African Lion – Panthera LeoSerengeti Plain, East of Lake Victoria, Tanzania – Akeley Hall of African Mammals

When our prehistoric ancestors made their first appearance on the grasslands of Africa, lions were there to meet them. Our kind was probably easy prey, and the roar of a lion still sends chills down our spines, stirring mixed feelings of fear and admiration.

The superb lion group taxidermy seen here is the work of James L. Clark, then the museum’s director of arts and preparation, who led the expedition to collect the specimens in 1928.

A wealthy patron, G. Lister Carlisle Jr., sponsored the trip two years after Carl Akeley’s death to honor his memory. After meeting the author of the African Hall in 1926, Carlisle wrote, “There comes as a natural sequence of events the wish to aid in one of the most important causes of our time, that of the preservation of nature‘s interest for future generations.”

Lions once ranged from Greece to India and throughout most of Africa except for pure desert or rain forest. Now, though a few survive in India, they live predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa wherever suitable prey and habitats are found.

The most social of all the cats, lions live in groups of four to thirty, called prides, consisting of one or more males, several females, and cubs. Females form the core of the society, remaining together for life, while the adult males stay, at most, for a few years, until they are supplanted by more vigorous rivals. They are large, powerful predators. Males average about three hundred and seventy-five pounds, and females weigh an average hundred and sixty-five pounds.

Hunting usually occurs at night and is often a cooperative effort among females. After a successful hunt, however, pride males typically dominate in feeding at the kill. In spite of their hunting prowess, lions will often eat carrion or steal from other predators.

William R. Leigh, a master background artist who had traveled in Africa with Akeley, was hired to accompany the Carlisle-Clark African Expedition to do the required field sketches, and later complete the background painting. Upon arriving at the chosen site on Serengeti, Clark and Leigh made a small-scale model of the envisioned final diorama. This model served the team in working out the ultimate composition and placement of the specimens and accessories in the foreground, and helped determine the sort of landscape desired for the background painting. This, in turn, determined which kinds of plants would be collected and preserved for reproduction in the final scene.

In preparing the animals for this group in the field, Clark carefully photographed and measured them, making plaster impressions of their bodies to capture anatomical details that would be useful to the taxidermists back at the museum. Their skeletons and skins were thoroughly cleaned, salted, and hermetically sealed in tanks to assure safe transport back to New York.

The finished lion diorama at the museum is so realistic that the viewer feels drawn into the scene as a virtual member of the pride. The lions seemingly gaze into the painted background with us and respond with intense interest to the herds of passing antelope and wildebeests.


  • Title: Taxidermy mounts for the African lion diorama
  • Creator: Gardell Christensen and James L. Clark
  • Date Created: 1934

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