Diseases impacting lion populations: Parasites

Last updated 7 Mar 2012


PARASITES:  Parasitic infection may be endemic or epidemic and clinical symptoms of infection may or may not be prevalent, possibly suggesting some level of genetic adaptation to some parasitic infections.

Babesia spp.

Babesia is a tick-borne intracellular erythrocytic haemoprotozoan parasite causing babesiosis.  The disease infects red blood cells with symptoms characterized by haemolytic anaemia [1].  Only infected ticks which carry the disease from feeding on blood from an infected animal transmit the disease.  Infected ticks may pass on the infection to the next generation through eggs [2]

Babesia leo has been isolated in lions and is morphologically similar to B. felis found in domestic cats and wild pumas (Felis concolor) [1].  However clinical babesiosis has not been recorded in lions except in one specific case.  “Elsa” the lion made famous by Born Free was reported to have died of babesiosis following release into an area where she was severely mauled by presumed infected wild lions.  It is speculated that the severe stress caused by the release protocol negatively impacted her immunocompetence as the reason why she succumbed to an infection which other lions have been shown to tolerate [3]

56 free-ranging lions and 25 captive lions in South Africa and Swaziland were tested finding that 28 (50%) of the wild lions and 12 (48%) of captive lions tested positive for the parasite.  Of those that tested positive some were infected with B. felis, some with B. leo, some with both whilst others were infected with unidentified Babesia spp. [1].

Two outbreaks of canine distemper virus (CDV) in Serengeti lion populations 1994 and in the Ngorongoro Crater population in 2001 resulted in high mortality whilst a further, at least, five outbreaks of CDV between 1976 and 2006 occurred without clinical signs or measurable mortality suggesting CDV was not necessarily fatal.  A common event for the two periods of high mortality was extreme drought conditions with widespread die-off in herbivore species, and in particular Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer).  After the resumption of the rains heavy tick infestation of compromised buffalo populations led to unusually high Babesia infection in lions which were already immunocompromised by CDV infection.  Stomoxys flies also flourished in the rains following the Crater drought, causing pruritic skin ulcers in lions, further compromising them.  Biotic and abiotic factors had converged to create a “perfect storm” resulting in unprecedented mortality in lions [4].  “Such mass mortality events may become increasingly common if climate extremes disrupt historic stable relationships between co-existing pathogens and their susceptible hosts.” [4]

Policies of fire suppression allow grass to grow taller resulting in increasing tick survival rates and raising the chances of infected ticks passing on the disease [5].

Prophylactic treatment of the disease is possible although dosages for wild animals are yet to be determined. Extrapolation of information on dosages for domestic animals may be possible [3].


[1] Bosman AM, Venter EH, Penzhorn BL (2007) Occurrence of Babesia felis and Babesia leo in various wild felid species and domestic cats in Southern Africa, based on reverse line blot analysis.  openUP (July 2007) (pdf)

[2] Veterinary Informatics and Epidemiology Research Group of the University of Glasgow and University of Strathclyde.  (html – accessed 27 May 2011)

[3]  Penzhorn BL (2006) Babesiosis of wild carnivores and ungulates.  Veterinary Parasitology 138 (1-2) 11-21 (pdf)

[4]  Munson L, Terio KA, Kock R, Mlengeya T, Roelke ME, Dubovi E, Summers B, Sinclair ARE, Packer C (2008) Climate Extremes Promote Fatal Co-Infections during Canine Distemper Epidemics in African Lions. PLoS ONE 3(6): e2545. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002545 (pdf)

[5] Craft ME (2008) Predicting disease dynamics in African lion populations.  PhD dissertation for the University of Minnesota.  (pdf)

Further reading

A possible new piroplasm in lions from the Republic of South Africa (pdf)
Lopez-Rebollar LM, Penzhorn BL, de Waal DT, Lewis BD (1999).  Journal of Wildlife Diseases 35 (1) 82-85

Babesia leo N. Sp. from Lions in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, and Its Relation to Other Small Piroplasms. (pdf – purchase required)
Penzhorn BL, Kjemtrup AM,  Lopez-Rebollar LM, Conrad PA (2001) Journal of Parasitology 87 (3) pp. 681-685.

Trypanosoma spp.

