Cape Lion

Cape_Lion (Only known photo of a live Cape Lion, ca. 1860 in Jardin des Plantes, Paris)Cape Lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus) is now extinct. These “black-maned” cats ranged along the Cape of Africa on the southern tip of the continent. This subspecies was not the only one living in South Africa. In the area around Cape Town, its stronghold was Cape Province. By the mid 19th century there were very few Cape Lions left and one of the last ones seen in the province was killed in 1858. Emil Holub, a Czech explorer, bought a young cub in 1876, but it died two years later.

Several institutions and wealthy people claimed to own Cape lions. In the year 2000, some animals were found in captivity in Russia and claimed to be Cape Lions, were brought to South Africa for the purpose of  breeding. There is a good deal of confusion between other dark-coloured, long-maned captive lions and the Cape lions. Whatever stock of captive lions is available today around the world have been bred and cross-bred from the animals captured in Africa long ago. In so many years they have been mixed together and hybridized to the extent that most of them have become a bunch of alleles from many different lions.Cape Lion (1927 engraving) (public domain)

When scientific study of lions began authors of that time justified “distinctive” subspecific status of the Cape lions. It was due to the seemingly fixed external morphology of these cats. Males with huge mane extending upto the back of their shoulders and covering the abdomen. Ears also had characteristic black tips. However, today it is known that a variety of extrinsic factors, ambient temperature inclusive, influence the size and colour of mane. Results of a research on mitochondrial DNA published in 2006 do not support the “distinctness” of the subspecies. It indicates that the Cape lion probably was the southern most population of the extant Transvaal lion, also known as Southeast African lion.


This was the second largest and heaviest subspecies after the Barbary lions. A full grown maned cat could reach ten feet in length and weigh upto 500 lbs. This lion was recognised by his large size and his thick black with a tawny fringe around the face. Tips of the ears were also black.

Their prey species usually included large Ungulates including buffaloes, giraffes, antelopes and zebras, but they would also kill cattles and donkeys belonging to the European settlers. According to Ahuin Haagner in his “South African Mammals“, man-eating is usually found in old individuals, especially those suffering from bad teeth,


The subspecies disappeared so quickly following the contact with Europeans, that it is doubtful that habitat destruction could have been a significant factor. Infact the English and Dutch settlers, sportsmen and hunters, simply hunted it down to extinction. Also the civilization and the development that took place cleaned away the once huge herds of game that formed the most important food source of these lions.

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