6 Types of Lions, Endangered and Extinct

Portrait of male lion
Picture by Tambako the Jaguar / Getty Images

The signature mane, the predatory prowl, the ferocious roar—it seems fitting to find that there is only one species of lion (Panthera leo). There are, however, several subspecies, which are unique in appearance and other particular traits. Nearly all lions are native to Sub-Saharan Africa, living everywhere except in the deserts and rainforests, aside from the Asiatic lion that lives in one small area of India.

All living lions are considered vulnerable or endangered; some are on the brink of extinction except in captivity. Others were completely extinct in parts of South Africa, though they have been reintroduced in the Kruger and Kalahari Gemsbok National Parks. And still others could not be brought back. Below, we look at six types of lions that are bold, fierce, and, in most cases, in need of protection.

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Northeast Congo Lion

Lion Sleeping in a Tree

Laura Grier/robertharding / Getty Images

The Congo lion or Northeast Congo lion (Panthera leo azandica) is also known as the Uganda lion. Not surprisingly, they are generally found in the Congo or Uganda, though they probably did not originate there. Like other lions, Northeast Congo Lions are big animals; males weigh about 420 pounds while females weigh a little less. Northeast Congo males also sport very dark manes; some are even black.

What makes the Northeast Congo Lions—males, females, and cubs— particularly interesting is their habit of climbing, playing, and sleeping in trees. This makes it quite different from its cousin lions, which typically nap on the ground. Ugandan sources theorize that the lions climb the trees for safety, to escape the heat of the day, to avoid annoying insects, and to have a better view of potential prey. "Tree climbing" Uganda lions can be found at the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

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Barbary Lion

Barbary Lion

MikeLane45 / Getty Images

The Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) was a native of the Atlas Mountains of Africa, which include parts of Morocco, Algeria, and Maghreb. Being a cold-weather animal, they developed thick, dark, long-haired manes that flowed over their shoulders. Barbary lions were called "royal" lions because they were owned by the royal families in Ethiopia and Morocco; they may even have been the lions that fought gladiators in ancient Rome.

It is believed that Barbary lions are completely extinct in the wild, as a result of over-hunting, habitat loss, and a devastating respiratory disease. Over the last few decades, there has been talk about possibly reintroducing the Barbary lion into the wild.

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West African Lion

West African male lion from Pendjari National Park, Benin.

Jonas Van de Voorde / Wikimedia Commons

Also called Senegalese lions, West African lions (Panthera leo senegalensis), are smaller than and genetically distinct from other lions. They are also a critically endangered subspecies. About 350 west African lions live in a large UNESCO heritage site at the intersection of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Beni. Unfortunately, these lions (and lions as a species) are not as likely as other species to stick to their protected land and, as a result, they are subject to hunting. Still, conservation groups such as Panthera are working hard to ensure the safety and growth of wild West African lions.

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Asiatic Lion

Two Asiatic lionesses

eROMAZe / Getty Images

The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) is slightly smaller than African lions, and their manes are shorter and darker. They also have a fold of skin that runs along their belly—a feature that African lions lack. Asiatic lions are extremely rare; there are only a few hundred in the wild. All of the remaining wild Asiatic lions live in the Gir Forest in India, a relatively small wildlife reserve.

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Katanga Lion

Female Katanga lion

Gerald Corsi / Getty Images

Katanga lions (Panthera leo melanochaita) live in southern and east Africa. Sometimes called Transvaal or Cape lions, they are a unique subspecies but are very similar to other Sub-Saraharan African lions. Katanga lions were nearly wiped out as a result of trophy hunting, and they no longer exist in parts of their former range. Today, these lion populations are making a slow recovery thanks to the creation of managed reserves in places like Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

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European Cave Lion

European cave lion

Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The European cave lion (Panthera spelaeacave) is an extinct lion that is related to modern lions. There were at least two if not three subspecies of European cave lions which lived during the Ice Age. These were prehistoric megapredators, similar to the Beringian cave lion; both were larger than today's lions, but may have had behaviors in common. Both the European and Beringian cave lions went extinct about 14,000 years ago.

View Article Sources
  1. "Tree Climbing Lions in Uganda." Bwindi Forest National Park.

  2. Stanton, David, et al. "Early Pleistocene Origin and Extensive Intra-Species Diversity of the Extinct Cave Lion." Scientific Reports, vol. 10, no. 12621, 2020, doi:10.1038/s41598-020-69474-1