Hunting lion


By Don Heath


Shot placement and hunting techniques

Lion (Panthera leo):- the king of the beasts. Symbol of strength and majesty from Old Testament times until present day. Feared and loathed super predator.  Once widespread across much of Asia, Southern Europe and all of Africa, the lions range has been considerably reduced within historical times. Man the predator and stock farmer doesn’t like competition, and lion have been exterminated from Europe, almost all of Asia (less than 200 remain) and even large areas of Africa. Its very size, strength and appetite have been its downfall, whilst occasional forays into man eating have done nothing to endear it, as a species, to rural communities.

Lion are the largest predator in Africa with male lions weighing an average of 190kg (420lbs) and standing some 1.25m high at the shoulder.  Females are slightly shorter  and considerably slimmer in build, weighing an average of 125kg (275lbs). Males are characterised by a large bushy mane around the throat, which, in some populations may extend right down the chest and belly. It is usually a tawny colour, somewhat darker than the rest of the coat, but in many populations may appear almost black. Although no subspecies are officially recognised, there is considerable variation, particularly in coat and mane colour and form, depending on locality. Males dwelling in thick thorn scrub are usually virtually maneless, whilst in some areas of the Kalahari the coat may be so pale as to be almost white.

Lion are also the only social cats. They live in prides varying from 5 to 30 in numbers (pride size is dependent upon food availability, terrain and hunting pressure), and cooperate in hunting. The lioness’s, who tend to stay in the pride into which they are born, are responsible for most of the hunting effort within the pride. The pride male changes periodically and his function within the pride is largely confined to breeding and  protecting  kills from hyaenas, or helping the pride rob other predators of their kills. There is a complex social organisation within the pride, and communal care of the cubs. One feature of lion social behaviour that has weighed against them under hunting pressure, is that when a new male takes over the pride, he kills off all the cubs from the previous incumbent. This immediately brings the females into oestrus again, and means that the new pride male doesn’t have to look after someone else’s cubs, but in an environment of heavy hunting pressure, the turn over in pride males can easily be sufficiently high so as to prevent any cubs from reaching maturity.

Lions are predominately nocturnal hunters, and research has shown that hunts that occur when there is no (or little) moon have a 62% higher success rate than those that take place in bright moonlight or daytime. During the day lions tend to lie around in the shade, either digesting the previous meal or simply resting. They are seldom active more than a couple of hours after sunrise, and only become active again in the early evening.

Lions eat a considerable variety of prey ranging from mice to young elephants. Individual lion prides, however, often specialise on one particular species of prey. In Hwange national park some prides specialise on buffalo, whilst others specialise on diurnal attacks on giraffe. In Botswana, porcupines and other smaller animals form a significant proportion of some prides diets. The individual hunting techniques of how to hamstring a giraffe without getting kicked to death or flip over a porcupine without getting full of quills is passed on from generation to generation.

Location Lions exhibit a very wide habitat tolerance and are found in anything from thick bush through open forrest to desert. They are not water dependant and are only naturally absent from the Congo jungles. Man has, however, exterminated them from most farming areas and today lion are confined to designated conservation areas and the more remote and  sparsely populated tribal lands across Africa South of the Sahara. They are not particularly popular on private game ranches and conservancies as they invariably eat a considerably greater value of ungulates than they them selves are worth. Hunting areas are therefore largely confined to government controlled safari areas or said tribal lands, where they are regarded as problem animals.

Lions are great wanderers and lone males periodically turn up in areas where they have been absent for many years, often as far as 300 km from their normal range. Home ranges of the prides tend to be fairly fixed and the pride will only move territory if forced to do so by food supply needs or competition. In areas where food is plentiful and permanently resident pride home ranges tend to be small (50-100km²) and well defined whilst in semi desert and desert areas the range is huge and follow the herds as they migrate. 

Trophy Selection It is very hard to describe a ‘Trophy’ Lion. Everybody’s idea is somewhat different, depending on what they have been brought up to believe. The SCI or Rowland Ward scoring systems are but two methods of describing a trophy:-essentially bigger is better. But with Lion there are a host of other factors. Mane colour, length and form are important considerations to many sportsmen, and these vary considerably with location, as does pure physical size. As lion are not the easiest animals to hunt, and nowhere can they be described as ‘super abundant’ a sportsman is probably best advised to ascertain what the average mature male from the area he intends to hunt looks like.  There are probably only a couple of areas in Africa where he will be able to look over more than a couple of males on a sixteen day hunt and the first mature male encountered is the one to take. Therefore “trophy” selection is best done by area.


