocturnal.
Threats To Habitat
It seems as though in some cases, the passage of time changes nothing. Human activity, as it always has been, is still the biggest threat to both the lives and the habitat of lions. Other threats like climate change also have an impact on lions, but humans, are a major cause of that too.
Revenge killing for attacks to livestock, habitat encroachment, trophy hunting and bushmeat hunting are all ways in which humans are a threat to lions.
The population of African lions, despite conservation efforts, have dropped by half in the last 20 years. As human populations and farm land expand, the wild habitats of these lions are being pushed to the brink. For an animal that used to be spread further than any other animal other than humans, the loss is staggering.
Most existing populations of lion now exist in dedicated conservation areas or national parks, but there is hope for the mighty lion.
The Asiatic lion has seen numbers grow in the last 7 years in India’s Gir National Park, through conservation efforts. Not only have numbers increased but so has the land that they occupy. It is hoped that this can be seen as an example for conservation of the African lion, and many countries in the south and east of Africa have already started serious work on conservation plans.