African Lions: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Alexa Sutton
Duke University
Open Minds Teen Science Cafe, Raleigh, North Carolina


Known for their colorful dress and semi-nomadic cattle-herding lifestyle, the Maasai of East Africa are one of the most easily recognized tribes in the world.  But in the savannah, a dependence on cattle can be tremendously difficult when hungry lions are your neighbors. Scientists like Alexa Sutton are working hard to stop the human-lion conflict; protecting both the lions and the cultural traditions of the Maasai.

Watch the Video Replay of this Café!


About the African Lions

The Masai lion or East African lion (Panthera leo nubica syn. Panthera leo massaica) is a lion subspecies that is found in eastern Africa. The type specimen is described as being from “Nubia”. The subspecies includes previously recognized subspecies like massaica, which was initially described from the Tanganyika Territory in Eastern Africa.[2][3]


Neumann first described the Masai lion as being less cobby with longer legs and less curved backs than other lion subspecies. Males have moderate tufts of hair on the knee joint, and their manes are not full but look like combed backwards.[4]

Male East African lions are generally 2.5–3.0 metres (8.2–9.8 feet) long including the tail. Lionesses are generally smaller, at only 2.3–2.6 metres (7.5–8.5 feet). In weight, males are generally 145–205 kg (320–452 pounds), and females are 100–165 kg (220–364 pounds). Lions, male or female, have a shoulder height of 0.9–1.10 metres (3.0–3.6 feet).

Male Masai lions are known for a great range of mane types. Mane development is related to age: older males have more extensive manes than younger ones; manes continue to grow up to the age of four to five years, long after lions have become sexually mature. Males living in the highlands above 800 m (2,600 ft) altitude develop heavier manes than lions in the more humid and warmer lowlands of eastern and northern Kenya. They have scanty manes or are even completely maneless.[5]

Hands on Activity

Build a Boma! Participants were given a collection of candy, toothpicks and pipe cleaners and were instructed to make a boma, or defensive fort, to keep their livestock (gummy bears) safe from a variety of African predators (animal crackers). Presenter Alexa Sutton chose the best boma at the end of the event and prizes were awarded.