What do Lions Eat?

Crouching amid vegetation, low to the ground, ears flat and eyes firmly on their prize, the image of a lion stalking its prey, as well as killing it, is iconic. But what animals do lions eat? How much food do they eat and how often? And what factors decide a lion’s diet? Read on to find out.

Big Cats Nature
22 April 2022

With its long body and powerful frame, the lion (Panthera leo) is the second largest member of the cat (felidae) family. What’s more, its body has the highest muscle percentage of any mammal. These big bodies require plenty of fuel.

Hunting is usually the main way lions get their food. Almost as soon as they are born, cubs begin to learn stalking and hunting behaviours from the adults around them. They usually join hunts before they turn one and are fully skilled by three years of age.

But the question is, what food do lions eat? What do lions eat in the wild versus those in captivity? How much do they need and how often? And do they like some things more than others?

Lion Diet and Nutritional Needs

A lion feasts on the remains of a bone (Photo: Rudolf Ernst via iStock)

Like all cats, lions are obligate carnivores, meaning they require meat to thrive. They require a high level of protein which they get from animal tissue. This also provides them with all of their amino acids, which their own bodies do not produce.

Lions are considered hypercarnivores, which means that more than 70% of their diet is meat. Although it’s nearer to 100% for these big cats, their bodies lacking the enzymes required to digest vegetation.

Feeding Habits

Research indicates that lions in the wild require between 5kg and 8.5kg of meat per day, males needing more than females. However, they don’t tend to eat every day. Perhaps unsurprising given that they spend up to 20 hours of each 24 sleeping. Instead, they eat every three to four days. When they finally settle for a meal, it’s a feast. They can eat anything from 30-50kg in one session. That’s anywhere from 15% to 50% of their own body weight. They will eat every possible part of a kill, which is everything except the digestive organs, teeth and any horns.

This lack of greens might seem to mean that lions do not have a very varied diet. This is very much not the case.

What Animals Do Lions Eat?

Lone female lion hunting zebras by waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia (Photo: MogensTrolle via iStock)

The answer to this is simple. Whatever they can get their paws on. Lions are not picky eaters. They’ll have any kill that’s around, whether hunted or scavenged. And, given that they sit at the top of the food chain, what’s known as “apex predators”, that means the world (or whatever part of it they inhabit) is their butcher.

Most of their meals are medium to large ungulates, ranging in size from 190kg to 550kg. Think hooved mammals like zebras, impala and wildebeest. But this is far from their full repertoire. In fact it would probably be quicker to name what animals lions wouldn’t eat. From insects and mice to giraffes and elephants, fish and birds, lions are generalist and unbothered by the form their meat takes.

How Much Do Lions Drink?

Male and female Lion drinking water from a natural pan in the Savuti area of Botswana (Photo: StuPorts via iStock)

While they may eat enormous portions, the same doesn’t go for drinking. Lions don’t need very much water, getting most of their moisture from their prey. They can also get it from plants.

What do Lions Eat in the Wild

Asiatic Lion bares his teeth (Photo: Thorsten Spoerlein via iStock)

In terms of what lions eat in the wild, this is dependent on what’s available in their surroundings.

Wild lions are located in just two areas of the world: Sub-Saharan Africa and India’s Gir National Park.

Africa generally offers lions a wide variety of choice, and they will usually eat prey such as wildebeest, wild hogs or boars, impala and zebras as well as any other suitable animal they can hunt – even giraffes, rhinos and small elephants! Having said this, the lions in the Kalahari desert mostly eat smaller mammals like mice and porcupines. Lions living in India tend to eat mostly chital deer.

Preference also plays a role in what lions eat. Not only does this differ between regions or countries, but even comparing different local prides.

What Lions Eat in Captivity

A tourist feeds a lion in the zoo (Photo: Appfind via iStock)

Lions in captivity have slightly different needs when compared to lions who eat in the wild. They require fewer calories and eat more regularly thanks to guaranteed provision. Zoo lions are mostly fed commercially sourced meat, meat mixes, bones, carcases and quite a lot of domestic cat food.

Meat, Meat and More Meat

A male lion eats a wildebeest carcas. (Photo: diane39 via iStock)

The lion diet is almost exclusively meat and is either hunted or scavenged. From there, it can vary based on location and preference, but they will generally eat whatever meat is available. While lions in the wild eat every few days, zoo lions get regular feeds.

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