Trypanosomes are a unicellular parasitic flagellate protozoa transmitted by tsetse flies (Glossina spp.).

Between July and September 1985 113 lions were examined for blood parasites in the Serengeti National Park and 10 from the Ngoro Ngoro Crater in Tanzania.  28% of Serengeti lions and 0% of Ngoro Ngoro crater lions carried trypanosoma sp. of parasites.  Higher incidence of infection was found in lions utilising the Serengeti woodlands of highest concentrations of tsetse flies suggesting transmission is most likely from the flies.  With some positive results discovered in non-tsetse areas it has been suggested that mechanical transmission is also possible through predator-prey interactions of infected prey animals [1].


[1] Averbeck GA, Bjork KE, Packer C, Herbst L (1990) Prevalence of hematozoans in lions (Panthera leo) and cheetah (Acininyx jubatus) in Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (pdf)

Further reading

Patterns in age-seroprevalance consistent with acquired immunity against Trypanosoma brucei in Serengeti lions (pdf)
Welburn S, Picozzi K, Coleman PG, Packer C (2008) PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 2(12): e347. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0000347

Theileria spp.

Theileria is a genus of parasitic protozoan that belongs to the phylum Apicomplexa and is closely related to PlasmodiumTheileria are transmitted by ticks.  The life cycle within cats is similar to Babesia spp except the infectious sporozoites invade leucocytes as well as erythrocytes. In lymphocytes, the sporozoites undergo shizogony and multiply, then invade erythrocytes. Erythrocytic shizogony is rare or absent in cats. Infected erythrocytes are then ingested by ticks where they undergo gamogony and fertilization within the midgut, then invade the salivary gland cells. Here, sporogony occurs, resulting in sporozoites that are transmitted to the cat when the tick feeds.

Clinical signs in domestic cats include Clinical signs in cats include fever, weight loss, lethargy, anorexia and lymphadenopathy. [1]

Between July and September 1985 113 lions were examined for blood parasites in the Serengeti National Park and 10 from the Ngoro Ngoro Crater in Tanzania.  100% of lions in both locations carried Theileria-like sp. piroplasms [2].


[1]  Criado-Fornelio A, Buling A, Pingret JL, Etievant M, Boucraut-Baralon C, Alongi A, Agnone A, Torina A(2009) Hemoprotozoa of domestic animals in France: prevalence and molecular characterization. Vet Parasitol 159(1):73-76 (pdf)

[2] Averbeck GA, Bjork KE, Packer C, Herbst L (1990) Prevalence of hematozoans in lions (Panthera leo) and cheetah (Acininyx jubatus) in Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (pdf)

Hepatozoon spp.

Hepatozoon is a genus of Apicomplexan protozoa which incorporates over 300 species of obligate intraerythrocytic parasites.  Hepatozoonosis results when an animal eats an infected tick rather than a bite from one.  Feline hepatozoonosis is associated with muscular pathology and is often reported in conjunction with a retroviral disease [1].

Between July and September 1985 113 lions were examined for blood parasites in the Serengeti National Park and 10 from the Ngoro Ngoro Crater in Tanzania.  100% of lions in both locations carried Hepatozoon sp. of parasites [2]


[1] Baneth G (2003) Disease risks for the travelling pet: Hepatozoonosis.  In Practice 2003 (5): 272-277 (pdf)

[2] Averbeck GA, Bjork KE, Packer C, Herbst L (1990) Prevalence of hematozoans in lions (Panthera leo) and cheetah (Acininyx jubatus) in Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (pdf)

Mycoplasma haemofelis (formerly known as Haemobartonella felis)

Mycoplasma haemofelis is more commonly known as Feline Infectious Anemia and is caused by the organism Candidatus Mycoplasma haemominutum [1, 4]. It is a single celled parasite of the blood. Haemobartonella felis are small bacteria with many different shapes which attach to red blood cells. The clinical signs of this infection are lethargy, fever, weight loss, anorexia, jaundice and pale mucus membranes [4, 5].     

