Cape Lion

Panthera leo melanochaitus

Last updated: May 27, 2024
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Winfried Bruenken / Creative Commons / Original

Despite its large, muscular body, the Cape lion actually rests more than 20 hours a day


Cape Lion Scientific Classification

Scientific Name
Panthera leo melanochaitus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Cape Lion Conservation Status

Cape Lion Locations

Cape Lion Locations

Cape Lion Facts

Wildebeests, antelopes, zebras, buffalos, rodents, and more
Name Of Young
Group Behavior
  • Pride
Fun Fact
Despite its large, muscular body, the Cape lion actually rests more than 20 hours a day
Biggest Threat
Habitat loss and hunting
Most Distinctive Feature
The male’s dark-colored mane
Gestation Period
around 100 days
Litter Size
1-6 cubs
Common Name
Cape Lion
South Africa
Number Of Species
South Africa

Cape Lion Physical Characteristics

  • Brown
  • Yellow
  • White
  • Orange
Skin Type
Top Speed
48 mph
25 years
up to 600 pounds
4 feet
6-7 feet
Age of Sexual Maturity
3-4 years
Age of Weaning
6-7 months

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“Recognizable by its black-maned appearance, the Cape lion was once native to Africa’s southern Cape region.”

This wild cat is a member of the subspecies Panthera leo melanochaita. For centuries, it lived in relative peace and isolation on the South African plains. Following the arrival of European settlers, however, it endured decades of constant hunting and harassment, causing numbers to dwindle. The conservation status of this lion is considered to be functionally extinct in the wild since 1858 (though scattered individuals were found up to a few decades later).

A Subspecies That Has Been the Subject of Debate

Cape Lion

A photograph of one of the last Cape lions taken at a Paris zoo.

©public domain – Original / License

The taxonomy of the Cape lion (as well as other lion populations) has been the subject of much-extended controversy. For centuries, the Cape lion was considered to be its own distinctive subspecies of lions. But then a genetic analysis in 2017 revealed that the Cape lion may not be quite as distinct as once thought. Genetically, it is almost completely similar to other lion populations in southern and eastern Africa. This suggests there may have been significant interbreeding between the populations that prevented them from developing independently of each other. All lions in the southern and eastern regions of Africa are now considered to be part of the same subspecies.

Another source of dispute is whether these lions still exist in captivity somewhere. In 2000, a South African zoo director named John Spence claimed that, after a careful search, he had identified possible descendants of Cape lion specimens still living in Russia’s Novosibirsk Zoo, which might have been taken from South Africa and interbred with other types of lions. However, before he could perform a DNA analysis (with the intention to breed back the Cape lion into existence), Spence died in 2010, and no one else took up the cause.


Cape lions, like most members of the cat family, are believed to have evolved from the Proailurus lemanensis, which translates to “first cat”. This ancient ancestor lived around 25 million years ago.

According to fossil records, the earliest lion-like cat (Panthera leo fossilis) appeared at Laetoli in Tanzania in East Africa during the Late Pliocene, 5.0 – 1.8 million years ago.

The Middle Pleistocene (800 – 100,000 years ago) was a period of migration for lions, leading them out of Africa into Europe, Asia, and North America. During the Pleistocene, lions ranged all over the world – including modern lions (Panthera leo leo) in Eurasia, the cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea) in Eurasia, Alaska, and Yukon, and the American lion (Panthera leo atrox) in North America.


The Barbary lion is extinct in the wild.

©Petr Ganaj/

The decline of lion populations began with the extinction of the cave and American lions in the Late Pleistocene. During the 19th and 20th centuries, lions disappeared from southwestern Eurasia and North Africa. In the last 150 years, the Barbary lion in North Africa, the Cape lion in South Africa, and lions in the Middle East have also reached extinction. At this time, lions inhabit Sub-Saharan Africa, and there is a small population of Asiatic lions in India.

4 Incredible Cape Lion Facts!

Lions can breed with tigers resulting in a liger.