Hunting Methods

Lion are unusual in that they are very much two animals in one. They are extremely lazy and spend the greater part of their live simply resting and watching. In daylight lions tend to be rather shy, giving way to man (except when a lioness is protecting her cubs or other exceptional circumstances). At night though, they are definitely king, and give way to nobody. Even cow elephants bunch together at night when lion are around, and the numbers of young elephant killed by lions is much higher than many people imagine. Similarly when hunting them. In general they succumb easily to any well placed shot, and many of the professional lion hunters in the early years of this century who were employed to rid the cattle ranches of lion used only military surplus .303 rifles with nary a hitch. Wounded or annoyed though, and the lion becomes a very different beast. LG (OOOBuck) buckshot and even .458 Winchester ‘Lion Load’ have been repeatedly documented as failing to penetrate the massive chest muscles of a charging lion.  9" of hard, sinewy, tensed muscle is a difficult challenge to any bullet. It is the other ‘animal’ that makes lion hunting sport. Make a mistake and the ‘role’ of hunter and hunted can quickly become reversed        

There are two traditional ways to hunt lions. The first is the bait and blind method. This is the usual (and often only) technique applicable to any area with hard or stoney ground. As Lion will scavenge in preference to killing there own prey, they will readily come to a bait provided they have not been ‘educated’ and shot at repeatedly and badly at baits in the past. There is a whole art to successfully laying a bait and building a blind or tree stand but if done correctly in an area where lion are present in reasonable numbers, the hunter is virtually guaranteed an easy shot at a lion. Where lion are reasonably common or little hunted, it is usually possible to keep the lions on the bait until daylight. In many areas in Africa it is illegal to shoot at night and so every effort has to be made to keep the animals feeding. Again Location and size of the bait are crucial to this.

In some areas it is legal to shoot at night. This is a whole different ball game to shooting in daylight. Yes, it is easier to get the animals on the bait, yes the lions are dazzled by the light, giving the hunter a sitting target for a few seconds, BUT the chances of a mistake are much higher, and the lionesses may well join the fray, particularly if the male is wounded and decides to fight. The hunter himself needs to decide what is ethical, right, and the levels of risk that are worth taking.

The other method of hunting lion is to track them down on foot in daylight. This is only applicable to sandy areas where the spoor is easy to follow. In brief, one dives around the hunting area until the spoor of a large male is detected and then one sets off in pursuit. The lions will spend the greater part of the day resting in the shade, and so are unlikely to be more than a few miles from where they were hunting the previous night, and a good tracker, in favourable terrain, will catch up to them within a few hours. The lion are unlikely to run away and a careful stalk should bring one within easy shooting range before any response from the pride is elicited. Unless there is a particular problem (such as very young cubs), the pride will run when the male is shot. A missed shot will put the lions on their guard and you are very unlikely to catch up with them that day or even for the next few.


Firearm selection and shot placement

For the most part, lion can be regarded as soft skinned game. They have a relatively light bone structure, thin skin and are not that big an animal (they weigh less than a big sable or gemsbok).  Every experienced lion hunter from Taylor to Rushby has noted that, in common with other felines, they are particularly susceptible to ‘shock’ (hydrostatic effect), and that a high velocity rifle is more effective than a low velocity rifle of bigger calibre. Taylor noted that the .416 Rigby and .425 Westly Richards would crumple a charging lion so much more effectively than his beloved .500/.465 or even a .577.  Rushby, when dealing with the Man eaters of Njoma preferred his 9,3 (with continental high velocity loads giving a velocity of 2350fps) over a departmental .404 (with the old English load producing 2150fps). The reason was simple. The 9.3 put lions down like the .404 only dreamed about, and Rushby was somewhat apprehensive about having to go back to a .404 when he was forced to sell the 9.3. ‘Yank’ Allen, the (only?) full time professional lion hunter stuck to a .303 rifle with MK7 ammunition after a few close calls with a .450/400. This susceptibility to shock is usually attributed to a highly developed nervous system, but large, fragile lungs, coupled with a very large heart and big blood vessels (for its size) must surely also be contributing factors.

