Renewed importance of the Moroccan Royal Lions

A new study by Lehocká et al (2021) published right at the end of December 2021 in PLos ONE focuses attention back on the Moroccan Royal Lion population. Previous studies provided data on the Moroccan Royal lions which has now been examined further in this interesting analysis of the captive population of animals that are descendants of the King of Morocco’s collection.

As this blog has repeatedly stated, these lions, now mostly scattered across European zoos as well as a significant group still in Rabat Zoo, Morocco, are a potentially very important remnant of the North African lion population. In contemporary terms we should see these as being part of the wider Northern lion subspecies Panthera leo leo (range India, Middle East North Africa , West Africa, Central Africa).

Fig 1 Diagram showing the structure of the pedigree file based on Wright’s fixation index (FST) from Lehocká et al (2021) showing relations between captive ‘Morocccan Royal lions’, defined by the location of individuals in zoological gardens, showing three main groups.

The PLoS ONE paper highlights that the effective population size of this wider group (of just under 100 animals) is only 14.

Continuous monitoring of the genetic diversity of the ‘Moroccan Royal lion’ group is required, especially for long-term conservation management purposes, as it would be an important captive group should further DNA studies establish an affinity to Pleo leo.

Further Reading

Lehocká, K., Black, S. A., Harland, A., Kadlečík, O., Kasarda, R., & Moravčíková, N. (2021). Genetic diversity, viability and conservation value of the global captive population of the Moroccan Royal lions. PloS one16(12), e0258714.

The startling reality of lion survival in the 21st Century

Lions are in a precarious position.  The IUCN/SSC Big Cat Specialist Group suggests that global lion population has declined by approximately 42% over the last 21 years.

In the early 2000’s, several initiatives estimated the population of wild lions in Africa, drawing on recent scientific surveys as well as expert opinions. Two estimates were of 22,800 individuals on one hand to 39,000 individuals. The most recent estimate is about 35,000 lions. The range of the remaining lion population is understood to be less than 20% of its former size. In West Africa they appear to have lost 99% of their former range and the fragmentation of the population is stark (see Figure 1 below). Some estimates suggest West African population to be measured at just a few hundred individuals (Chardonnet 2002; Riggio et al 2013).

Still many lion populations have yet to be properly surveyed, such that alongside known rates of decline in surveyed populations, experts consider the global lion population to be closer to 20,000 than to 30,000.

 

Figure 1. Distribution map of the African lion (red = extant, dark yellow = possibly extinct) (IUCN Red List 2015).

References

Chardonnet P. 2002. Conservation of the African lion: contribution to a status survey.
International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife, France.

Riggio J., Jacobson A., Dollar L., Bauer H., Becker M., Dickman A., Funston P. J., Groom
R., Henschel P., de Iongh H. H, Lichtenfeld L. & Pimm S. 2013. The size of savannah
Africa: a lion’s (Panthera leo) view. Biodiversity Conservation 22, 17-35

The Barbary Lion Podcast

The North African lion story is discussed in the excellent Cats of the Wild podcast series, Episode 14  ‘The Barbary Lion’.

The history of lion presence in countries across North Africa, and investigation into the final decline of the species in the region and the lessons which need to be learned for current lion declines in West and Central Africa are discussed.

There is also discussion on the tantalising possibility of reviving populations based on captive animals in zoos in Europe and Morocco.

The Barbary Lion (2021) Episode 14, Cats of the Wild  https://www.catsofthewild.com/episodes/the-barbary-lion

 

Why is the Barbary Lion still important?

Until recently lions were colloquially split into various geographic grouping, often supported by characterisations from natural historians and hunters of the time variously covering ‘biggest’ , fiercest’, ‘tamest’, ‘most cowardly’ and so on. Historically names followed a range of different local clades, the Cape lion, Indian lion, Senagalese lion, Persian lion (sometimes known as the Mesopotamian lion), Nubian lion, various groups across central and eastern Africa and of course the Barbary lion.

Significant recent genetic studies have enabled more accurate categorisation of lions sub-populations into two subspecies, based on several phylogenetic studies. The Cat Classification Task Force of the Cat Specialist Group revised lion taxonomy into two subspecies – the northern sub species Panthera leo leo and the Southern subspecies Panthera leo melanochaita.

The northern species is the nominate species – first encountered by scientific classification as the animals were present and encountered in the accessible landscapes of antiquity around the Mediterranean. However in today’s global population the northern subspecies only accounts for 10% or less of the global lion population (much less if we include captive lions).

The diminishing micro-populations of lions in West Africa today mimics the decline of the Barbary lion in North Africa – can lessons be learned? For example in Senegal, the lion is the national symbol and the ‘name’ of the famous national football team. How many lions live in the wild in Senegal – less than 50.

And what of the supposed captive lions from Morocco – the likely descendants of the last Barbary lions? Well they may represent nearly half of the captive collection of all northern lions. If we ignore these animals it will be to our peril.

