Aim In recent decades there has been a marked decline in the numbers of African lions (Panthera leo), especially in West Africa where the species is regionally endangered. Based on the climatological history of western Africa, we hypothesize that West and Central African lions have a unique evolutionary history, which is reflected by their genetic makeup. Location Sub-Saharan Africa and India, with special focus on West and Central Africa. Method In this study 126 samples, throughout the lion's complete geographic range, were subjected to phylogenetic analyses. DNA sequences of a mitochondrial region, containing cytochrome b, tRNAPro, tRNAThr and the left part of the control region, were analysed. Results Bayesian, maximum likelihood and maximum parsimony analyses consistently showed a distinction between lions from West and Central Africa and lions from southern and East Africa. West and Central African lions are more closely related to Asiatic lions than to the southern and East African lions. This can be explained by a Pleistocene extinction and subsequent recolonization of West Africa from refugia in the Middle East. This is further supported by the fact that the West and Central African clade shows relatively little genetic diversity and is therefore thought to be an evolutionarily young clade. Main conclusions The taxonomic division between an African and an Asian subspecies does not fully reflect the overall genetic diversity within lions. In order to conserve genetic diversity within the species, genetically distinct lineages should be prioritized. Understanding the geographic pattern of genetic diversity is key to developing conservation strategies, both for in situ management and for breeding of captive stocks.