Wildlife & Biodiversity

‘Barbary lion reintroduction in north Africa is possible but needs long-term plans’

Down To Earth speaks to Simon Black, who teaches conservation science at the University of Kent in the UK about the now extinct-in-the-wild Barbary lion

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 21 August 2020

The Barbary Lion used to be found in north Africa, in the region stretching from Morocco in the west to Egypt in the east. This subspecies of lion was well known in antiquity when it was used in amphitheatres throughout the Roman Empire, mostly being killed for sport. It was hunted to extinction in the wild in the mid 20th century. Today, only a few individuals which descend from these lions, survive in captivity, mostly in zoos .  

Down To Earth spoke to Simon Black, lecturer in conservation science at Durrell Institute of Conservation & Ecology, School of Anthropology & Conservation, University of Kent, United Kingdom, about whether it would be possible to reintroduce these lions in their former habitat in the Atlas Mountains and the Libyan and Egyptian Deserts. Edited excerpts:

RG: Is the Barbary Lion still recognised as a distinct subspecies today? Recent studies have shown that these lions may have evolved in East Africa and then moved north?

SB: Lions have been recently classified into two sub-species: Panthera leo leo or ‘northern lion’ of west Africa, north Africa, West Asia and India and Panthera leo melanochaita the ‘southern lion’, that inhabits eastern and southern Africa.

Most (90 per cent) of lions are of the southern sub-species. In evolutionary terms, lions evolved and their range shifted according to ice-age climate effects in the north, Saharan shifts and other associated geological impacts, with animals remaining in various refugia, then spreading back into their range over geological time when climate and habitats allowed.

This is why we end up with a northern group and a southern group. In the more limited landscapes of the north, the more dispersed northern populations, under significant human pressures, gradually diminished, with most disappearing by the mid-20th century.

Only a small number of animals remained in the 20th century in India, way to the east and in small pockets of West Africa, as is the case today. The last strongholds for lions are those of the southern species, mostly in the savannahs of eastern and southern Africa.

RG: What are the genetic and morphological markers that signify the Barbary’s uniqueness?

SB: Little is known about the genetics of the Barbary lion since few verified samples of the animal exist or have been scientifically analysed. There are only a few specimens in museums in Europe and America.

A few studies of potential ‘Barbary’ lions (that is, animals historically distributed or descended from animals obtained in North Africa, namely the King of Morocco’s collection from the 19th and 20th century) have found some indicators in mitochondrial DNA but this is only passed down through the maternal (female) line.

However, in whole population studies, even living putative Barbary lions have been shown to be members of the northern subspecies, although the sample sizes are so small that clear indications are difficult.

Morphological studies suggest that Barbary lions have a deeper / bulkier body, shorter limbs, some differences in the hip structure and some features only seen elsewhere in Indian lions such as a belly flap and specific cranial features (in the skull).

Other indicators of Barbary lions include yellow eye colour and a somewhat less easy to assess mane size. Mane size is complicated as it can be affected by colder climate. For Barbary lions anyway, some morphological features may relate to the animals living in a colder, temperate mountainous habitat.

RG: Do we have any anecdotal evidence of Barbary Lions being spotted in Morocco / Algeria / Tunisia (The remote areas of the Atlas Range) in this century? Or is it well and truly extinct in the wild?

SB: There is no evidence of lions in north Africa in the 21st century. However, lions in north Africa died out much more recently than commonly thought. Most people think of them extinct by the 1920s, but they were around for nearly half a century longer.

Some individuals were present in Morocco and western Algeria into the 1940s. More recently, animals hung on in eastern Algeria and only disappeared during the period of military conflict in Algeria sometime around 1958-1962, when the last mountain forest habitats near the coast, used as military hideaways, were systematically destroyed by incendiary attacks.

RG: Is there still a surviving Barbary population in zoos globally? How can its genetic purity be kept secure?

SB: There is now a studbook of all animals of known documented descent from the King of Morocco’s collection (which was kept as a royal collection until 1969 when moved to Rabat Zoo in Morocco).

These animals (about 90 individuals) are now kept in zoos in Europe plus the Moroccan collection, which is in a modern zoo in Rabat. Zoos coordinate to keep and breed only members of this ‘royal lion’ group (which are northern lions), so bloodlines are maintained and not crossed with other zoo lions (which are all southern lions).

The royal lions are also kept separate from captive Asiatic lions (also northern lions, but from the dry forests of India, of course). This means that the royal lion ‘Barbary’ group, the Asiatic lion group and perhaps one or two West African lions can be considered the only remaining captive representatives of the northern sub-species Panthera leo leo . Each of these captive groups can be managed as separate conservation units.

RG: Can they ever be reintroduced back into the wild? Or is that nearly impossible now with their historic range all gone?  

SB: Some existing large tracts of land in north Africa would be suitable for reintroduction, but considerable effort would be needed to restore sustainable levels of wild prey species (deer, boar, barbary sheep and gazelle), most of which are endangered species themselves.

Also protective measures to avoid human-lion conflict, including livestock predation would need to be implemented.

Reintroduction is theoretically possible but would need a sensitive long-term plan and considerable prior political and community support. Reintroduction of a predator like lions would have to be part of purposeful, wider landscape restoration in the region. 

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