Lions are quite capable swimmers. Judging by the video on this page, sometimes, they don’t want to get wet! This majestic lion needs to get across a small patch of water and is reluctant to get more than his feet wet. He gingerly walks into the pond. It’s quite amusing and quite telling at the same time. Clearly each lion has their own personality but this behaviour hints that lions don’t love water like tigers. Tigers can spend all day in water, half submerged, to keep cool. Tigers are great swimmers and can swim in the sea for several miles. But it seems that the best that lions can do is swim across a river which, is perfectly adequate and capable but not expert. The reference for swimming major rivers comes from CAW Guggisberg in their work: Simba: The life of a lion (1963) in which they write that “There are records of them regularly swimming across the Okavango and other major rivers”.
Here is a video showing lions attacking an elephant which is unpleasant but it does show us how lions are not that keen on getting wet! Or they think the river is deep and don’t want to get involved in swimming in it. I think it is relevant to the discussion. The elephant sheds the attacking lions by paddling in the river only he returns to dry land to attack the primary lion which allows the others to restart attacking him for a while until he returns to the river.
Lions are described as “primarily terrestrial”. But they seem to prefer to be on the flat, on hard ground, as they are not particularly great at climbing either. Mel and Fiona Sunquist write in their book Wild Cats of the World that “they are not particularly adept climbers”. Although lions in Africa’s Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania often spend the day resting in the branches of a tree. I digress. This is about swimming. No doubt once a lion gets into the water they swim perfectly well as all cats do including domestic cats.
I can see a distinct similarity between lions and domestic cats here. Most domestic cats don’t really like to be submerged in water although when they are they swim very well.
It would seem that the environment that lions and tigers live in, being distinctly different, has an effect upon their personality with respect to water. Lions live in relatively dry and arid conditions compared to tigers. Lions live in woodlands, dry forest scrub and even deserts. Although tigers live in a great variety of habitat types it tends to be jungle or mangrove swamps in the Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India or evergreen forests and monsoonal forests (Indo-Malaysia), for example.
Below are some articles on lions.