Diagnosis is performed by analyzing a blood smear stained with Giemsa-stain [4,5] However it is not always easy as the parasite may not be present in the initial blood sample [1]. Treatment of haemobartonella felis usually involves a course of antibiotics and vitamin B12, also anabolic steroids and nutritional supplements can aid in recovery [1,6].  Feline infectious anemia is transmitted by fleas and ticks [7]. This occurs when fleas and ticks have taken a blood meal from an infected animal and then feed off an uninfected animal; the parasites are transferred into the uninfected animal.

Haemobartonella felis infects wild felids worldwide however this is thought to be intermittent.  In one study 54 non domestic felids were sampled and 3% of the sampled population were found to be positive [2,3].   There is little scientific evidence of feline infectious anemia amongst wild felids and among the African population of lion; however it has been isolated in captive felids indicating the diseases in these species [7]. 


[1] Boden E. Ed. Black’s veterinary dictionary. ed. London: A&C Black (book - purchase required)

[2] Haefner  M, Burke TJ, Kitchell BE, Lamont LA, Scaeffer DJ, Behr M, Messick JB (2003) Identification of haemobartonella felis (mycoplasma haemofelis) in captive non domestic cats. Journal of zoo and wildlife medicine 342: 139-143 (pdf - purchase required)

[3] Willi B, Boretti FS, Tasker S, Meli ML, Wengi N, Reusch CE, Lutz H, Hofmann-Lehmann R (2007) From haemobartonella to haemoplasma: molecular methods provide new insights. Veterinary microbiology  125: 197-209 (pdf - purchase required)

[4] Suksai P, Sangkachai N, Chatsiriwech J, Kanthaewee O, Sariya L, Chaichoun K (2010) Development of multiplex polymerase chain reaction for detection of feline heamotrophic mycoplasma in blood and tissue specimins. 41 :1447- 1453 (pdf)

[5] Haurrus S, Klement E, Aroch I, Stein T, Bark H, Lavy E, Mazaki-Tovi M (2002) A retrospective study of 46 cases of feline haemobartonellosis in isreal and their relationships with FeLV and FIV infections. 151: 82-85 (pdf - purchase required)

[6] Choy FS, Sori RA, Lazarus K, Lim L K (2005) Suspected feline infectious anemia in an African lion. Harmonising HALAL practices and food safety from farm to table. Proceedings of the 17th Veterinary Association Malaysia Congress in conjuction with Malaysia International Halal Showcase (MIHAS) 27-30 July 2005: 166-167 (pdf - purchase required)

[7] Guimaraes A M S, Javorouski M L, Bonat M, Lacerda O, Balbinotti B, Queiroz L G P B, Timenetsky J, Biondo A W, Messick J B (2007) Molecular detection of "Candidatus Mycoplasma haemominutum" in a lion (Panthera leo) from a brazilian zoological garden. 49 (pdf)


Endoparasites can exist in one of two forms: intercellular (inhabiting spaces in the host's body) or intracellular (inhabiting cells in the host's body). Intracellular parasites, such as bacteria or viruses, tend to rely on a third organism which is generally known as the carrier or vector. The vector does the job of transmitting them to the host.

Intercellular parasites include protozoa, trematoda (flatworms), cestoda (tapeworms), nematode (roundworms), acanthocephalan (thorny-headed worms) and arthropoda. 

Numerous reports of African lion (Panthera leo) endoparasites originate from zoological parks and managed game reserves without indication of the lions’ origins, their diets or prey, or their movements. Reports are sparse on parasites of free-ranging wild lions of eastern Africa. Taenia regis, Taenia gonyamai, and Taenia simbae were found in lion collections from the Serengeti [1] and Spirometra sp. was frequent in these lions [2].

Accounts of parasitism in free-ranging lions from other areas of Africa, particularly southern Africa, are more numerous. Ancylostoma paraduodenale has been found in lions in Northern Rhodesia [now Zambia] [3] as have Lagochilascaris major in the Congo [4], Echinococcus felidis in Northern Transvaal [5], and Echinococcus granulosus felidis in Transvaal [6].  Trichinella spiralis, Dirofilaria sudanensis, Linguatula serrata, Linguatula nuttalli, Cylicospirura sp. [6] and Schistosoma mattheei [7] were reported from Kruger National Park. An individual lion from Northern Rhodesia was infected with Pharyngostomum cordatum, Galoncus perniciosis, Gnathostoma spinigerum, Mesocestoides sp., Dipylidium sp., Ollulanus tricuspis, Toxascaris leonina, Physaloptera praeputialis, Dirofilaria acutiuscula, A. paraduodenale [8], and Taenia hydatigena was reported from a lion in Nigeria that had originated from the Leipzig Zoological Gardens, Germany, where it had been fed raw goat meat [9].

