Spot the lion habitat

Typical savannah landscape in southern Africa

Lions are commonly associated with the savannah grasslands of southern and southeastern africa. They live in large prides, hunting herds of antelope and other ungulates of the grasslands. However these expansive grasslands are specific habitats to sub-saharan lions of eastern and southeastern Africa Panthera leo melanochaita. These habitats are the heartlands for lions in the modern world.

Unexpected sight of lions in desert dunes, southwest Africa

Dry forest in the Gir, India

Yet lions also survive in quite doverse habitats, such as the desert dunes of Namibia.

This would have been true for the northen subspecies Panthera leo leo in areas of the middle east and North Africa. Camels were known to be tracked by lions on isolated trails in the late 1800s. Animals were reported in the desert firnges of southern Morocco up to the 1930s and were also known in isolated forests and oases in western Algeria,

For  today’s remnant population in India mostly live in the dry forests of the Gir. These forests are less productive in dry years with prey numbers falling under challnging conditions. Some lions have chosen to venture beyond the Gor,, across agirculaural land and into new but limited habotats in the coastal forests and dunes of Gujarat. Smaller populations survive in the forests of central and west Africa, in the deserts of southwestern Africa.

Northern lions also previously roamed the marshes of the middle east, the mountains of North Africa occasionally up above the snowline, down to the coastal forests of the Mediterranean.

Image result for cork forest algeria

Mediterranean cork oak forests would seem to be an unfamiliar habitat for lions.

High Atlas plateau, North Africa. The last lions in Morocco were seen at high altitudes in the 1930s and 1940s.


Black, S. A. (2016). The Challenges and Relevance of Exploring the Genetics of North Africa’s “Barbary Lion” and the Conservation of Putative Descendants in Captivity. International Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2016.

Yamaguchi, N. and B. Haddane, B. (2002) “The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas lion project,” inInternational Zoo News, vol. 49, pp. 465–481, 2002








Decline of the cats – the precipice is nearer than we think

In 1970 there were nearly 40,000 tigers. In the late 1990s this was estimated to be 5,000 – 7,000. Today there are less than 4000.

The global cheetah population has declined startlingly to today’s count of just 7,100 individuals, confined to 9% of its historical distributional range (Durant et al, 2017). 60 – 70% of previous lion and cheetah habitats in West and Central African protected areas have  seen recent disappearance of both species (Brugière, Chardonnet, & Scholte, 2015).

In 2013 analyses established that the African lion has lost at least 75% of its original habitat, with fewer than 35,000 wild African lions remaining (Riggio et al (2013).Bauer et al. ( 2015 ) assessed the trend of 47 relatively well-monitored lions in Africa, and found an alarming population decline of about 38 % over 21 years (1993–2014). In 2015 the IUCN estimated that fewer than 20,000 lions remain. Worse, it has been suggested that only 6 populations should be considered as biologically viable.

Even the adaptable leopard is now disappearing from areas of its previous range (Giordano et al , 2017).

Threats to large cats include conflict with humans, reduction of habitat and decline of prey species, all of which are inter-connected. The picture is bleak.

Further reading:

Bauer, H., Packer, C., Funston, P.F., Henschel, P. & Nowell, K. 2016. Panthera leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15951A97162455.

Brugière, D., Chardonnet, B., & Scholte, P. (2015). Large-scale extinction of large carnivores (lion Panthera leo, cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and wild dog Lycaon pictus) in protected areas of West and Central Africa. Tropical Conservation Science, 8(2), 513-527.

Durant, S. M., Mitchell, N., Groom, R., Pettorelli, N., Ipavec, A., Jacobson, A. P., … & Broekhuis, F. (2017). The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(3), 528-533.

Giordano, A. J., Tumenta, P. N., & Iongh, H. H. (2017). Camera‐trapping confirms unheralded disappearance of the leopard (Panthera pardus) from Waza National Park, Cameroon. African Journal of Ecology.

Goodrich, J., Lynam, A., Miquelle, D., Wibisono, H., Kawanishi, K., Pattanavibool, A., … & Karanth, U. (2016). Panthera tigris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e. T15955A50659951.

