The Debunker: Is the Lion the King of the Jungle?

by Ken Jennings

August 27, 1912 saw the first appearance of a new fictional hero: Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. “A crackerjack!” enthused the then-current issue of All-Story Magazine. “Zowie! but things happen!” In honor of the ape-man’s 101st birthday this month, Jeopardy! know-it-all Ken Jennings swings in on his vine to debunk four longstanding misconceptions about the jungles of the world. Ungawa!

Jungle Myth #2: The Lion is the King of the Jungle.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight, a wise man once said. Since the 19th century, breathless European prose has referred to Africa’s mighty lion as the “king of the jungle.” There’s only one problem with this: as a moment’s thought will reveal, lions don’t live in the jungle! They hunt on savanna, the open grasslands of central Africa. Occasional trees, yes, but jungle, no. By definition, savanna has no tree canopy.

I should note a few caveats here. First, the words “jungle” and “rainforest” are often taken to be interchangeable. In fact, “jungle” means any impenetrable tropical thicket. Rainforests, despite their jungle-y reputation, often have almost no undergrowth, because their tree canopy doesn’t let in enough light. But lions don’t live in jungle or rainforest, so it really doesn’t matter. Now, there are a few lions that live in forests, notably the endangered Asiatic lion of western India. But these are dry scrub forests, not particularly jungle-like, and in any case this would only account for about 400 of the world’s population of 32,000 lions. In 2012, scientists also spotted some lions in the rainforests of Ethiopia, but determined that those weren’t permanent residents—just travelers waiting out the dry season.

The “King of the Jungle” idea is probably left over from Europe’s incorrect 19th-century vision of Africa as a “dark continent” of nothing but impenetrable jungle. Lions were the largest predators in a continent full of jungle, and therefore the “King of the Jungle,” Q.E.D. This was reinforced by a generation reared on Tarzan movies, not The Lion King. (Tarzan, despite his jungle setting, was always rassling lions.) Why don’t lions live in the jungle? Probably because of the competition from other top predators in that ecosystem: leopards and tigers, the true kings of the jungle.

Quick Quiz: Speaking of Ethiopian lions, who gave himself the title of “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah” when he took the throne of Ethiopia in 1930?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.