The title was probably bestowed on the lion because of the male’s mane, which makes him look very impressive. The mane is a large growth of hair around the neck and down the chest, and often a little way down the back. No other cat species has a mane. The mane makes a male seem larger than he actually is, without the disadvantage of a larger weight, which would require more food. A large mane is a signal to other males that here comes a powerful animal, which shouldn’t be challenged, even if the challenging male is in fact larger than his opponent, but has a smaller mane. The mane also gives some protection during fights among males.
In a pride, lionesses do most of the hunting, during which they co-operate. One or two commence walking slowly towards a flock of herbivores, while others have crept through the grass and are now waiting in ambush for the advancing lionesses to drive an animal towards them. Lions also often steal prey from other animals, including leopard (Panthera pardus), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), and spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta). A study from the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, has shown that more than 80% of all carcasses that lions were feeding on had in fact been killed by hyaenas.
Usually, all animals in a pride eat simultaneously, but if the prey is not large enough to feed them all, the stronger males – even if they didn’t participate in the hunt – often chase away females and cubs. If prey is scarce, all members of a pride starve, and, being the weakest, cubs often succumb. On average, an adult male requires about 7 kilograms of meat per day, a lioness about 5 kilos.
The role of male lions is to protect the pride against enemies, mostly foreign males who attempt to take over the pride. If they succeed in ousting the resident males, the new males will kill all small cubs in the pride. Formerly, this behaviour was a mystery to scientists, but studies have shown that if a litter of cubs die, the lioness quickly gets into oestrous again. In this way, by killing the cubs, the new males can father offspring faster and thus propagate their own genes.
When a lioness is in heat, one of the males will follow her closely and guard her against other males. Copulation is initiated by head rubbing and sniffing each other’s genitals. Then the male mounts, biting the hind neck of the lioness. However, he must dismount quickly, as the lioness often becomes exceedingly aggressive right after mating. The pair may copulate as many as 50 times in a 24-hour period.
The lion is still fairly common in eastern and southern Africa, mainly in national parks and game reserves. A new threat is poaching, the aim of which is to deliver lion parts to the insatiable market for Chinese traditional medicine, as the tiger, which was originally the preferred ‘victim’, has almost been exterminated (described on the page Folly of Man).
It seems that man-eating instances have increased greatly in later years. It has been reported that, between 1990 and 2005, at least 563 villagers were attacked and many eaten by lions in rural areas of Tanzania. The main reason may be that the increasing human population forces people to move further into the bush, where they establish farmland and, simultaneously, exterminate natural prey species of the lion.
The most famous incident regarding man-eating lions took place in Kenya in 1898, when the British were constructing a railway from Mombasa to Nairobi, using mainly Indian labourers. Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson was in charge of the project. When construction of a bridge across the Tsavo River took place, two male lions began stalking the workers’ campsite, dragging coolies from their tents at night and devouring them.
The workers made campfires and erected thorn fences around their camp to keep the man-eaters out, but to no avail. It seemed that these lions had no fear of fire, and they always managed to make their way through the thorn fences. Patterson tried to stalk the lions on foot, but as he was a very inexperienced hunter, the lions got away unharmed. After several repeated attacks, hundreds of workers fled, and work on the bridge came to a halt.
Patterson now constructed a trap with a separate enclosure, which contained coolies to attract the lions, but they ignored the trap, which was then abandoned. Some months later, one of the lions entered the trap out of curiosity, hereby triggering the locking mechanism. Several workers fired at it, but only managed to shatter the locking mechanism, whereupon the lion escaped, bullets whistling around its ears. Patterson spent countless nights on a platform in a tree, hoping to shoot the lions. After repeated unsuccessful endeavors, he shot one on December 9, 1898, and twenty days later the second one. The labourers could now return safely, and the bridge was completed. (Source: Patterson, 1926)
Patterson claimed that, during the nine months of construction, c. 135 people fell victim to the Tsavo Man-eaters, but it seems that this number is grossly exaggerated. A recent study of the two stuffed man-eaters, which are today kept in the Chicago Field Museum, indicates that ‘only’ c. 35 humans were eaten by the lions.