Lion conservation in captivity has, perhaps run a full circle in 50 years since Hemmer and Leyhausen raised excitement about the lions being moved from the King of Morocco’s collection in the Royal Palace in Rabat into new enclosures in the city zoo.

Lion populations in the wild have certainly more than halved since then, possibly are at a quarter of the levels in the 1970s.

Are we ready to use what knowledge and resources we have to turn things around?

Reading:

Bertola LD, Jongbloed H, Van Der Gaag KJ, De Knijff P, Yamaguchi N, Hooghiemstra H, et al. (2016) Phylogeographic patterns in Africa and High Resolution Delineation of genetic clades in the Lion (Panthera leo). Sci. Rep. Aug 4; 6: 30807.

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 Article ID 6901892, http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2016/6901892

Western European farmers get used to the idea of wolves

Image result for wolf in netherlands

Wolves appear now to be established back in the Netherlands with settled females and a regularly visiting male form Germany now likely to form its first pack in well over a century.

The occasional visits of wolves from Germany to the Netherlands have been reported over recent years, including one trekking into Belgium. What has now changed in the Veluwe region of the Netherlands is that females are now familiar with the landscape and the natural dynamic of meeting a migrant male will enable a pack to develop and become established.

Farmer are having to adapt methods for protecting flocks including new fencing, new shepherding and use of dogs, particularly in France which has nearly 500 wolves.

Read:

Bullock A-M (2019) Wolves return to Netherlands after 140 years. Science & the Environment, BBC News   https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-47838162

BBC News (2019) Wolves move into Dutch national park.  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-47866510

 

Fragmentation of lion populations: a global threat

Lions are one of the more numerous charismatic carnivores, merely ‘vulnerable’ according to the IUCN Red List.

However the real picture, aside from core populations in east Africa, is one of fragmentation. For most of their historic range lions are today only found either in isolated protected areas, the remnants of habitats from their former range (particularly in West Africa, Central Africa and India) or in fenced reserves (Southern Africa).

Their history of survival and decline elsewhere suggests this is a very poor situation. We see our surviving African and Indian populations suffering pressures for the last two or three decades but clinging on. This may not be sustainable. In North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco) and the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey) the same situation held true from the 1880s through to the 1940s (even 1950s). Today few people would associate any of those countries with the lion.

Will we say the same about many of its current range states in the next ten or twenty years?

Reading:

Black, SA (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, vol. 2016, Article ID 6901892, 9 pages, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6901892.

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

Bauer, H,  Chapron, G,  Nowell, K. et al., (2015) Lion (Panthera leo) populations are declining rapidly across Africa, except in intensively managed areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112 (48), pp. 14894–14899.

A. E. Schnitzler, AE (2011) Past and present distribution of the North
African-Asian lion subgroup: a review. Mammal Review, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 220–243.

 

 

 

 

 

Canine Distemper in Gir lions highlights restricutions of population size and range

See the source imageFrom September 12 and October 2 2018, a total of 23 lions have died in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park due to an outbreak of Canine Distemper, carried by domestic dogs, but known to have previously caused a mass wipeout of lions in East Africa’s Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem.

Asiatic lion expert Ravi Chellum summed up the situation: “If you allow the entire population of a species to be concentrated in one place without any populations in other areas as a safeguard to mitigate risk, this kind of scenario is bound to happen.”

Whilst issues with a small founder population are real, in the case of Asiatic lions which dwindled to about 20 animals in the 1930s, the issue is unavoidable. Genetic variation is very low among Asiatic lions with animals to some degree related to any other since they all descended, and this lack of genetic variation makes them vulnerable to the effects of disease.

Chellum has long advocate that these lions should be housed in different geographical areas so that they can develop new adaptation to their geography which can then reflect in their genetic structure. Separated sub-populations also act as a potential buffer to the spread of disease. Despite significant planning and identification of potential areas outside Gujarat, no progress has been achieved.

In June, the government announced that 109 sq km of area in Amreli and Bhavnagar districts of Gujarat would be reserved as a new sanctuary for lions. State politics has dogged plans for relocation of a small sub-population of these animals. Perhaps now is a serious prompt for a rethink on this strategy. India’s lions are the last large wild group of lions of the newly designated subspecies (recommend to the IUCN in 2016), Panthera leo leo, the northern group which ranged from West Africa and northern Africa across the Middle East into South Asia.

No one seriously challenges the cultural and biological importance of lions in Indian ecosystems, so some effort is needed to enable their sustainable conservation as a nationally and regionally important species.

Reading:

Anon (2018) Gujarat lion deaths: What killed 11 big cats? BBC News 25th September 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-45636746

Barnett, R. et al. (2014) Revealing the maternal demographic history of Panthera leo using ancient DNA and a spatially explicit genealogical analysis. BMC Evolutionary Biology 14: 70; doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-14-70

Bertola, L. D.,et al. (2016) Phylogeographic Patterns in Africa and High Resolution Delineation of Genetic Clades in the Lion (Panthera leo). Scientific Reports 6:30807. DOI: 10.1038/srep30807

Chellam, R., Joshua, J., Williams, C.A. & Johnsingh, A.J.T. (1995) Survey of Potential Sites for Reintroduction of Asiatic Lions. Unpublished Report, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, India.