Consequently, in many countries Lion are classified as large soft skinned game and may be legally hunted with rifles suitable for sable, eland and giraffe. Most of the time a rifle in the .300 magnum class is perfectly suitable, particularly when hunting in daylight and being backed up by somebody with a heavier rifle. For hunting at night or following up a wounded animal something considerably heavier is definitely needed. For night shooting, something in the order of a .338 Win Mag or a 9,3x62 should be regarded as the minimum. Here bullet selection is important, since rapid destruction of the lungs/heart is vital, and yet penetration may be crucial. Bullets such as the Norma Oryx really stand out as a truly great design for lion, especially in the smaller calibres.

For following up a wounded lion, nothing under the .400 class of rifles can really be considered satisfactory. In their modern loadings the .404 and .416 Rigby are very effective, along side their newer counterparts such as the .416 Remington. Again, bullet selection is the key to satisfaction and safety. A charging lion is definitely NOT a soft-skinned animal, and light-for-calibre or frangible bullet designs are going to fail dismally. Premium softpoints such as the Norma Oryx, ‘Barns X, or Woodleigh ‘Weldcore’  are a better choice for this than the ‘Partition’ style bullets since the massive chest muscles have to be penetrated before the vital organs can be reached. A lion tensed up to fight probably offers nearly as much resistance to a bullet as a Cape Buffalo, and bullet selection for this specialised task needs to be much the same. Solids, however, should NOT be used. The shock and tissue damage created is simply too small to conclude matters quickly enough. A Lion can reach 80km/h (50mph) in a charge and is a relatively small target:- Stopping it- dead- is a top priority.  

As with every animal, bullet placement is important. No amount of foot-ponds of energy can make up for a bullet in the stomach and lion’s famed susceptibility to ‘shock’ definitely does not apply to gut shots or bullets through the leg etc. The brain is a tiny target, located behind the eyes if the lion is looking directly towards you. From any other angle the brain is an extremely difficult target since the mane obscures the head and even the ears making it virtually impossible to determine where the skull actually is. Even when the head is clearly visible (such as on a lioness or maneless male), hunters tend to shoot too high. The whole top of the skull is covered by massive muscles to work the jaws and the brain is located several inches lower than one would normally expect (see photo 1). Consequently the brain shot is to be avoided if at all possible.

For the chest shot, there is nothing startling about a lions anatomy except that it is rare to shoot a lion in the classic broadside on standing position. If shot from a blind the lion will probably be standing on its back legs feeding or lying down near the bait. If it is tracked down it will either be lying down, with its head lifted to keep a lazy watch, or it will be crouching facing the hunter watching him. The heart is large and situated low in the chest, somewhat further back than on the antelopes. Above are the major arteries and veins, whilst above and behind are the lungs. If the lion is lying down it may not be feasible to try for a heart shot. It is too easy to place the bullet too low and miss everything vital. Much better then to take a lung shot and try to ensure that both lungs are raked by the bullet. In short, the whole front half of the chest is the target area and any shot here with an appropriate bullet will result in rapid, if not instantaneous incapacitation.      



1. Use a Brine - It is always best to use a saturated brine solution with some sort of anti-bacterial additive to ensure the best curing of the skin prior to tanning.

2. Belly Fat - When skinning a lion it is particularly important to remove any fat from the skin particularly from the belly area as this will inhibit the salt from penetrating the skin.

3. Tip of Tail - A common fault when skinning lion's tail is to leave the last digit of the tail in the skin. This results in the eventual loss of the tail tuft. Be sure to skin right to the tip of the very tip of the tail and remove this digit.

4. Toes - Similarly it is important to remove the last digit in the toes of the feet leaving only the claw in the skin. When skinning the foot it is acceptable to cut through the centre of the main pad to access the rest of the foot but be sure to score the inside of the pad so as ensure the salt penetration into this area.

5. Use of nail brush - A useful tool to clean blood encrusted areas particularly around bullet wounds, etc., is an ordinary nail brush which can be used to clean the area by scrubbing the area following the direction in which the hair lies.

6. Whiskers - In order to avoid the loss of cat's whiskers, it is necessary to pay particular attention when skinning this part of the cat. Be careful not to scrape the skin against the  whisker follicles as this will result in damage to the follicle and possible loss of the whisker. The best thing to do is to very carefully score the inside of the skin around each follicle after removing any fat there is, which will allow maximum penetration of salt.