The reason for these two lions to become man-eaters is not clear. Peterhans & Gnoske (2001), as well as Patterson (2004), speculate the following three theories:
An outbreak of rinderpest (a cattle disease) in 1898 may have decimated the usual prey of the lions, forcing them to find alternative food items.
The lions may have been accustomed to human flesh by finding bodies of slaves at the Tsavo River crossing, which was often used by slave caravans, bound for Zanzibar.
Inadequate cremations of Hindu railroad workers could invite scavenging by the lions.
The lion has been widely used as a symbol of power in various cultures and mythologies, as a heraldic symbol of power in countless coat-of-arms, and in art and folklore.
The main source in this section is various pages on en.wikipedia.org.
In Greek mythology, the Nemean lion was a vicious monster, living in Nemea, Peloponnese. This lion could not be killed with weapons of mortal people, as its huge golden fur was impervious to attack. Its claws were sharper than swords and could cut through any armour. Eventually, this monster was killed by the Greek hero Heracles, who strangled it with his bare hands. Subsequently, he wore the lion’s pelt as a magic cloak, which made him invulnerable.
According to a tale in the Talmud, Chullin 59b, Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah informs Roman Emperor Hadrian about a giant lion, living in the forest of Bei Ilai – a lion so huge that the space between its ears measures 9 cubits (corresponding to more than 4 m). The emperor orders the rabbi to call forth this lion, to which he reluctantly agrees. At a distance of 400 parasangs (c. 2,400 km) from Rome, the lion roars, causing all pregnant women to miscarry and all the walls of Rome to fall down. At a distance of 300 parasangs (c. 1,800 km), the lion again roars, and this time all the front teeth and molars of Roman men fall out, and even the emperor himself falls from his throne. He begs the rabbi to send the lion back, and, praying, he manages to make it return to its abode.
In certain African cultures, the lion was a symbol of power, and some rulers included the term ‘lion’ in their title. One example was Marijata, of the Mali Empire (c. 1235-1600), who was called ‘The Lion of Mali.’
According to local mythology, Ndiadiane Ndiaye, the legendary founder of the Waalo Kingdom (1287-1855), in present-day Senegal and Mauritania, was raised by lions, returning to his people, part man, part lion, to unite them, using the knowledge he learned from the pride.
In many African folktales, lions have low intelligence and are often tricked by other animals.
About 1600 B.C., the Hittites established an empire, centred around the city of Hattuşa, the ruins of which are situated near the present town of Bogazkale, central Anatolia, Turkey. This empire reached its peak around 1350-1300 B.C., during the rule of King Suppiluliuma I, when the major part of Anatolia, as well as what is today northern Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, were conquered. One of the entrances to the palace in Hattuşa was leading through the once imposing Lion Gate, thus named due to the lion sculptures in front of the entrance.
The shakti (female aspect) of the great Hindu god Shiva is Devi, also named Parvati, Sati, Uma, Kali, or Durga, who is worshipped as the Mother Goddess. She is often depicted, riding on her mount, which is either a lion or a tiger.
Singh is an ancient Vedic name, meaning ‘lion’. This name was originally only used by Rajputs, a proud Hindu caste in Rajasthan, India. Following the formation of the Khalsa Sikh Brotherhood in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh wished all Sikhs to adopt the name Singh.
The Lion Capital of Ashoka was adopted as the official emblem of India in 1950. This capital, depicting four lions, standing back to back, was originally the symbol of the four truths of Buddhism. It dates back to the reign of Emperor Ashoka (272-238 B.C.), and was originally placed atop the Ashoka pillar at the sacred Buddhist site Sarnath, where Siddharta (later called ‘The Buddha’) gave his first lesson.
During Daoist festivals, so-called lion dances often take place in front of temples. As a rule, this dance is performed by two men, hidden under a gaily coloured cloth, which acts as the body of the lion, whereas a lion mask is held by the man in front. During a more acrobatic form of lion dance, two men, hidden beneath a lion cloth, jump between small metal plates, placed on poles, which are often rather tall.
Sculptures, depicting lions, are also often placed as guardians on Daoist graves.
The snow lion is a mythical creature of Central Asia, which, according to local belief, ranges over mountains and glaciers. It symbolizes strength, fearlessness, and joy.