Lions in South Africa

The magnificent South African lion has been revered throughout history as an iconic symbol of power, strength and courage. The biggest and most social of all the African cats, they once roamed Europe, Asia and much of Africa. Today, virtually all wild lions live in sub-Saharan Africa, aside from a small population in the Gir Forest in India. Read on to find out the story of lions in South Africa.

Big Cats Nature
22 April 2022

Known as the king of beasts, Panthera leo melanochaita is the lion subspecies that inhabits South Africa.

After the Cape lion was effectively hunted to extinction in the 1860s, the remaining lions in South Africa – also known as Southern lions, Southern African lions and even the ‘southern subspecies’ – can still be found in the wild in certain areas of the country. As well as this wild population, these fascinating creatures can also be found in protected private and provincial reserves throughout South Africa.

Here is everything you need to know about the magnificent South African lion. Please note that this article contains themes which some of our audience may find distressing.

Lions in South Africa

Portrait of pair of African lions, Panthera leo, in Kruger National Park South Africa. (Photo: Ondrej Prosicky via iStock)

Globally-recognised as charismatic megafauna, lions are part of the African ‘Big Five’ along with leopards, rhinos, buffalo and elephants. There are approximately 13,000 lions in South Africa but only around 2,300 are wild, the rest are in game reserves and in captivity.

Where do South African Lions Live?

Pride of African lion resting in morning savannah in Kruger National park, South Africa (Photo: Eisenlohr via iStock)

The biggest population of wild lions in South Africa is in the 19,623 square kilometre Kruger National Park. This is located in the northeast of the country, on the borders of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It is one of Africa’s largest game reserves and the current population is estimated to be around 1,600 lions.

There are smaller populations straddling the border with Botswana (approximately 40), the Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape (about 25) and there are thought to be around 120 lions in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, 200km east of Cape Town in the Western Cape, is believed to be home to the only free, self-sustaining pride of white lions in the world. Beyond this, the Aquila Game Reserve in the Karoo National Park is home to South African lions that have been rescued from the ‘canned hunting’ industry, a grotesque practice of breeding tame, passive lions specifically to be hunted in small enclosures.

What do South African Lions Eat?

Lions drinking water. Portrait of pair of African lions, Panthera leo. (Photo: Ondrej Prosicky via iStock)

Lions are known as ‘opportunistic hunters’. They will eat whatever they can find from mice to elephants. Depending on their territory they will usually go for ungulate – hoofed – mammals such as wildebeest, deer, zebra, kudu antelope and even hippo, young rhino and giraffe (who will fight back, often inflicting serious damage as they kick out with their hind legs).

One of the South African lions’ favoured methods of hunting is to stealthily follow a herd of buffalo and pick off the weakest or slowest when the opportunity arises. If they mount a full-on charge, the buffalo will encircle their young and fight back, usually with deadly results. Even the biggest, bravest and most courageous 200kg lion is reluctant to fight an angry, 900kg buffalo…

The lions in South Africa will also take over the kills of other wild animals, such as cheetahs, hyenas, wild dogs, vultures and jackals. They will also eat carrion at times, the decaying remains of already dead animals.

South African Lions: The Day-to-Day

A lion stretches in Addo Elephant National Park. (Photo: roberto_mangano via iStock)

Lions are the most social of all the big cats and can live in prides of up to twenty animals or more. Depending on the pride size there can be up to four males (one of which will be the alpha) as well as up to twelve females who are all related, and their cubs. When the males are around two years old they will be forced out of the pride to find a new group, often challenging the new pride’s dominant male.

The females do most of the hunting – at full speed they can reach almost 60 km/h – but the dominant males will get first dibs on the kill. If they haven’t fed for a while they can eat up to 50kg of meat at a time, stripping the bones clean of meat with sharp-pointed rasps on their tongues called papillae.

For much of the day they will mostly rest in shaded, wooded areas close to rivers and lakes, especially when the weather is scorching hot. While the adults sleep, the young will play, simulating stalking, wrestling and hunting each other, a vital element of their development.

Fascinating Facts About the South African Lion

Two big male African lions in early morning light, Kalahari desert, South Africa (Photo: EcoPic via iStock)

A Roar-some Animal

On a quiet night on the savannahs and open plains, a male lion’s roar can be heard over seven kilometres away. They will usually roar after a kill or when members of the pride are trying to find each other.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight…

Lions can spend 16-20 hours a day sleeping and resting after intense periods of hunting and patrolling their home ranges.

Bright Night Sight Avoids a Fight

Lions in South Africa usually hunt at night. Their eyesight has adapted to the dark which gives them a big advantage over their prey. They also like to hunt during storms, as the thunder and swirling wind makes it much harder for their victims to see, hear and smell them.

Threats On All Fronts

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, South African lions are considered ‘vulnerable’ with a decreasing population. Their main threats are the illegal wildlife trade, scarcer natural prey, and farmers protecting their livestock – known as retaliatory or preemptive killing. Climate change is also a factor, seeing more droughts and delayed rainy seasons impacting the availability of prey.

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