Riggio J, Jacobson A, Dollar L, Bauer H, Becker M, et al. (2013) The size of savannah Africa: a lion’s (Panthera leo) view. Biodiversity and Conservation 22: 17–35.

Sandom, C. J., Faurby, S., Svenning, J. C., Burnham, D., Dickman, A., Hinks, A., … & Macdonald, D. (2017). Learning from the past to prepare for the future: Felids face continued threat from declining prey richness. Ecography.


Let’s get serious about the Northern lions

We are familiar with the lions of Africa ranging from Southern Africa up through East African strongholds as well as the smaller populations of central and western African states. There are also Asia’s last lions in the Gir forest Gujarat, India.

Indian lions are the remnant of a huge former northern range which covered several states across northern India, through to modern-day Pakistan and westward through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, through the eastern Mediterranean states south of the Sinai desert coast through the western coastal areas of Arabian peninsular, into Egypt, and along the southern Mediterranean coast and mountain ranges of north Africa. They persisted further north in Turkey and Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia until the 19th century. Archaeological studies show they ranged further north along the Black Sea coasts during human prehistory. Intriguingly they still persisted in southern Greece into early historic times as described in Greek literature.

From this vast range today’s picture for lions is much diminished. Genetic studies now show us that the lions of Central and Western Africa are part of this northern population.

When we look at the tens of thousands of lions across Eastern and Southeastern Africa we should not take them for granted. Just ten years ago there were thought to be 40,000. Today perhaps only 20,000. We need to be vigilant in their conservation.

Further Reading:

Bertola, L.D., Tensen, L., van Hooft, P., White, P.A., Driscoll, C.A., Henschel, P., Caragiulo, A., Dias-Freedman, I., Sogbohossou, E.A., Tumenta, P.N. and Jirmo, T.H., 2016. Correction: Autosomal and mtDNA Markers Affirm the Distinctiveness of Lions in West and Central Africa. PloS one, 11(3).

Black S.A. (2016) The Challenges of Exploring the Genetic Distinctiveness of the Barbary Lion and the Identification of Putative Descendants in Captivity, International Journal of Evolutionary Biology. vol. 2016, Article ID 6901892, 9 pages, 2016. doi:10.1155/2016/6901892

Schnitzler, A.E. (2011) Past and Present Distribution of the North African-Asian lion subgroup: a review. mammal Review, 41, 3.



Captive lions from North Africa: an early history

Photo published for Barbary lion skull - Google Arts & Culture

The oldest skull of a Barbary lion found in the UK was recovered in the 1930s by workmen digging the moat at the Tower of London. The skull turned out to be the remains of an animal that was kept in the royal menagerie 700 years ago. A second skull was discovered at around the same time.

Scientists at Oxford and the Natural Histotry Museum determined that the second one of these lions lived between 1420 and 1480. The other dating showed that the older remains were of an animal that lived between 1280 and 1385. So these remains are the oldest for a lion found in the UK since the extinction of wild cave lions during the last ice age.

The sultans of Morocco kept their own lions in a lion garden at various palaces in medieval times. There are even stories (and artistic depictions) of prisoners being thrown to the animals.

NHM (2016) Barbary lion skull from London

Lions in Pakistan – wild or released – implications?

The last of lion killed in the regions of Pakistan was shot in 1842 near Kot Diji in Sindh.

However, with conserved population of the species (hosted by the Gir Forest in Gujarat, India) now expanding to the south and west, the possibility of lions leaving their protected areas and eventually expanding their range north or west into Pakistan is a possibility.


Recent social media alludes to active trade in lion cubs

There are even hints that lions have already moved into the Pakistani countryside bordering India (Naqaush, 2014).

Is another explanation possible? Might captive animals be  released in remote areas and then been seen and considered ‘wild’ specimens?

Recent social media posts allude to an active trade in cubs. When cubs become adults they become a new proposition. What if a collector or breeder ends up with too many males or an incompatible pair? Where do these captive lions come from? India is unlikley, africa, or african-origin captive history is more likely. WHat if those ex-captives hybridise with the wild asiatic lion?