  • Based on genetic analysis, it’s thought that the Cape lion first evolved in the Late Pleistocene, around 500,000 years ago.
  • One of the most interesting facts is that the lion can interbreed with both a tiger and a leopard. The offspring of a male lion and tigress is called a liger. If the offspring is the result of a tiger and lioness, then it’s called a tigon. The result of a leopard and lioness is called a leopon.
  • The lion represents strength and nobility in many African cultures. It features prominently in ancient stories and proverbs.
  • Preserved Cape lion specimens are kept at several museums around the world, including the Swedish Museum of National History, the Paris Museum of Natural History, and the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History.

Scientific Name

The scientific name for the Cape lion is Panthera leo melanochaitus. Melan (or melas) means black in Greek and may be a reference to the lion’s black-maned appearance. Since the Cape lion is no longer considered to be its own separate subspecies, the other members of melanochaitus are still alive in parts of southern and eastern Africa, though dwindling in number. The lion in general is part of the same genus as the leopard, tiger, and jaguar. The species name Leo is the Latin name for the lion.


Pride of lions in grass

Female Cape lions looked like other lions – but males had a distinctive dark mane.

©Riaan van den Berg/

The Cape lion has all the physical attributes of a lion, including a big head, muscular body, yellowish tawny coat, white stomach, and a long tail with a black tuft at the end. The biggest distinguishing feature is the darker color of the male’s mane, which extended along the shoulders and below the stomach. This subspecies appears to have been particularly large for a lion, with some specimens weighing nearly 600 pounds and measuring around seven feet long. Males tend to be larger than females by about 100 pounds and, of course, grow a large mane of hair around the neck.


While the Cape lion was driven to extinction before it could be fully studied, we can infer some facts about its behavior by observing other members of the same species. The lion is the only member of the cat family that exhibits highly social behavior. The basis of this society is the pride. With potentially up to 40 distinct members, the pride consists of several generations of lionesses, a small number of breeding males, and cubs. Members may break up into smaller groups during the day and only come together to hunt and eat.

A single pride may occupy the same territory for multiple generations. When prey is particularly abundant, the total territory can reach up to eight square miles, but when sparse, it can stretch up to 150 square miles. Lions mark their territory by urinating, defecating, and rubbing up against vegetation with their scent glands.

A pride of lions drinking from a pond.

A pride of lions may occupy the same territory for multiple generations.

©Henrico Muller/

Each member of the pride is thought to adopt a general role. Males are more likely to guard the territory against potential rival prides. Mothers form their own separate mini-group and nurse each other’s cubs. They give nursing priority to their own cubs, followed by the offspring of closely related lions. Both males and females can take part in the group hunt. While scientists still debate why lions are the only wild cats to form groups, larger prides do appear to confer greater reproductive success in the wild.

The typical lion spends around 22 hours per day resting. Only two or three hours are spent hunting; perhaps more if the prey is particularly difficult to find. They communicate with each other through several sophisticated methods of smell, sound, and body movements. Head nuzzling appears to be a form of greeting while licking and grooming help to facilitate social bonding. The lion can make a kind of grimace, with an open mouth, bared teeth, wrinkled nose, and closed eyes, in response to sniffing chemical signals. Roaring is commonly done in the evening before a hunt and again at dawn to advertise its presence. The sound can be heard from more than three miles all around it.


Glencoe Baobab

South Africa was the habitat of the Cape lion.


The Cape lion once roamed the plains of South Africa. It was particularly prominent around the semi-desert Karoo plains within the interior of the country, just south of the Orange River, which runs along the border of Namibia and close to the Kalahari Desert. The other members of the melanochaita subspecies live as far north as Kenya.

Predators and Threats

The Cape lion was driven to extinction by the twin threats of hunting and habitat loss by European settlers. It’s not clear if the lion was under threat before the colonization of South Africa, but lion numbers have been falling almost everywhere around the globe for many thousands of years. Hunting may have been done both for sport and to prevent the lion from killing livestock. They were shot in greater numbers than any other population of African lions.

What eats the Cape lion?

