Cape lion

Extinct in 1858
  • Cape lion
  • Cape lion

Lion king - no chance of survival of the South African Cape lion

The lion (Panthera leo) is the second-largest living cat after the tiger. Wild lions currently exist in different subspecies in Sub-Saharan Africa and in India, while other types of lions have disappeared from North and South Africa as well as from Southwest Asia in historic times. The lion today is a vulnerable species, having seen a major population decline in its African range of 30–50% per two decades during the second half of the 20th century.
Today also the most northern African subspecies, the Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo), is extinct in the wild and survived perhaps in some zoos, whereas the most southern African subspecies, the Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus), is definitely extinct. The large lions with their long mane, which are kept in the Novosibirsk Zoo in Russia, are definitely no Cape lions, but maybe hybrids.

Novosibirsk Zoo

Lions which are kept in Novosibirsk zoo
(Click to view larger image).

The Cape lion was the largest and heaviest lion of the Sub-Saharan lions. A fully grown male could weigh about 230 kg, reach 300 cm in length and 106 cm at the shoulder-height. This lion is distinguished not only by his large size but also by his very long and heavy mane, which was nearly black except for a more brownish fringe around the face. They also showed a well-developed, blackish mane in the abdominal area. Because of this black mane the Cape lion is called often also as the “Black-maned lion”. Not only the mane, but also the tips of the ears were black.
Cape lions preferred to hunt large ungulates including antelopes, but also zebras, giraffes and buffaloes. As an easy prey they killed of course also donkeys and cattle belonging to the European settlers.

Stuffed specimens of Cape lion Cape lion, which was painted by Rembrandt H. van Rijin

Stuffed specimens of Cape lion
@Wiltshire Museum
(Click to view larger image).

Cape-lion, which was painted by
Rembrandt H. van Rijin
(Click to view larger image).

Cape "Black-maned" lions ranged along the Cape of Africa on the southern tip of the continent. The Cape lion was not the only subspecies living in South Africa, and its exact range is unclear. Definitely was its stronghold the Cape Province, in the area around Cape Town. Records show that these lions were quite common near Cape Town until the end of the 17th century. Even in the 18th century the Cape lion was not uncommon in the vicinity of Cape Town itself, although already declining in its numbers. The first British occupation of the Cape Colony began in 1795 and up until the 19th century Cape lions were found by hunters away from the immediate neighborhood of Cape Town, especially on the Karoo and in the Uitenhage. The Cape lion's numbers kept declining and eventually it vanished. The Cape lion disappeared so rapidly following contact with Europeans that it is unlikely that habitat destruction was a significant factor for their extinction. The civilization swept away the once vast herds of game too which formed the most important food source of the Cape lion. Resulting of this fact, the lions preyed more on domestic livestock. Therefore the Dutch and English settlers, hunters, and sportsmen simply hunted this predator into extinction. After the arrival of the first English settlers the number of Cape lions was reduced from around 10.000 to 100 animals in only a few decades. Although the exact year of the extinction of the Cape Lion is unknown, it is said that the last Cape lion seen in the Cape Province was killed in 1858. The last Cape lion still alive was probably a male in the Paris Zoo around 1860.

Le Jardin des Plantes, Paris Paris NH Museum

The Photo of Cape lion that had been kept in Le Jardin des Plantes
(Click to view larger image).

Stuffed specimens of Cape lion
@Paris NH Museum
(Click to view larger image).

Before zoologists could study the Cape lion intensively, this lion subspecies has disappeared from the most southern tip of Africa. In all the Natural History Museums of the world we can find today only five male and two female stuffed animals, namely males in Leiden/Netherland, London, Paris, Stuttgart, Wiesbaden/Germany and two females in Stuttgart and Wiesbaden. Furthermore there are 3-4 skulls in the collections of the NH Museums in Port Elizabeth/South Africa and Copenhagen.
Because of its external morphology the Cape lion is historically cited as a subspecies of the African lion. However, nowadays it is known that various extrinsic factors, including the ambient temperature, influence the color and size of a lion's mane. In general lions develop longer and thicker manes, when they live in a colder climate, for example in North European or Russian zoos. Therefore further research is necessary to certify the status of a subspecies. Recent DNA research does not support the "distinctness" of the Cape lion. It may be that the Cape lion was only the southernmost population of the Transvaal lion (Panthera leo krugeri). But on the other hand, by a comparison of skulls the Cape lion is definitely different to the other Sub-Saharan subspecies. Further research is therefore necessary.

Cape lion Enclosure in LOST ZOO

Cape lion Enclosure in LOST ZOO
(Click to view larger image).

We are very proud that we keep now this most southern subspecies of the African lion in our Lost Zoo, because since 155 years it is the first time that a Cape lion is kept in a zoo again. In our Lost Zoo the Cape lion is found in the zoo’s African corner and we are sure that the visitor will never miss this impressive lion with his long, black mane resting on his rocky lookouts.

Executive Curator
JURGEN LANGE

capelion