The local countryside might, to an unwise but disgruntled owner, seem a good place to make unwanted animals ‘disappear’…for lion conservation it could be a whole new problem.


Mulki , M.A. (2012)A Walk on the Wild Side. The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 29th.

Naqaush, T. (2014) Asiatic lion spotted in AJK national park, DAWN Febraury 5th

Lions in the Rif of northern Morocco

Image result for leopard hunt morocco

Leopards were commonly hunted in Morocco well into the 20th century.

A colleague recently visited the national park of Talassemtane in the Rif mountains touring the area with a local guide. The guide told them that these mountains, near Chefchaouen, still retained dense fir forests up until after the second World War and that only shepherds visited the summits because people who lived in the towns and villages of the valleys were afraid of the wild landscape and the possible presence of lions. According to the guide, researchers from the Ceuta, believed that the lion was still present during the 20th century up until the time when mountains of the area had been deforested. Do these observations have any basis in fact?

Certainly there were lions in Morocco up to and including the second world war, although they were seen further south. One was shot in the High Atlas Mountains as late as 1942 in the Tizi‐n‐Tichka pass, and a few years before a pair were seen south of the Atlas ranges on the Saharan fringes, with a further group seen in the same area in the mid 1930s. All of the known 20th century sightings were south of Fez, often in the areas around Ifrane, Azrou, Kenifra and further south around Toubkal or further south again beyond Assa.

The last known sighting in the north (the Rif Mountains and up towards Tetouan) was of a lion killed in 1895. However this does not rule out lions holding on in that region much later in small groups, especially if areas were not visited by people. For comparison, in Algeria several small lion populations were known up to the 1930s and up to the late 1940s, even though many sources suggest the disappeared by the 1890s. The last known sighting in Algeria was in 1956.

Extinction models show that, accounting for the frequency and spacing of sightings, lions could have persisted in both Morocco and Algeria up to the early 1960s (Black et al 2013; Lee et al, 2015). Only the destruction of habitat along the Mediterranean coast during the French-Algerian War suggests that lions might have disappeared earlier, perhaps by 1958.

Of course fear of lions (real or imagined) only tells part of the story of concerns by local people in the Rif Mountains in the 1940s. The other factor which may have concerned people in the area would be leopards. They still persist in Morocco today and would have been an important threat to livestock and, as we know from other regions, also a threat to people.

Further Reading:

Black SA, Fellous A, Yamaguchi N, Roberts DL. 2013. Examining the extinction of the Barbary lion and its implications for felid conservation. PLoS ONE 8(4):e60174

Guggisberg C.A.W. (1963) Simba: the life of the lion. London: Bailey Bros. and Swinfen

Lee TE, Black SA, Fellous A, Yamaguchi N, Angelici FM, Al Hikmani H, Reed JM, Elphick CS, Roberts DL. (2015) Assessing uncertainty in sighting records: an example of the Barbary lion.PeerJ 3:e1224

Schnitzler, A.E. (2011) Past and Present Distribution of the North African-Asian lion subgroup: a review. mammal Review, 41, 3.

Rural, sub-urban & urban cats: understanding unintended impacts in the dynamics of big cat conservation

Alley cat by Nayan Khanolkar

A leopard ghosts through an alley in a suburb of Mumbai bordering Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Leopards often enter the streets at night, which can lead to conflict with humans. This outstanding photo taken by India’s Nayan Khanolkar, was Urban category winner in the Natural History Museum’s 2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Leopards have been shown to shift territories in areas where tiger conservation in protected areas has allowed the larger species to dominate a habitat. This means that leopards, a highly adaptable species, are pushed into rural and urban areas. Inevitably, this brings them into conflict with people.

Although leopards may adapt and co-habit with tigers and people, depending on the prey-base available to all three species, leopards themselves are the underdogs in these interactions. There is some evidence that leopards adapt with nocturnal dispersal into human landscapes (to avoid contact with the humans already living there). The photograph above is an illustration of this sort of behaviour (other insights in this short clip )

It appears that leopards avoid tigers in space, but humans in time and these differences in behaviour have implications for managing conservation in areas where human-dominated landscapes border leopard and tiger territories.