An adult Cape lion had no natural predators in its native habitat, but the cubs were occasionally killed by larger predators such as hyenas, leopards, and jackals.

What does the Cape lion eat?

What do lions eat

© Animals

The Cape lion was considered to be an apex predator and an important keystone animal in its natural habitat. Its diet largely consisted of hoofed animals such as wildebeests, antelopes, and zebras. If an opportunity arose, then it could also hunt Cape buffalo, rodents, and juvenile or injured elephants and hippos. Lions hunt by stalking their prey from cover and then lunging at its neck. The victim usually dies from strangulation shortly afterward.

If the lions have to pursue their prey over long distances, then they will usually tire out easily. This caused most hunts to end prematurely in failure. A single lion could consume around 75 pounds in a single meal. Pride mates would squabble over meals, but the successful hunters responsible for the kill would usually receive first dibs. After resting for a week, the lions would resume the hunt once again.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Lionesses and cubs

Lionesses in a pride work together to raise the cubs

©Kirill Dorofeev/

Cape lions had no established reproductive season; they could mate at almost any time of the year. Both male and female lions were polygamous, meaning they had multiple sexual partners over the course of a lifetime. A female will almost always mate with another member of its own pride. Once a pair has bonded, it could copulate up to 50 times per day. The frequency of their mating is intended to stimulate fertilization and also ensure that no other male can copulate with the female (which also had the added benefit of guaranteeing the male’s paternity).

After a gestation period of more than a hundred days, the female would give birth to no more than six cubs at a time. Born blind and helpless, the cubs were covered in thick coats and dark spots. They were fully weaned by the age of six or seven months and learned to hunt by around 11 months old. It took around two years before they could become functionally independent, however.

Until that time, the mortality rates of lions were exceptionally high. They face numerous threats from hungry predators, the harsh landscape, and adult males that take over a pride and kill the previous offspring. The group of mothers will attempt to defend their cubs from this infanticide for as long as possible.

Lion cubs are ready to hunt at 11 months but not fully independent until 2 years of age.

©Greg Willis from Denver, CO, usa / CC BY-SA 2.0 – Original / License

Male cubs are expelled from the pride upon reaching sexual maturity at the age of three or four; they wander alone until they’re old and strong enough to take a pride of their own. Females often remain with the pride even beyond the age of sexual maturity, but they too can be expelled if there’s no room in the pride. Lions can sometimes live more than 25 years in captivity, but their expected lifespan is generally shortened to around 10 years in the wild because of hunting, starvation, and early childhood mortality.


The Cape lion’s conservation status is extinct. No confirmed specimens are remaining anywhere in the world.

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About the Author

After a career of working to provide opportunities for local communities to experience and create art, I am enjoying having time to write about two of my favorite things - nature and animals. Half of my life is spent outdoors, usually with my husband and sweet little fourteen year old dog. We love to take walks by the lake and take photos of the animals we meet including: otters, ospreys, Canadian geese, ducks and nesting bald eagles. I also enjoy reading, discovering books to add to my library, collecting and playing vinyl, and listening to my son's music.

Cape Lion FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is a Cape lion?

The Cape lion is a distinctive population of the African lion, native to the plains of South Africa. Taxonomists have historically considered it to be a separate subspecies both because of its isolated location and the distinctive black-maned appearance. However, a genetic analysis actually called into question whether this was a separate subspecies at all. It is currently classified within the same subspecies as other lions of southern and eastern Africa.

Are Cape lions carnivores, herbivores, or omnivores?

The Cape lion was completely carnivorous. Its diet consisted solely of meat.

How big is a Cape lion?

This wild cat measured up to seven feet long and 500 pounds. Some reports claim to have found even larger specimens up to nearly 600 pounds.

Does the Cape lion still exist?

No, the conservation status of the Cape lion is considered to be functionally extinct. While there is some debate about whether it may live in captivity somewhere, it’s unlikely to exist in its original form due to heavy interbreeding with other lions.

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  1. ThoughtCo. / Accessed September 13, 2021
  2. Brittanica / Accessed September 13, 2021