The African lion is the largest and most imposing African carnivore and the most sought-after animal on Africa safari.
Lions have special cultural significance in most countries on the African continent as symbols of courage and strength. In Uganda, they enjoy a reputation as ‘king of the beasts’ and are popular symbols of royalty, strength and bravery.
They have powerful bodies, second in size only to tigers, and roars that can vibrate five miles away.
An adult lion’s coat is yellow-gold, and young ones have some light spots that disappear with age. Only male lions typically have manes, that impressive ruffle of long hair that encircles their heads.
The African lion is the most social of the large cats, living in loosely structured groups called prides of typically two to 40 lions, including up to three to four males, about a dozen females and their cubs. All the females in the pride are usually related, and cubs will stick around till they come of age.
Young males eventually leave their birth group and establish their own prides by challenging a dominant male of another pride and taking over or creating a coalition with them, usually if they’re related to them.
Males are thrown out of the group at the age of 3-4 years by the dominant male(s) and will try to take over a pride when they get to 7-10 years old. Males can usually hold a pride for 2-3 years only before being ousted by another male or coalition of males.
Males will defend the pride’s territory, marking the frontiers with urine, roaring menacingly to warn intruders, and keeping intruders off their turf.
Females generally stay in the same area as their mothers, occasionally moving to an adjacent pride when subadult and rear a litter of cubs every two years.
Female lions are the group leaders and are responsible for hunting expeditions. They often work in teams to hunt agile antelopes, zebras, buffalo, and other large animals in the open grasslands. They also communally raise their cubs; all females take part in raising the young.
Young lions do not join hunting parties until they are a year old. The African lion will hunt alone if the opportunity presents itself, and it can also steal kills from other predators like hyenas, cheetahs or wild dogs.
Lions are not very active by day: they often lay in the shade looking like regal adolescents. They prefer hunting at night, dawn or dusk to use the lighting advantage on their prey
Lions live in a ‘fission-fusion’ society, a reasonably rare social system similar to wild chimpanzees. Individuals have different home ranges that overlap, so they regularly meet and come together.
In Uganda, lions are mainly found in the three largest savanna parks: Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP), Kidepo Valley National Park (KVNP) and Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). The Ishasha lions in Queen Elizabeth are famously known for their unique behaviour of climbing trees and have been branded the “Ishasha tree-climbing lions” by tourists.
They occur naturally in most woodland and grassland habitats and are now fairly common in certain parts of Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth national parks. A healthy lion population survives in Kidepo National Park, but they are no longer present in Lake Mburo.
Lions, after mountain gorillas, are what every tourist visiting Uganda wants to see. A WCS assessment in 2006 showed that each lion in Queen Elizabeth National Park generated about USD 13,500 per year for the national economy in terms of the revenue for the Uganda government. An influencing factor was that tourists were willing to stay longer just to see lions.
Ecologically, lions play an essential role in maintaining the ecosystem health and balance by predating on herbivores, often targeting sick individuals and thereby keeping disease down and disposing of carcasses.