Cape Lion
FileCape Lion
Only known photo of a live Cape Lion, 1860 in Jardin des Plantes, Paris
Range Cape of Africa
Scientific Classification
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Carnivora
Family Felidae
Genus Panthera
Species P. leo
Conservation Status
The Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus) is a subspecies of lion that is now extinct.


As with the barbary lion, several people and institutions claim to have Cape lions. In 2000, possible specimens were found in captivity in Russia and brought to South Africa for breeding. There is much confusion between Cape lions and other dark-coloured long-maned captive lions. Lions in captivity today have been bred and cross-bred from lions captured in Africa long ago, with examples from all of these 'subspecies'. Mixed together, hybridized, most of today's captive lions have a 'soup' of alleles from many different lions.

Early authors justified "distinct" subspecific status of the Cape lion because of the seemingly fixed external morphology of the lions. Males had a huge mane extending behind their shoulders and covering the belly, and the lions' ears also had distinctive black tips. However, nowadays it is known that various extrinsic factors, including the ambient temperature, influence the colour and size of a lion's mane. Results of mitochondrial DNA research published in 2006 do not support the "distinctness" of the Cape lion. It may be that the Cape lion was only the southernmost population of the extant transvall lion.


The Cape lion was the second largest and heaviest of the lion subspecies: a fully grown male could weigh 500 pounds (230 kg) and reach 10 feet (3.0 m) in length. This lion is distinguished by his large size and his thick black mane with a tawny fringe around the face. The tips of the ears were also black.

Behaviour and Diet

Cape lions preferred to hunt large ungulates including antelopes, but also zebras, giraffes and buffaloes. They would also kill donkeys and cattle belonging to the European settlers. Man-eating Cape lions were generally old lions with bad teeth, according to Ahuin Haagner in his "South African Mammals".


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. Its stronghold was Cape Province, in the area around Cape Town. One of the last Cape lions seen in the province was killed in 1858; in 1876 Czech explorer Emil Holub bought a young lion who died two years later.


The Cape lion disappeared so rapidly following contact with Europeans that it is unlikely that habitat destruction was a significant factor. The Dutch and English settlers, hunters, and sportsmen simply hunted it into extinction. Also civilization swept away the once vast game herds which formed its most important food source.

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