The African lion is a large carnivorous feline typically having a short tawny coat, tufted tail, and (in the male) a heavy mane of longer hair around the head, neck and shoulders. However, recently some female lions living in Botswana have been discovered to sport manes. The presence, absence, color, and size of the mane is associated with genetic precondition, sexual maturity, climate, and testosterone production. Color variations in pelage varies from light buff, to silvery gray, to yellowish red, and dark brown. White lions (more cream colored) also exist, but this is a color variation caused by a recessive gene, and is not a separate subspecies, nor albinism. Lions are the second largest living cat after the tiger with males living in the wild reaching 550 pounds. A record measurement from actual hunting records includes a huge male shot outside Hectorspruit in eastern Transvaal in 1936 weighing 690 pounds. An interesting genetic comparison is made between cats and humans in that, after discounting other primates, the cat family is the closest genetic relative to humans in that there is only a 7 gene distinction between humans and cats.
In the bush males seldom live longer than 10-14 years, as injuries sustained from continual fighting with rival males greatly reduces their life span. Lions typically inhabit savanna and grassland, although they will readily take to bush and forest if necessary. Compared to other cats, lions are very social in nature. Lions live in “prides” consisting of related females and their offspring and a very small number of adult males. Lions are apex predators and are not amiss to taking on almost any other species, especially if they have the numerical advantage and the individual prey is aged, very young, or injured. Average prey includes animals weighing between 400-1200 pounds. However, like most predators, they are lazy and will scavenge a meal before putting forth the effort to kill something. They do most of their hunting at night, and sleep or lie about for as much as 20 hours the remainder of the day. They may engorge themselves on as much as 65 pounds of meat in one sitting. Lions will also kill competing predators, but very seldom will they eat them. Lionesses are capable climbers and sometimes pull leopard kills from trees. Their climbing skills are much more advanced than they are given credit for.
Lions do not confine their breeding to any particular season. The female will typically give birth to 1-4 cubs. Within a typical pride 80% of the cubs will die before reaching two years of age. This is due to predation, disease, or infanticide practiced by intruding males that drive out the existing dominant males.
Lion population numbers in the wild have been declining for quite a few years. The principal causes of wild lion population decline are: (1) loss of habitat (humans take all the best land for themselves), (2) loss of traditional prey animals (reductions in their habitat), (3) disease, (4) poaching (illegal hunting) and (5) domestic lion/human contact (humans killing lions invading their domestic space). Legal, managed sport hunting is deemed an insignificant cause of the decline in wild lion populations. In fact, South Africa has had a significant and viable captive-bred lion program for decades. Through genetic selection, this program has produced specimens which sport hunters most desire, and it is only logical thinking that each lion harvested that has its genesis in one of these programs is one less wild lion being taken. In addition, it is quite easy to maintain genetic diversity within a captive-bred population, where inbreeding is a real risk as wild populations become more geographically isolated. There currently exists a lot of controversy surrounding the captive breeding of lions, but it is important that the industry be fairly and scientifically evaluated before any judgments are made. Traditional methods of lion hunting include the following:
(1) Coursing. This is the hunting of lions with dogs. The well-known canine specie Rhodesian Ridgeback was bred for this purpose. The hunting of lions with dogs is no longer pursued as far as we know.
(2) Chance Encounter. This was sometimes the case 60-70 years ago when a hunter had a lion on license and would encounter a lion while hunting something else. Today lions are considered a “destination species”, and most hunters that want a lion come to Africa just for that purpose.
(3) Baiting. As mentioned, lions are lazy and will come to set baits. Once a feeding pattern is established the hunters will build a blind from which to shoot the lion. This becomes a waiting game until the lion decides (if ever) to return to the bait.
(4) Calling. Lions will respond to the calls of other lions, as well as hyenas, thinking that the vocalization signal the killing of a prey animal.
(5) Tracking. This involves finding a set of fresh lion tracks and following those tracks until the lion is sighted.
What method of hunting is followed has much to do with the country and province within which the hunting takes place as existing regulations will determine which methods are permissible. Baiting, calling, and tracking are all very exciting hunting methods. When tracking, the lion will soon realize he is being pursued. Often, he will roar a warning, or mock charge the hunters to demonstrate losing his patience with being pushed. Either of these acts (roaring, which can be quite loud and intimidating) and the mock charge, if not previously experienced by the hunter can be immobilizing. All that can be said is to regard both as a possibility and mentally (at least) be prepared for either. After either one of these intimidating displays, the lion may then, unpredictably charge. In contrast to a leopard charge where the leopard attempts to injure every member of the party, a lion will typically single out one individual to bear its wrath. Consequently, a charging lion must be dispatched with finality. A common mistake is to shoot too soon resulting in a miss with not enough time remaining to fire again. Thus, rely on the accompaniment of the others in your hunting party and all shoot when the distance is optimum.
Lions are thin-skinned animals and not as heavily constructed as their larger neighbors in the dangerous game community. Thus, a well-placed shot with a .30-06 is capable of a clean kill. However, therein lies the challenge. No one can predict the conditions under which the lion will be encountered, whether alone, or in a group, the manner in which the lion presents himself (position), nor his temperament at the time the shot needs to be made. It is much better to err on the side of using a more powerful rifle, and in South Africa regulations require that must be a .375, or larger. The vitals of all the cats are just a bit further back than other plains game animals. A quality large caliber expanding bullet placed just behind the shoulder usually does the job very well. Lions will often react violently to the shot. Keep shooting until no visible signs of life remain. Approach downed lions with the utmost caution. Shoot immediately if any movement is detected. After closing to within 7-10 yards throw something at the lion and be ready to shoot again before moving directly to the carcass.