Not So Lovely Lions
by Ellen Whyte
They are majestic, strong and powerful. It is no wonder they have been called 'The King of Beasts'.
In most fairytales, lions are brave and noble. Like the great Aslan in the Narnia stories by C. S. Lewis, they help human heroes fight evil adversaries and their monsters. Others believe that the predators can protect them from evil spirits.
Brave warriors were once likened to lions, like the 12th century English king Richard the Lionheart.
But the big cats' reputation for bravery and honour is undeserved. Lions rarely hunt alone. Instead, they live in groups, called 'prides', of about 20 animals.
They hunt together at night. The females, that is. Male lions don't do much; they prefer to let the females do all the hard work of tracking and killing prey.
Lions can kill a zebra or deer easily. But they tire easily and can't run very fast. Their prey often escape by running away.
Many lions don't even bother to hunt. They just wait for hyenas to make their kill - and then steal their meat.
So there you go: The brave King of the Beasts should really be renamed the Mugger of the Grasslands.
When lions are sick, injured or when there aren't enough animals for them to hunt, they may resort to attacking people. Then they become so-called maneaters.
The most famous man-eating cats were a pair of males in Kenya. The two predators killed and ate 35 railway workers in 1898. You can watch a movie based on real-life events in the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness.
Lion fact file
Males can weigh up to 250kg. Lions have long been hunted. Wild populations remain in Asia and Africa.
A female lion is called a lioness. A baby lion is called a cub. Males are just called lions.
Several English words trace their origins to the animals, like 'leonine' (lion-like) and 'to lionise' (to hero-worship).
Lions have never lived wild in China but they are popular characters in Chinese tales.
In early stories, lions protected the Emperor. The animals were also considered lucky. That is why Chinese artists have been making lion statues and paintings for 2,200 years.
A typical lion dinner is made up of 20 to 35 kilos of meat. (Look at your weight and figure out how many lion lunches you would make.) After eating a lot, the animal feels really sleepy. It spends up to 24 hours digesting - before going out to find another meal.
Famous story lions include Aslan, the magical lion in The Chronicles of Narnia, and Simba, the hero of the Disney film The Lion King.
Famous real lions include Elsa, the lioness brought up by the Adamson family in Kenya and then set free. Elsa became famous when her story Born Free became first a popular book, then a film.
Why lions kill cubs
In every pride, there is a top lion, an 'alpha male'. When a younger male wants to become dominant, he needs to challenge the head of the pride. If he wins, he becomes the new alpha male.
When a new male takes over, he kills the cubs that belong to the previous alpha male. He does this to make sure all the cubs will be his own offspring.