Cape Lion

Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo) and Cape lion (Panthera leo melanochaita) in Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France.
Barbary Lion and Cape Lion in Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France.

Thesupermat/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 


Cape Lion; also known as Panthera leo melanochaitus


Plains of South Africa

Historical Epoch:

Late Pleistocene-Modern (500,000-100 years ago)

Size and Weight:

Up to seven feet long and 500 pounds



Distinguishing Characteristics:

Extensive mane; black-tipped ears


About the Cape Lion

Of all the recently extinct offshoots of the modern lion—the European Lion (Panthera leo europaea), the Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo), and the American Lion (Panthera leo atrox)—the Cape Lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus) may have the least claim to subspecies status. The last known adult specimen of this big-maned lion was shot in South Africa in 1858, and a juvenile was captured by an explorer a couple of decades later (it didn't survive long out of the wild). The trouble is, the various extant subspecies of lions have a tendency to interbreed and mix up their genes, so it may yet turn out that Cape Lions were an isolated tribe of Transvaal Lions, the remnants of which can still be found in South Africa.

The Cape Lion has the dubious honor of being one of the few big cats to have been hunted, rather than harassed, into extinction: most individuals were shot and killed by European settlers, rather than slowly starving due to habitat loss or poaching of their accustomed prey. For a while, in the early 2000s, it seemed that the Cape Lion might be de-extincted: a zoo director from South Africa discovered a population of big-maned lions in Russia's Novosibirsk Zoo, and announced plans to perform genome testing and (if the results were positive for fragments of Cape Lion DNA) attempt to re-breed the Cape Lion back into existence. Unfortunately, the zoo director died in 2010 and the Novosibirsk Zoo closed a couple of years later, leaving these putative Cape Lion descendants in limbo.

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Strauss, Bob. "Cape Lion." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Strauss, Bob. (2021, September 3). Cape Lion. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "Cape Lion." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).