Many reports of lion endoparasites are from zoos in India, but information on lion habitat, origin, or diet is incomplete. Sarcocysts were found in two zoo lions [10] and Taenia jaipurensis was found in the intestine of a lion that died in the Jaipur Zoo [11]. Spirometra erinacea [12], Ascaris felis, Galonchus perniciosus [13], T. leonine [14], and Parascaris felis [15] were all reported. Both wild Gir forest lions and Indian zoo lions had Spirometra sp., Toxascaris sp., and Ancylostoma sp. [16-18]

Toxocara cati, T. leonina, and Spirometra sp. were described in Australian circus lions [19] and zoo lions in central California were serologically positive for Toxoplasma gondii [20]. Giardia sp. was reported from a captive lion [21]. Two undescribed species of Isospora were reported from captive lion cubs in England [22].  A spurious coccidian parasite, Eimeria felina, was observed in a lion from the Leningrad Zoo [18]”

In a survey of lions of the Serengeti nineteen different parasites were identified of the orders Protozoa, Trematoda, Cestoda, Nematoda, Acanthocephala and Arthropoda.  The number of parasites recovered per lion averaged 3 (range 0 – 9) including Eimeria sp., Giardia sp., Isispora sp. including I. felis and I. rivolta, Sarcocystis sp., Toxoplasma-like sp. Trematoda-like sp., Anoplocephalidae, Taeniidae, Aelurostrongylus sp., Ancylostoma sp. Capillaria sp., Habronema sp., Tococara cati, Trichuris-like sp., Acanthocephala and Demodex sp [1].


Quote & last paragraph reference:  Bjork KE, Averbeck GA, Stromberg BE (2000) Parasites and parasite stages of free-ranging wild lions (Panthera leo) of northern Tanzania.  Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 31 (1): 560-061 (pdf)

References contained within the quote (renumbered from original paper):

[1] Dinnick JA, Sachs R (1972) Taeniidae of lions in East Africa. Zeitschrift für Tropenmedizin und Parasitologie 23: 197–210

[2] Sachs R, Sachs C (1968) A survey of parasitic infestation of wild herbivores in the Serengeti region in northern Tanzania and the Lake Rukwa region in southern Tanzania. Bulletin of Epizootic Diseases of Africa 16: 455–472

[3] Biocca E (1951) On Ancylostoma paraduodenale, a new species from felines, closely related to A. duodenale. Journal of Helminthology 25: 11–18.

[4] Sprent JFA (1971) Speciation and development in the genus Lagochilascaris. Parasitology. 62: 71–112 (pdf - purchase required)

[5] Ortlepp RJ (1937) South African helminths—part I. Onderstepoort. Journal of Veterinary Science and Animal Industry 9: 311–336.

[6] Young E (1975) Some important parasitic and other diseases of lion, Panthera leo, in the Kruger National Park. Journal of the South African Veterinary Medical Association 46: 181–183.

[7] Pitchford RJ, Visser PS, Pienaar U de V, Young E (1974) Further observations of Schistosoma matteei, Veglia and LeRoux, 1929, in the Kruger National Park. Journal of the South African Veterinary Medical Association 45: 211–218.

[8] Le Roux PL (1958) Pharyngostomum cordatum (Dies., 1850), Galoncus perniciosus (v. Linstow, 1885) and Gnathostoma spinigerum (Owen, 1836), infections in a lion in northern Rhodesia. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 52: 14.

[9] Ogungbade SG, Ogunrinade AF (1984) Tapeworm infection (Taenia hydatigena) in lion (Panthera leo) in captivity. A case report. Revue D'élevage et de Médecine Vétérinaire Des Pays Tropicaux. 37: 30–31.

[10] Bhatavdekar MY, Purohit BL (1963) A record of sarcosporidiosis in lion. Indian Veterinary Journal 40: 44–45.

