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The African lion (Pantera leo), generally known simply as the lion, is one of the most regal animals on the planet and has gripped the imaginations of cultures all over the world for millennia. The distinctive tawny coat, lush mane and loud roar are the three characteristics that most people recognise when they think about lions.
The 'King of Beasts', as it is also known, has been used by countless cultures on flags, in sculptures and other places to represent strength, courage and ferocity – to name but a few. The distinctive mane and regal bearing has been and still is associated with royalty and divinity for millennia. These proud animals have been kept in menageries, zoos and as pets to monarchs since before ancient Rome – their presence an indicator of the status of its owner.
Long ago lions used to roam all over the world and was one of the most populous mammals on the planet after humans. Over the centuries, however, their numbers have dwindled and their stalking grounds have shrunk. Where they once used to roam in the Americas, the Middle East, Africa and large parts of Asia; lions are now only found in sub-Saharan Africa and in a small part of India. Lions prefers to live on open savannah or grasslands but they adapt well to thick bush or forests when they need to.
Unlike many felines, lions are social animals. They congregate in groups known as prides. A pride consists of a group of related females and their cubs with a small number of males. Coming across a pride of lions resting in the heat of the day is often the highlight of many an African safari that is made even more exciting by the presence of cubs playing in the long grass.
Lions are the tallest of the world's felines, but rank second as the biggest cat with tigers taking first place. Their colour can range from light dirty yellow to light shades of brown. Cubs have spots that disappear with age though some older lions may still have spots around their legs and abdomen. Aside from the characteristic man of the males, lions are the only felines to have a tufted tail.
With his thick mane and rumbling roar, the male lion is probably one of the best known animals on the planet. The mane is an indicator of his fertility and helps to attract mates and to intimidate the other hunters that he shares his habitat with – most notably the hyena. The lioness, on the other hand, is a consummate hunter. Only slightly smaller than the male, the lioness works together with others in her pride to bring down large herbivores to feed the entire pride. While lions are considered to be the apex of the food chain, they are not beneath scavenging when food is scarce or when carrion is readily available – though males tend to scavenge more often than lionesses.
In the wild lions can grow to be about eight years old with lionesses growing to be 12 to 14 years old. In captivity, both genders have been known to reach 20 years. While conservation efforts have met with success, lions are still considered to be a 'vulnerable' species. Their decline attributed to conflict with humans, especially where domesticated animals are concerned in countries like Kenya and India.
Today lions can be found roaming the savannah of national parks and reserves or in zoos all over the world. While they may no longer be spread across the world, they still inspire awe as one of the most regal animals to walk the face of the earth.
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