Lion habitat – ‘at home in more open areas’

Overview: The African lion habitat includes the plains of the Serengeti in East Africa and woodlands, deserts, dry forest and scrub. Underlying these habitats is the preference for open areas. In open plains lions use the cover of gullies and riverbanks to stalk prey. They also use the cover of night and poor weather with success. The Asiatic lion’s habitat is open deciduous forest and dry scrub land in the Gir Forest.

Lion enjoying the moment in the Serengeti
Lion enjoying the moment in the Serengeti. The info is Schaller GB (1972). The photo is in the public domain.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

The difference between the lion and the other big cats namely the jaguar, tiger and leopard is that lions “are at home in more open areas”. The words come from Mel and Fiona Sunquist. Most people are familiar with lions roaming around the Serengeti which is a very open landscape. However, the “Serengeti’s wooded grasslands and rolling short grass plains are quite different from the lion’s habitat over much of its geographic range. Elsewhere lions live in woodlands, dry forest, scrub, and even deserts.” Once again, I have recited the words of Mel and Fiona Sunquist from their book Wild Cat of the World. It’s the best book on the Wild cats you can buy in my opinion.

Lion hunts camels
Lion hunts camels in Kenya. Photo: Richard Rhee on Flickr

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Obviously, the habitat of a lion depends upon where they are. Although today the lion is found only in sub-Saharan Africa and the Gir forest of north-western India, around 200 years ago the lion was widely distributed in the Middle East, north-western India, Arabia and North Africa. This indicates the greater variability of habitat in which the lion lived. For example, lions were abundant in Algeria but there was conflict with farmers and the last lion was thought to have been shot in 1893 not far from Constantine. Large parts of Algeria are rocky with desert scrub. “Scrub” is often described as a successional habitat which means that it is in transition and temporary between one habitat and another.

Lioness Zama captures and kills stork
Lioness Zama captures and kills stork. Photo in public domain.

Lions are mainly terrestrial which means they spend little time in trees and they are not particularly good climbers, certainly in comparison to the other cats. Although the lions in Africa’s Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda often rest in the branches of a tree.

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Lions don’t rest in water during the daytime to cool themselves but they are reasonable swimmers. And they seem to dig more than the other big cats because they’ve been frequently observed excavation aardvark burrows to reach warthogs. The lion’s habitat is shrinking due to increased human activity.

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I see three major topics about the lion habitat that are of note and they concern the lion’s distribution which is, of course, linked to its habitat.

  1. It is shrinking and has done so consistently for centuries;
  2. The range of the sub-species, the Asiatic Lion, is now limited to the Gir Forest in India;
  3. The African Lion’s range covers southern and central Africa.

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The Shrinking Habitat

The Lion’s range has been greatly reduced by human population growth and commercial activity. The original lion habitat was the southern parts of Eurasia, Greece to India (see map directly below) and Africa (see below Lion Habitat – Africa).

Lion extirpation

The map above shows the places, where, and dates, when, the lion was extirpated (destroyed completely) from the southern Eurasian region. For example, in Greece the last lion roamed that ancient country until AD 100 and was made extinct there by sport hunting (probably). And in Turkey, Greece’s neighbor, the lion had been extirpated by about the late 19th century (the late 1800s), and so on. It is interesting to note that the last lion was seen in Iran as recently as 1941. Iran still has a wild cheetah, surprisingly. But this very special cheetah is all but extinct (see Iranian Cheetah).

The Asiatic Lion

IUCN Red List® status for Asiatic lion: Critically Endangered. In India the Asiatic lion’s existence in the wild hangs on by a thread and has done for many years. The Asiatic lion is protected and lives in one area, the The Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Gujarat, India.

RELATED: Difference between Asiatic and African lion

Comparing the African and Asiatic lion
Comparing the African and Asiatic lion. Photo left: Houston Zoo. Right: Wikipedia. Montage: PoC.

At one time they roamed freely over a wide area covering most of Southwest Asia and in particular including the Caucasus, Yemen and from Macedonia in Greece and to India and through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan and thence to Bangladesh. The Asiatic lion has also been called the Persian lion and Indian lion. With a huge erosion of lion habitat comes the threat of extinction and this wild cat is now considered Critically Endangered (CR) by the IUCN Red List®. See IUCN Red List for Cats.

Here is a map showing where the Gir Forest National Park is. It is a very small area relative the African lion’s range and indeed the Asiatic lion’s previous range as mentioned above.

Gir forest map and Africa lion range

The Asiatic lion is confined to the area indicated. The map (modified by me) above is published under a Wikimedia license (see below). The author of the original is Christophe cagé. The Gir Forest, as can be seen, is very beautiful (at least in parts). The Asiatic lion habitat at the Gir forest is open deciduous forest and dry scrubland. The area of the Gir Forest National Park is 1,412 km².

Lion distribution
Lion distribution 2019. Annotations: mainly PoC. Map: Wikipedia.

Lion Habitat – Africa

Here is a picture of the range of the African Lion. The picture is courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The author of the picture is Eric Gaba (Sting). You can see immediately how the distribution has become very fragmented.

lion range in Africa

As can be seen the area is large but it is shrinking due to human population growth and consequential activity. People, farmers, see the lion as a threat to their business and try and kill it. As there gradually are more farmers with more land there is a greater chance of an encounter between human and lion with the consequences that that brings. Lion populations have, unsurprisingly, fallen dramatically from over 100,000 to around 23,000 over the past century. However, in the protected areas the lion populations are not falling, as I understand it. The only way to protect the lion is for people to stop reproducing (!?) and to learn to co-exist with wild animals.

The chart below shows past and projected human population growth, the only threat to lion habitat.

Population growth world and Africa

Human population growth and projections –Source for figures: Wikipedia

Here is a photographic montage:

African lion habitat

African lion habitat – photos: background photo is by pegash. I chose this for the background as it shows the kind of landscape well. The lion cub on the rock is by Susan Renee. The lion cub is in a lion reserve in Zimbabwe, Africa. The lion on the left was taken by sausyn at Kirkman’s Kamp, Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa. Apologies to the photographers for the image quality. It is all about file size as you will realize.

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