Why is a lion referred to as the king of the jungle if they don't live in the jungle? Lions are apex predators necessary for the survival of the ecosystem. There are only two species: African lions and Asiatic lions. Lions live in grassland, savannas, and shrublands.
This article explores the reason we refer to lions as kings. It also explores how the lion maintains its kingly attribute.
"The lion is the king of the jungle" is a famous saying worldwide. However, the lion is not the king of the jungle. The saying is misleading because the lion isn't from the jungle. Lions live in the open savannah, and there is no king lion per se.
The open savannah is in Africa, the southwest area of the Sahara, and Northwest India. Calling the lion the king of the jungle became a norm due to the lion's majestic persona and commanding presence in its habitat.
As such, rightfully earning it the title "king of the jungle," a term that takes its root from the Hindi word "jungle." This term, still in use in rural North India, means open terrain across the savannah where the Indian lion roams (and not to be confused with the thick tropical forest it has come to donate in English).
Similarly, the attributes exhibited by lions make them appear like the king of animals. Lions and endangered species are powerful animals with intimidating survival instincts, like some of the kings in history. They hunt all sizes of small, medium, and large animals.
To learn more about these kings, click on to our lion facts.
Here, let's explore some unique and interesting characteristics of lions that make them appear kingly and why lions are called the kings of the jungle.
People often refer to the living members of the genus Panthera as big cats. This genus has five big cats in the animal kingdom, with tigers being the largest cat. Lions come second, while the jaguar, the leopard, the snow leopard, and the cheetah follow.
The King of the Jungle has its size to thank for the title. A lion has an average shoulder height of 4 feet, with a weight ranging between 149 kg - 249 kg.
The heaviest male lion in Kenya weighed 272 kg. A male lion can grow up to 10 feet, while a female lion grows up to 9 feet long, with the same 3-foot tail length. Male lion cubs grow for seven years, while female lions grow rapidly between 9 to 10 years2.
A lion's weight also comes with raw strength, which makes it formidable, as many famous lion quotes reflect. These wild creatures can run just as fast despite their heavy weight. A lion's jaw force allows it to prey on other animals of varying sizes.
Related: You might also like to read up on some of the other strongest animals in the world.
Lions are social animals. They have a social community we all refer to as pride. The pride contains 3 to 21 females, up to 6 young male lions, and lion cubs of all ages. Each pride has a territory it governs, with the adult males standing their ground against rival lions4.
Not all pride members are together all the time because some become independent. One often goes alone or joins two other lions. Lionesses leave the pride community to give birth, returning after four to eight weeks.
Lionesses raise their cubs as a community. Cubs can suck milk from any of the females. They often show limited favoritism to their offspring. However, there is a close genetic relatedness among lionesses. So, each improves their genes when they help raise their female relatives' cubs.
Further, a lion's social structures may have helped them earn their kingly title. A lion's social structure allows them to work together, defending territory and hunting in groups, displaying a level of cooperation and organization that has been interpreted as regal.
Why not the tiger that has gained the title of king of the jungle? - At least in part due to their less regal solitary ways.
Lions and their female counterparts, lionesses, do not look alike. An adult male lion has a full mane around their head. It grows in a downward and backward direction into a full length. The mane is the most recognizable feature of lions. It is how you can tell a female apart from a male.
Lionesses do not have a mane of hair around their head, so it doesn’t make them as large as their male counterparts.
As male cubs reach the age of three, they already have a sizable amount of mane. So, other pride members kick them out. It is an essential behavior among pride lions. A male lion must take over a pride and establish a new dominance in an existing pride or create a new pride.
A lion’s mane symbolizes raw power; it gives them a royal and majestic appearance. Mane grows on young males at age one, and as they grow older, the mane color changes and gets darker with age. Thus, attributing to these reasons, most people refer to them as the king of the jungle.
The mane around their head protects their neck from bites. It also helps these wild animals boost their appearance by making them appear larger, threaten their other contenders, and woo a female to mate with.
Also, lionesses prefer to mate with darker-maned lions because it improves their chances of getting offspring. A symbol of a healthy and mighty lion is how full and dark his mane is. It is like a crown; a lion losing his crown is seen as weak1.
Lions have exceptional hunting skills, with lionesses having better skills. A lioness is a better hunter because she can run faster than her male counterpart. They have two hunting methods: stalking and communal hunting.
The stalking method of hunting requires them to be solitary hunters, as they need to watch for the right moment to pounce on their prey. In the collaborative method, lions and lionesses join forces and attack their kill directly. They mostly use this method to hunt larger animals like zebras, antelopes, baby elephants, crocodiles, young hippopotami, wild pigs, and hyenas.
They also feed on livestock animals from neighboring farms. However, they do not attack adult elephants, hippopotami, and rhinos because they are too large. They'll end up dead trying to kill them. They also salvage the kills of hyenas, leopards, and other predators. Sometimes, lions lose their catch to a group of hyenas3.
Lions have long been symbols of strength, bravery, and leadership, making them a popular choice as national animals for several countries.
The Asiatic lion, a subspecies of lion that's found primarily in India's Gujarat state, is a national symbol of India. Although the national animal of India is officially the Bengal Tiger, the Asiatic lion holds significant cultural and symbolic value in the country.
Ethiopia, for instance, has a rich history of lion symbolism, with the creature featuring prominently in its culture, religion, and even its currency. In fact, the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was often referred to as the "Lion of Judah."
The Netherlands, though it doesn't host any lions in the wild, has the lion as its national animal due to its historical heraldry, where the lion is a symbol of courage, nobility, royalty, strength, stateliness, and valor.
Similarly, England and Scotland in the United Kingdom also recognize the lion as a national symbol due to its historical association with royalty and power.
In Sri Lanka, the lion is the national animal, symbolizing the bravery of the Sinhalese, the ethnic group that constitutes the largest portion of the country’s population. These are just a few examples of how the lion, as the "King of the Jungle," has been embraced by nations worldwide as a symbol of national pride and identity.
We call lions the king because they exhibit attributes of a powerful ruler, but they are only rulers of their territory. The actual king of the jungle, where we interpret it literally, would be a tiger. Tigers live in the jungle, and they are the strongest enormous cat in the animal kingdom. They have no natural predators.
Barnett, R., Yamaguchi, N., Barnes, I. et al. Lost populations and preserving genetic diversity in the lion Panthera leo: Implications for its ex situ conservation. Conserv Genet 7, 507–514 (2006).
Smuts, G. & Robinson, GA & Whyte, I.. (2009). Comparative growth of wild male and female lions (Panthera led). Journal of Zoology. 190. 365 - 373. 10.1111/j.1469-7998.1980.tb01433.x.
Hayward, M.W. and Kerley, G.I.H. (2005), Prey preferences of the lion (Panthera leo). Journal of Zoology, 267: 309-322.
Bertram, B. C. R. (1975). The Social System of Lions. Scientific American, 232(5), 54–65.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.