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The lion was an important symbol to humans for thousands of years, he appears in cultures across Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The American lion evolved 340.000 years ago and ranged throughout most of the Americas. It was driven to extinction 11.000 years ago! Genetic analysis has revealed that it was the sister lineage to the Eurasian cave lion.

About 80 American lion individuals have been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, so their morphology is well known. Their features strongly resemble those of modern lions, but they were considerably larger and are believed to have been the largest subspecies of lion.

The American lion inhabited savannas and grasslands like the modern lion. In some areas of their range, American lions lived under cold climatic conditions.

Hoehlenloewe - Höhlenlöwe - American Cave Lion - painted by Heinrich Harder
Hoehlenloewe – American Cave Lion – Painted by Heinrich Harder

They probably used caves for shelter from the cold weather in those areas. The American lion went extinct along with most of the Pleistocene megafauna during the Quaternary extinction event. The most recent fossil, from Edmonton, dates to 11,355 +- 55 years ago. American lion bones have been found in the trash heaps of Paleolithic Native Americans, suggesting human predation may have contributed to its extinction.

Preserved skin remains found with skeletal material thought to be from the American lion in caves in the Argentine Patagonia indicate that the animal was reddish in color. Cave paintings from El Ceibo in the Santa Cruz Province of Argentina seem to confirm this, and reduce the possibility of confusion with fossil jaguars, as similar cave paintings accurately depict the latter cat as being yellow in color.

Cave lion skull exhibited in the Muséum de Toulouse
Cave lion skull exhibited in the Muséum de Toulouse

The European Cave Lion evolved around 600.000 years ago and ranged widely across Europa and Asia. Panthera spelaea, formerly referred to as Panthera leo spelaea, was a fossil cat belonging to the genus Panthera, which was described by the German paleontologist Georg August Goldfuss in 1810 under the scientific name Felis spelaea. The first fossil lion skull was excavated in a cave in southern Germany.

The spelaea (European) lion probably evolved in Europe. Analysis of fossil bone samples revealed, that it was highly distinct and genetically isolated from the modern lion occurring in Africa and Asia. It became extinct about 13,000 years ago. The oldest known spelaea lion bone fragments were excavated in Yakutia and radiocarbon dated at least 62,400 years old.

Image by By Mauricio Antón. Woolly mammoths were driven to extinction by climate change and human impacts. The image depicts a late Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain with woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius), equids, a woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), and European cave lions
By Mauricio Antón – Lions were driven to extinction by climate change and human impacts

In 2015, two frozen cave lion cubs, estimated to be between 25,000 and 55,000 years old, were discovered  in Yakutia, Siberia.

Research results indicate that the cubs were likely barely a week old at the time of their deaths, as their milk teeth had not fully erupted.

Further evidence shows the cubs were hidden at a den site until they were old enough to join the pride. Researchers think that the cubs were trapped and killed by a landslide, and that without air, the cubs were preserved in such good condition.

Among the main causes for the extinction of the prehostoric lions are overkilling by the widespread appearance of humans and natural climate change. Studies have tended to favour the human-overkill theory!


The Lion species xxxth extinction
Map showing diffusion of American Cave Lion and European Cave Lion


The Lion species xxxth extinction
Barbary Lioness with Cubs

The Barbary Lion is the nominate lion subspecies in North Africa. It occurred from the Atlas Mountains to Egypt. The population in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Morocco is regionally extinct due to excessive hunting. The last recorded shooting of a wild Barbary lion took place in 1942 near Tizi n’Tichka in Morocco. Small groups of lions may have survived in Algeria until the early 1960s, and in Morocco until the mid-1960s.

The West African Lion is a lion subspecies occurring today in West and Central Africa, and in India.

The West African population is distributed south of the Sahara from Senegal in the west to Nigeria in the east. This population has lost 99% of its former range.It is regionally extinct in Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Togo, and possibly extinct in Guinea.

Senegal Lions 1898 Black and White Image
Senegal Lions 1898

In the 1950s, lions used to still be present in savanna woodlands in southern parts of Mauritania, namely in the Néma, northern Tagant, Brakna, Hodh El Gharbi and Trarza Regions, and along the Karakoro and Senegal Rivers. In the country’s Guidimaka Region, lions survived until the late 1980s.

Lions were recorded by camera traps in the North Province, Cameroon during a survey carried out between January 2008 and May 2010.

In 2015, an adult male lion and a female lion were sighted in Ghana’s Mole National Park. These were the first sightings of lions in the country in 39 years.

Surveys carried out between 2006 and 2012 revealed that the West African population declined to between 250 and 587 individuals, including less than 250 mature lions. This population is fragmented between Senegal and Nigeria. In 2006, 1258 captive West African lions were registered in the International Species Information System, including 13 individuals originating from Senegal to Cameroon, 115 from India and 970 with uncertain origin.

The Cape lion was a subpopulation of the Southern lion in South Africa’s Cape region, which is locally extinct since the mid-19th century.

Countries of lion occurrence in 2018 *


  • Angola
  • Benin
  • Botswana
  • Burkina Faso
  • Cameroon
  • Central African Republic
  • Congo
  • Chad
  • Congo
  • Ethiopia
  • India
  • Kenya
  • Malawi
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • Niger
  • Nigeria
  • Senegal
  • Somalia
  • South Africa
  • South Sudan
  • Sudan
  • Swaziland
  • Tanzania
  • Uganda
  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe

Possibly extinct

  • Côte d’Ivoire
  • Ghana
  • Guinea
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Mali
  • Rwanda
  • Togo


  • Afghanistan
  • Algeria
  • Burundi
  • Congo
  • Djibouti
  • Egypt
  • Eritrea
  • Gabon
  • Gambia
  • Iran Islamic Republic of
  • Iraq
  • Israel
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Lebanon
  • Lesotho
  • Libya
  • Mauritania
  • Morocco
  • Pakistan
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Sierra Leone
  • Syrian Arab Republic
  • Tunisia
  • Turkey
  • Western Sahara


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