Further reading:

Carter, N., Jasny, M., Gurung, B. and Liu J. (2015) Impacts of people and tigers on leopard spatiotemporal activity patterns in a global biodiversity hotspot. Global Ecology and Conservation 3(1): 149:162.

Nichols, S. (2014) Conservation targeting tigers pushes leopards to change. Michigan State University





Here be lions…but not many

A group of 14 Asiatic lions in the Gir forest, Gujarat India

This picture taken in the last stronghold for lions in India, the Gir Forest, depicts approximately 3% of the wild population of Asiatic (Indian) lions and about 0.5 % of all lions from the IUCN soon to be designated northern lion subspecies Panthera leo leo.

Or putting it another way, nearly 0.1% of global population of lions (now suggested by some to be as low as 20,000) which has seen significant decline even in the past decade.

There are about 400-500 lions in India, slowly populating spaces outside the Gir (which is a problem) and potentially some are due to be translocated in small numbers to a new location in Kuno Wildlife Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.

As for the 20,000 global lion population count, well a further sobering sense of reality is needed:

There are maybe only 6 lion populations left in Africa that can by scientific standards be considered to have any future. The number of 20,000 might seem to some to mean that there are still “plenty” of lions, but maybe 8,000 of these are a total added over very many small populations.Africa is a very large continent, and if you add up 20 lions here and 30 lions there it is not difficult to end up with 20,000 overall. The problem is that those small populations will soon disappear, and that the rate of decline is now very serious even in countries that still have a few large populations.

In 2015 the IUCN stated last year that “The Lion population is inferred to have undergone a reduction of approximately 42% over the past 21 years (approximately three Lion generations, 1993-2014)” and estimated that fewer than 20,000 lions remain.



Bauer, H., Packer, C., Funston, P.F., Henschel, P. & Nowell, K. 2016. Panthera leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15951A97162455.

Black S.A. (2016) The Challenges of Exploring the Genetic Distinctiveness of the Barbary Lion and the Identification of Putative Descendants in Captivity, International Journal of Evolutionary Biology. vol. 2016, Article ID 6901892, 9 pages, 2016. doi:10.1155/2016/6901892


WARNING: history shows that survival in micro-populations belies the inevitable, eventual crash to extinction for lions

Documented lion sightings since the middle ages across the Maghreb biome of the southern Mediterranean (light grey shading) north of the Sahara in North Africa (AD1500–1960). Open circles depict locations of general historical observations documented before 1800, adapted from [2]. Details can be sourced from [2, 8, 15]. Asterisks denote the locations of the various named major human population centres.

Lion sightings since the middle ages across the Maghreb biome (grey shading) of North Africa  (AD1500–1960). Open circles depict locations of general historical observations documented before 1800. Details can be sourced from Lee et al (2015), Black et al (2013) and Yamaguchi and Haddane (2002). Asterisks denote locations of the major named human population centres.

This post does not predict the imminent demise of lions but it sends out a clear warning. Despite the 20-30,000 wild lions (mostly in Eastern and Southeastern Africa) let’s examine the circumstances of their survival very closely.

Lions are a relatively long lived species in the wild, so even if rarely-noticed may persist and be re-sighted on an occasional basis, even as individual animals. This appears to have been the case in some recorded sightings of individual lions near the Biskra in Algeria in the early 20th century for instance, with individual animals well-known to locals.

Micropopulations of the animals were identified by Guggisberg (1963) from historical accounts, but these had all disappeared by 1960. The small populations had persisted, but had not bred successfully. The next generation of animals simply failed to materialise.

When we hear of small populations being re-discovered in the Gabon or Ethiopia, we must take this reality into account.


Black, S. A. Fellous, A. Yamaguchi, N. and Roberts, D. L. (2013) “Examining the extinction of the Barbary Lion and its implications for felid conservation,” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 4, Article ID e60174.

