What is being done to ensure the future of lions in Africa. How have they adapted to life on the Serengeti?

Wild Lion Vets
How are veterinarians aiding wild animals in Africa?

David travels with a big-cat veterinarian.
Segment length: 5:45


No other animal captures the image of strength and majesty like the lion. Thousands of years ago, these powerful felines were found from the Mediterranean to India. Today the "king of beasts" is largely restricted to Africa, south of the Sahara desert, where some live in the woodlands and savannas of protected reserves.

Like all cats, the lion is a muscular hunting machine. Unlike the cheetah, the lion is built for strength, not speed. A male lion often weighs between 160 and 180 kilograms (350 to 400 pounds) and is 3 meters (10 feet) long, including the tail. The female lion weighs about 150 kilograms (330 pounds). The shoulder and forelegs are well developed, enabling lions to clutch prey and pull it to the ground. If its prey is small, the lion may bite through the skull or neck with its powerful jaws. Larger animals (like the zebra or wildebeest-the lion's preferred prey) are usually strangled with a throat bite. Of its 30 teeth, the four canine teeth are used to hold and puncture, while the four carnassial teeth cut through tough skin and meat. With no teeth for chewing, this carnivore swallows its food in chunks, eating about 7 kilograms (15 pounds) of flesh a day.

Lions live in prides, often consisting of four to twelve adult females, their cubs, and one to six adult males. The lionesses are usually related to each other and stay together for their lifetimes. They are the main hunters of the pride. The males leave the pride when they grow up and are replaced by newcomers, sometimes in deadly fights.

Lions are territorial. The size of the territory is largely determined by the number of pride members and the amount of prey. It is the male's role to roar and mark its territory by urinating. The roar is often heard at dawn or dusk as a warning to intruders. It is produced by the vibration of cartilage in the back of the lion's throat, and the frightening sound may carry five miles (eight kilometers).

Tracts of land, such as Kenya's Maasai Mara Game Reserve and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, have been set aside to protect lions and other wild animals. But as the human population grows, there will be more pressure to turn parkland into farmland. And now lions face an additional threat. Many suffer from distemper, a viral disease which causes anemia, blindness, seizures, muscle spasms, and even death. Veterinarians from around the world are trying to isolate the virus and discover how the animals are exposed to it.


1. What would happen to the Serengeti ecosystem if the lion became extinct?
2. Who is responsible for the protection of lions?

Key Words

canine fang tooth for biting
carnassial bladelike tooth for shearing flesh
carnivore fleshing-eating animal
cartilage tough, white animal tissue
domesticated adapted to life in close association with humans and for their benefit
felines members of the cat family
pride the family grouping of the lion
savannas plain with grasses and scattered trees, especially near the equator where rainfall is seasonal
territorial characteristic of an animal that claims a certain area for hunting and other activities


  1. Fogle, B. (1991) Know your cat. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
  2. Green, C.R. & Sanford, W.R. (1987) The African lion. Mankato, MN: Crestwood House.
  3. Hofer, A. & Ziesler, G. (1988) The lion family book. Saxonville, MA: Picture Book Studio.
  4. Lawick, V.H. (1986) Among predators and prey. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
  5. MacDonald, D. (1992) The velvet claw: A natural history of the carnivores. London: BBC Books.
  6. Schaller, G. (1983) Golden shadows, flying hooves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Taylor, D. (1989) The ultimate cat book. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Additional resources

  1. Dorling Kindersley and BBC Lionheart Television, Intl.: Eyewitness, cat. Videotape. (800) 944-1419.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica: The lion. Videotape. (800) 621-3900.
  3. National Geographic: African wildlife and Lions of the African night. Videotapes. (800) 368-2728.

Additional source of information
The Wildlife Conservation Society Bronx Zoo
Bronx Park
New York, NY 10460

Main Activity

Cat's Eyes
Shine some light on why cats see so well in the dark.

Like all cats, lions have excellent eyesight and see almost as well at night as during the day. The feline's pupils have evolved to quickly adjust to the amount of light needed for the hunt. A cat's pupils can open wide to allow in the faintest moonlight. The same pupil can close to the size of a pinhole during the day to shade out bright rays. Felines need only one-sixth the light humans do to make out the same details of movement and shape. When you compare your eyes to a cat's eyes, you will be learning about a lion's eyes, too.


1. In a brightly lit room, study a partner's eyes or look at your own eyes in a mirror. Sketch them, noting the size of the pupils in relation to the iris.
2. Now dim the lights for five minutes. Sketch your partner's eyes or your eyes. Again, draw the size of the pupils in relation to the iris. Compare the two sketches.
3. Next, observe a cat under the same conditions. Draw what the cat's eyes look like when the room is brightly lit. Sketch the cat's eyes when the room is dimly lit. In a nearly dark room, shine a flashlight at the cat until you can see its eyes glow.

1. What are the differences in the pupil size of a human's eyes in various amounts of light? Why do the pupils change size? Can you explain the difference between human eyes and those of the cat?
2. Why do a cat's eyes glow in the dark? (Hint: Research the term tapetum lucidum.)
3. A cat's pupils dilate at dusk to hunt, but why do they dilate in a flight-or-fight situation?

With a friend, observe and record the activities of a cat every 15 minutes over a period of several hours. For each 15-minute segment, write down the primary activity of the cat. What proportion of the cat's time is spent eating, drinking, playing, exploring, or just plain sleeping? How does a cat's routine compare to that of a lion? How does it compare to yours?

Research as much as you can about lions. Then invite a local veterinarian to visit your class and share information about cats, their anatomical structures, common diseases, behaviors, etc. Find out what pet cats and lions have in common. What are their differences? For example, can a cat roar or a lion purr?

With a friend, write down as many members of the cat family as you can, listing them by continent. Try to find pictures of them. Make your own field guide of cats by doing research on each one. Page through a field guide first to find out the consistent characteristics to research, such as appearance, habitat, range, and food.

Observe a cat. How many claws does a cat have? How do the back feet differ from the front feet? How many whiskers does a cat have? Can you find the backward barbs on a cat's tongue? These are used for grooming and scraping meat off bones. Can you tell the canine teeth from the carnassial?

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