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Paws & Claws

Lion footprint

Not many people know what a lion’s footprint looks like and that’s understandable. Most of us don’t live in close proximity to them and don’t need this knowledge to keep us safe while walking outside. Interestingly, when you google “lion footprint” the majority of pictures and drawings shown are incorrect. Read on to learn more about what a lion print actually looks like, and how you can spot one in the field.

Details of a lion’s paw

Lions have amazingly strong paws. On the front paws they have five toes and 5 claws, including a so-called dewclaw. Dewclaws are essentially thumbs that grow on the inside of the front legs. They are incredibly strong and help the lion grip prey during attacks.  On the hind feet they have 4 toes and claws, making 18 overall.


The average size of a front foot is 13-15 cm long and 11-13 cm wide. The hind foot is a tiny bit smaller: 12-14cm long and 10-12cm wide. Measurements taken from a lion’s paw print can help us estimate its age and whether it is a male or female. 

Here you can see 5 toes on the front foot (including the thumb-like dewclaw)

Layers of keratin

Lion claws made up of keratin_ These were found at the scene of a retaliatory killing_

Lion claws are made of keratin, just like ours. However, unlike ours, they are made from many layers, meaning they are very strong and don’t break easily. After some wear and tear, an old layer will break off during scratching to reveal a fresh and sharp new layer. 

These claws were found at the scene of a retaliatory killing. Our team works hard to prevent incidents like this.

Retractable claws

The claws of a lion can grow up to 3cm long. Because they are used as weapons they need to stay sharp.


To protect them, lions keep their claws “retracted” during normal movement and resting, with the ability to flex them out when needed. This means that you won’t see claw marks in a lion’s footprint. 

The photo shows no sign of claws during normal movement.

No sign of claws during normal movement_

Shape and size of footprint

Now it’s time to show you a real lion’s footprint and how to tell it apart from the other prints in the field. There are three identification pointers:


  1. Like all felids, lions have a 3-lobed back pad, sometimes called W-shaped. This sets them apart from hyaena, dogs and other larger animals.

  2. There are no visible claw marks due to retractable claws. This sets them apart from the cheetah (which also has retractable claws, contrary to popular belief, but they extend more than the lion’s so can be seen in footprints).

  3. That only leaves leopard prints, which look similar but are much smaller (front foot 7-12 cm long and 7-10 cm wide). Lions also have slightly more elongated toe tracks than leopards.

lion paw
Lion print
Predator spoor identification

Use of claws

Claws are multipurpose tools. They are used for:​

  • Grabbing and holding on to prey 

  • Fighting

  • Climbing

  • Traction, providing grip to gain speed while running

  • Marking territory (lions have an interdigital scent gland in between their toes which releases scent when they stretch the toes against a tree, for example).

Lions marking territory, using their claws to scratch grooves and imprint scent on the tre

How lions walk

Walking lion

Lions walk in what is called the digitigrade position: on their toes with the heels raised off the ground, making their movement quieter.


Their soft toe-pads also cushion sound and their retracted claws don’t tap on rocks, all contributing towards a predator that is well adapted for sneak attacks.

Collaring for co-existence

The only time our team sees lion paws up close is when a lion is darted for collaring. Collaring lions is important for protecting livestock from lions, and preventing the retaliatory killing of lions. It is also important because it helps us to try and understand the movement patterns of lions in the area, so we can understand where conflict is most likely to happen. Collaring is not a solution on its own, however. Our teams continue to work hard on a daily basis to monitor lions, protect livestock and create local benefits from lion presence.  

collaring lion

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