How many subspecies of Lion are there?

Question: How many subspecies of Lion are there?  

There are two subspecies of Lion. The history of Lion’s classification has gone through many changes since we started to classify animals, which has confused many people trying to figure out where each lion belongs. 

There are two separate subspecies at the time of writing, according to the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group in 2017. 

Let’s learn about Lions subspecies

Let break down each of the subspecies and see how they relate to one another. 

We will discover:

  • What are the two subspecies?
  • How many Lions are there? 
  • The biggest threat to Lions today?
  • How can we help?

The Two Subspecies

Although Lions were once classified differently from today, Asian Lions and African Lions believed to be two main types of Lion. African Lions were thought to be one of several subspecies, and Asian Lions were a single subspecies. 

The two Subspecies are Panthera Leo Leo and Panthera Leo Melanochaita. But what is the difference?  Let’s find out.

Panthera Leo Leo:

This subspecies of Lion, classified by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, is made up of Lions that populations live in:

  • West Africa 
  • Central Africa 
  • India 

Being genetically close to one another, they form a distinct Clade from the Lion populations residing in the south and east. This Clade is then split into three subclades. The Clade from Asia includes the Barbary Lion (extinct).

Panthera Leo Leo includes: 
Barbary Lion: 

Known as the North African Lion, they previously inhabited Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Currently extinct in the wild due to Human activity, the last know Lion to exist in the wild was sadly killed in 1920, Morocco. 

Some Lions, believed to be descended from these majestic lions, are held in Zoos worldwide. These cannot be 100% confirmed. 

West African Lion:

Otherwise known as the Senegal Lion, the West African Lion is critically engaged in the wild. Inhabiting the region of Western Africa, Central African Republic and Senegal, only around 1,800 individuals remain. Their populations being too fragmented. 

Asiatic Lion:

Once widespread around Asia, the population is confined to the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary; these Lions are considered Endangered by the IUCN. Only around 523 individuals remain, a number that is sadly far too low. 

Panthera Leo Melanochaita: 

This subspecies of Lion, classified by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, is made up of Lions that occur in: 

  • South Africa 
  • East Africa 
Panthera Leo Melanochaita includes: 
Southwest African Lion: 

The Katanga lion or the Southwest African lion inhabits Angola, Zaire, West Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Northern Botswana. Being one of the largest lions, they can reach lengths between 8.2 and 10.2 feet for males and 7.5 and 8.7 for females. 

Masai Lion:

With populations in Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania, the Masai or East African lion have physical characteristics that differ from other African Lions. They are longer-legged and a less curved spine. 

Most notably, the lions in the Lion King are Masai lions. With Simba meaning Lion, Courageous Warrior; Mufasa meaning King; Nala meaning Gift and Sarabi meaning Mirage in Swahili.  

Transvaal Lion:

Also known as the Kalahari Lion or the Southeast African Lion, populations of the Transvaal lion can be found in Kruger National Park and Swaziland’s Hlane park. A significant proportion of the population calls these parks home. 

Ethiopian Lion:

Originally thought to be an East African Lion, the Ethiopian lion was classified to be significantly different in its genetics, so they were classified as new subspecies; they have now have been subsumed into the subspecies Melanochaita. Their unusually black manes set them apart from other lions. 

They were feared to be extinct in the wild until a small population of about 50 was discovered in 2016. 

Why are Lions declining in the wild?

It is no secret that the numbers of wild lions have been declining over the years. But what is driving this reduction? There are four main threats to lions. 

Habitat Destruction: 

As the Human population grows within Africa, the need for suitable land increases. This growth cuts off lion populations, pushing them further and further back into increasingly confined spaces. 

Human-Lion conflict:

With population growth and expanding cities comes conflict. As the lions become more isolated, they are forced to do what they must to survive. This includes killing livestock and, if they can, people. This has led to pre-emptive killings, as the lions are eating people’s livestock purely to survive. 

Wildlife Trade/Poaching:

The growth in poaching has become a significant problem. The demand for lion bones for use in traditional medicine has boomed in Asia. Believed to hold medicinal properties, the value of lion bones has increased, which has led to increased poaching. 

Climate Change:

In recent times, the threat of climate change has grown exponentially over the past few decades. With an increase in extreme weather and storms, our carbon emissions are pushing animals to their limits. Our actions have caused famine, reduced prey, reduced access to water and changes in the patterns of migrations of many different animals. If left unchecked, lions will become extinct or have severe effects on the most majestic animals we are privileged to live with. 

How can we help?

So, how can we help? Education. We need to educate future generations on living alongside these amazing animals and conserve their natural habitats.  Many charities set up to stop the fall of wild lions and protect people and their livestock from being harmed by lions. The National Graphic created the Big Cat Initiative to help combat the decline by reducing snaring, providing medical assistance, and carrying out anti-poaching patrols.

Gandhi said, “if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”  If we can do what we can to help protect lions, they will be able to live for many years to come. We would all love that. Wouldn’t we?

Frequently Asked Questions

People who ask ‘How many subspecies of lion are there?’ also ask;

What is the biggest lion subspecies?

Barbary lion. However, the Katanga lion is among the biggest still living today. 

Do Barbary lions still exist?

Not in the wild. Although there have been reports in captivity, the last known wild Barbary died in 1920.

Are Barbary lions bigger than African lions?

Yes. Barbary lions ranged in size from 9.8 to 10.8 feet. African lions range from 9 to 10 feet in length. Both lions weighed similar. 

How do most lions die?

Conflict with humans and habitat loss. For lions in the wild, the most common way to die (no link to humans) is starvation. 

Which big cat doesn’t belong in Panthera?

Cheetah. The cheetah belongs to Acinonyx, the only living member.

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