Dybas C.L. (2016) African Lions on the brink: a conversation with lion expert Craig Packer. National Geographic

Guggisberg, C. A. W. (1963) Simba: The Life of the Lion, Bailey Bros. & Swinfen Ltd, London, UK.

Lee, T. E. Black, S. A. Fellous, A. et al. (2015) “Assessing uncertainty in sighting records: an example of the Barbary lion,” PeerJ,  vol. 3, article e1224, 2015.

Yamaguchi, N. and B. Haddane, B. (2002) “The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas lion project,” inInternational Zoo News, vol. 49, pp. 465–481, 2002

Importance of recent historical records of lions

Lions have enjoyed significant protection in Gujarat’s Gir Forest in India. There are accounts of colonial and local hunters shooting animals outside the state in the late 19th century.

Lions are in severe decline across sub-Saharan Africa, most particularly in West and Central African countries. Even in Eastern or Southeastern Africa many populations are now isolated by geography or fences. The decline of the species across Africa is worryingly similar to the historical disappearances of lions from other regions.

Recent collation and analysis of historical records have given insight into the range of the Barbary lion in North Africa, providing important insights into how lion populations are in decline, the point at which they are most vulnerable to extinction and what the animals tend to do under extreme persecution.

For example, Black et al. (2013) confirm that the range of lions reached far further south into the Saharan Atlas of Algeria than was ever known, even in the mid 1800s when numbers were higher and lion hunting was common in the region. Individual animals appear to have ranged across a wide expanse of arid habitat. This mean that the populations across Algeria could be considered contiguous with populations in the high atlas of southern Morocco.

In India similar reports from 19th century colonial India include hunters taking lions in the Jahore and Marwar districts of Rajasthan in the 1870s, well north of their stronghold in the Gir forest, Gujarat state the last significant home of Asiatic lions over the past 100 years. In 1872 a professional hunter (Bhil Shikari) associated with a Mr. T. W. Miles brought in the skin of a full-grown Asiatic lioness which he had shot on the Anadra side of Mount Abu, the last met with in Sirohi districts. Around the same year a Colonel Hayland bagged four lions near Jaswantpura, in Marwar. These were apparently the last lions seen across the Kutch border into Rajasthan (Adams, 1899).

Lions are a long-lived species, so if isolated individuals range to less-threatened areas they are able to survive for prolonged periods, perhaps giving the impression of a population being maintained. This may not be a reality of persistence, but instead an indication of a single wandering, isolated individual as is suspected today in the recent lion sighting in Gabon.

From a conservation perspective, it is important to separate these exceptional ‘one-off’ sightings, from the true indicators of surviving micro-populations, the latter of which require careful systemic attention. For example, tiny populations of lions were thought to have survived in the remote Saharan Atlas mountains for decades after the species was considered extinct from North Africa (Guggisberg, 1963; Black, 2016). As for the exceptional one-off sightings – well they offer hope*; hope that a suitable habitat can be utilised for future lions population to find genuine refuge.


*Note:  the recent unexpected sighting of a Spix Macaw in the wild, not seen in the area since the last known specimen disappeared in 2000 is a good example of an exception. No one believes the animal has been kept hidden for sixteen years – this individual it is most probably a recent captive release. However the learning point is  – can this animal survive in the remaining habitat, does it display survival behaviours and would in situ conservation of the species be a viable proposition that can be taken forward seriously?



Adams, A. (1899) The Western Rajputana States: A Medico-topographical and General Account of Marwar, Sirohi, Jaisalmir.

Black SA, Fellous A, Yamaguchi N, Roberts DL (2013) Examining the Extinction of the Barbary Lion and Its Implications for Felid Conservation. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60174.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060174

Black S.A. (2016) The Challenges of Exploring the Genetic Distinctiveness of the Barbary Lion and the Identification of Putative Descendants in Captivity, International Journal of Evolutionary Biology. vol. 2016, Article ID 6901892, 9 pages. doi:10.1155/2016/6901892

Guggisberg C.A.W. (1963) Simba: the life of the lion. London: Bailey Bros. and Swinfen

Saul H. (2016) Male lion filmed roaming in West African nation of Gabon for the first time in 20 years. The Independent