[11] Sharma S, Bhalya A, Seth A, Capoor VN (1983) Taenia jaipurensis n. sp. from lion, Panthera leo. Indian Journal of Parasitology. 7: 71–73.

[12] Patnaik MM, Acharjyo LN (1970) Notes on the helmith parasites of vertebrates in Baranga Zoo (Orissa). Indian Veterinary Journal 47: 723–730.

[13] Patnaik MM, Rao AT, Achariyo LN (1971) Notes on the nodular disease of the intestine of lion (Panthera leo) caused by Galonchus perniciosus (Ancylostomatidae: Nematoda). Indian Veterinary Journal 48: 1072–1073.

[14] Gaur SNS, Sethi MS, Tewari HC, Prakash OM (1979) A note on the prevalence of helminth parasites in wild and zoo animals in Uttar Pradesh. Indian Journal of Animal Science 49: 159–161

[15] Arya SN (1980) A new nematode parasite Parascaris felis sp. n. (Nematoda, Ascaridae) from Felis leo in Jodhpur, India. Acta Parasitologica Polonica 27: 309–311.

[16] Hiregougar LS (1975) Spirometra and Schistosoma infection among lions of Gir Forest in India. Current Research 4, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, India.

[17] Pande BP, Bhatia BB, Chauhan PPS, Garg RK (1970) Species composition of coccidia of some of the mammals and birds at the Zoological Gardens, Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh). Indian Journal of Animal Science 40: 154–166

[18] Pellerdy LP (1974) Coccidia and Coccidiosis, 2nd ed. Verlag Paul Parey, Berlin and Hamburg, German (book – purchase required)

[19] Prescott CW (1981) Fenbendazole in the treatment of intestinal parasites of circus lions and tigers. Veterinary Record 109: 15–16.

[20] Riemann HP, Behymer DE, Fowler ME, Schulz T, Lock A, Orthoefer JG, Silverman S, Franti CE (1974) Prevalence of antibodies to Toxoplasma gondii in captive exotic mammals. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 165: 798–800.

[21] Kreier JP (1978) Parasitic Protozoa, vol. II. Intestinal Flagellates, Histomonads, Trichomonads, Amoeba, Opalinids, and Ciliates. Academic Press, New York, New York. (book – purchase required)

[22] Peters W, Tennant L, McDermott SN (1973) Isospora species in Lancashire lion cubs. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 67: 8–10. (pdf – purchase required)

Further reading

Neospora caninum and Toxoplasma gondii in lion (Panthera leo) from Senegal , West Africa (pdf)
Kamga-Waladjo AR, Gbati OB, Kone P, Lapo RA, Dombou E, Chatagnon G, Baou SN, Diop PEH, Pangui LJ, Tainturier D, Akakpo JA (2009) Asian Journal of Animal And Veterinary Advances 4 (6): 346-349

A coprological survey of intestinal parasites of wild lions (Panthera leo) in the Serengeti and the Ngoro Ngoro Crater, Tanzania, East Africa (pdf)
Müller-Graf CDM (1995) Journal of Parasitology 81 (5 ): 812-814

Epidemiology of an intestinal parasite (Spirometra spp.) in two populations of African lions (Panthera leo) (pdf)
Müller-Graf CDM, Woolhouse MEJ, Packer C (1999) Parasitology 118: 407-415

Parasites in captive carnivores at the animal orphanage in Kenya (pdf - purchase required)
Vincent O, Francis G (2007) The Kenya Veterinarian 31 (2): 59-63

Prevalence of Bartonella infection in wild African lions (Panthera leo) and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) (pdf - purchase required)
Molia S, Chomel BB, Kasten RW, Leutenegger CM, Steele BR, Marker L, Martenson JS, Keet DF, Bengis RG, Peterson RP, Munson L, O’Brien SJ (2004) Veterinary Microbiology 100: 31-41

Worldwide occurrence of feline hemplasma infections in wild felid species (pdf)
Willi B, Filoni C, Catāo-Dias JL, Vattori V, Meli ML, Vargas A, Martínez F, Roelke ME, Ryser-Degiorgis M-P, Leutenegger CM, Lutz H, Hofmann-Lehmann R (2007) Journal of Clinical Microbiology 45 (4): 1159-1166