Plight of the Mighty


I might not believe in astrology and zodiac signs for scientific and religious reasons, but I cannot possibly avoid their strong cultural presence. Born a Leo, I have often been attributed certain traits that, to be honest, are not entirely inaccurate. According to Cosmopolitan, Leos love to lead, perform, talk, be admired, and receive the praise and respect of others. They are naturally regal, and always assume a boss-like stance in any relationship or group dynamic. They are confident and bright, though they can be jealous, controlling, and possessive at their worst. Such traits might not fit every person born between 23 July and 22 August, but they are certainly befitting the inspirational animal of the sign: the Lion.

10 August, World Lion Day, is a celebration of the animal kingdom’s most beautiful and fearsome creature founded by Big Cat Rescue, the world’s largest accredited sanctuary dedicated to big cats. Though a fun and exciting occasion for all, its foundations are based in a very serious matter: lion numbers have dramatically declined to the point where the species needs to be placed on the endangered list.

The lion, Panthera leo, is the second largest cat in the world, following the tiger; both species belonging to the cat family Felidae, which also includes leopards and jaguars. The lion generally stands for strength and courage; thus, is commonly used to symbolize royalty—hence, the phrase “King of the Jungle”. The king of the jungle does not actually live in the jungle though.

Three million years ago, lions roamed all over Africa and the Eurasian supercontinent. Today, their range is reduced primarily to Sub-Saharan savannahs, plains, and grasslands in Africa, and a critically endangered population in Gir Forest National Park in western India. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), lions are a “vulnerable” species. In the 1950’s there were an estimated 50,000 lions in Africa; today, there are around 21,000. Researchers estimate there are between 30,000 and 100,000 lions left on Earth.

Lions have adapted to their habitats over time. For example, the tan color of a lion’s coat allows it to blend in with the desert and savannah; lions that live in the desert tend to have smaller manes to keep them cool. Lions can live in very dry areas like the Kalahari Desert where they get most of their water from their prey and will even drink from plants such as the Tsamma melon.

Most cats, wild and domestic, are solitary hunters, but lions are very social animals. A pride can include up to 30 animals, but typically are made up of 10-15, with five or six females, their cubs, and two males that breed with the females in the group. The majority of hunting is handled by the females; they use intelligent hunting tactics and work as a group to trap and capture prey. They use this ‘team approach’ to other activities within the pride.

Female lions in the same pride often give birth around the same time and they form a crèche, which is a nursery group where they raise their cubs together. Mothers will nurse any cubs in their crèche, not just their own. The main purpose of these groups is to allow the mothers to protect their cubs from lions outside of the pride who may try to hurt them.

Females will usually stay in the same pride they were born into, while males will be forced to leave when they are around two to four years old so they cannot compete with the pride’s dominant male. Males will then form a group and search for a pride to take over. Male lions become a member of the pride because the females accept them as the pride male. The lion has to win the grace of the females and usually will only be able to remain the pride male three to five years in the wild.

The average lion will spend between 16 and 20 hours a day just resting or sleeping. It is because they do not have many sweat glands, so in order to conserve energy, lions will just lie about and watch the world unfold around them. They are more active at night when it is cooler although they do conduct most of their hunting activity during the day.

Lions are apex predators, which means they are at the top of the food chain; their only predators are humans. Apex predators like lions are super important to maintaining ecosystems because they control the rest of the predators and prey in their area. Removing apex predators or forcing them to move to a different habitat disrupts entire ecosystems.

The threats against lions are all too real; they face the dual specters of increasingly popular “trophy hunting” and human incursion on their traditional wildlands. In Asia, tiger bones are a popular traditional medicine; poachers turn to lions as those are becoming less available. Humans also hunt lions for fun; trophy hunting targets the healthiest and largest males, often the heads of their prides. Such killings take away the protection of the pride and leave them vulnerable to dangers from other lions.

World Lion Day, therefore, is an opportunity for lion lovers all over the planet to push back against the decline in the range and habitat of the king of beasts. The Day has three objectives; to:

  1. Raise awareness of the plight of the lion and the issues the species faces in the wild;
  2. Find ways to protect the lion’s natural environment, such as creating more national parks and reducing the areas in which people can settle; and
  3. Educate people who live near wild cats on the dangers and how to protect themselves.


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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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