DownToEarth (2018) Those who have endangered the Asiatic Lion’s future, have to be held accountable. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/-those-who-have-endangered-the-asiatic-lion-s-future-have-to-be-held-accountable–61789

Johnsingh, A.J.T. , Goyal, S.P.  and Qureshi, Q. (2007) Preparations for the reintroduction of Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica into Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh, India. Oryx , 41(1), 93–96.

Unsightly realities from the murk of taxidermy

The taxidermy diorama ‘Arab Courier’ is displayed prominently in Pittsburgh Museum and is considered one of the best examples of preserved barbary lions, having two animals in the exhibit in the moments of an attack on a man riding an Arabian camel. Whether you like taxidermy or not, this is a definitive example of the 19th century art form which was awarded a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris on its first presentation by Jules Verreaux to the public in 1867.

The taxidermy diorama was shipped to New York City two years later obtained by the American Museum of Natural History, and acquired in 1899, by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, its current home.

The piece is somewhat controversial, being made by the notorious Verreaux brothers. The Verreaux studio had certainly exhibited unacceptable specimens during their career, repellent even to less-enlightened Victorian Society, most notoriously including the body of a human tribesman in one exhibit.  At one time the Arab Courier exhibit itself was suspected of incorporating a real human body (the camel rider), alongside more accepted animal parts associated with the other subjects. Even to this day the museum was confident that the teeth inserted in the man’s head, and visible in the shocked expression represented on his face, were real.

The exhibit, has been stored in a standard glass case, but in 2017 was removed for restoration work to address deterioration in the materials. The opportunity was taken to run a CT scan of the subjects. To the museum’s surprise, the camel and the two lions included actual bones within the sub-frame of the bodies around which the taxidermy skins had been stitched.

Less welcome for the museum curators was the discovery that the head of the courier himself was in fact, macabrely, a human skull.

And what of the barbary lions? The museum has been approached in the past for skin samples form these taxidermy animals. On this occasion the museum was suitably encouraged to offer samples for DNA analysis and the restoration activity gave first access to the skins on this famous exhibit. Could these actually be two barbary lions?

 

Ross, D. (2017) 150-year-old Diorama Surprises Scientists With Human Remains. National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/taxidermy-carnegie-museum-skull/

 

 

Stop and think – what about lions today?

There are perhaps as few as 20,000 lions left in the wild. When I first started studying lions just over a decade ago we thought there were 40,000. Will this figure halve again over the coming 10 years? For a sobering comparison, when I was a child there were 40,000 tigers in the wild; now only around 4,000. The similarity in the lion figures is startling. Decline is real and fearsome.

A comprehensive set of studies of lion genetics has recommended the IUCN to consider the lion family tree as two subspecies. One is the North/West /Central subspecies, Panthera leo leo (which includes lions in West and Central Africa and India, and the previous, now extinct populations in the Middle East, and of course the extinct Barbary lion of North Africa). The second is Panthera leo melanochaita from South and East Africa (i.e. about 90% the world’s population). All remaining ‘northern’ lion populations are tiny and very vulnerable. The ‘southern’ populations are much larger but many animals are cut off from each other in fenced reserves or fragmented landscapes.

Zoos may have a significant part to play in managing, sustaining and recovering the ‘northern’ subspecies Panthera leo leo. There are around 100 Asiatic (Indian) lions in captivity, but I do not know of a single captive lion from West or Central Africa in any zoo, even in their home countries on the African continent. There are a further 80 captive lions which may be related to the extinct North African Barbary lion. maybe the captive Addis Ababa lions in Ethiopia are linked I some way to this group.

Addis Ababa lion

A lion in Addis Ababa Zoo, Ethiopia

Lions are quite long-lived and can persist undetected for decades. This happened in North Africa, where lions had become almost mythical beasts by the late 1890s, but actually survived in northern Algeria into the late 1950s at a time when Gerry Durrell was founding the zoo in Jersey. I often wonder what Durrell might have done had he known that Barbary lions were still out there in the wild… However, this is not a purely historical issue since in 2016 a lion was caught unexpectedly on a camera trap in Gabon, and later confirmed by DNA evidence to be a survivor of a population thought extinct for 20 years – one of the important Central African relic populations of the ‘northern’ lions Panthera leo leo.

Lions in the Mountains

As lions in North Africa became increasingly persecuted, populations sin the lowlands and coastal forests were eliminated and the population retreated to remoter areas to avoid human contact. Although in parts of Morocco and Algeria lions were not be seen in previously commonly inhabited areas for many decades, the animals were still observed unexpectedly in remoter, less well-explored areas years later.

Lion behaviour in the mountains would be more solitary, somewhat like the Siberian Tiger (A Harland pers.comm) than communal (as per lions in East Africa). However, even under these circumstances  lions tend towards social behaviour (Black et al. 2013), so a pair of animals would more likely stay together than disperse. It also seems, from hunting accounts, that in mountainous areas they would use ‘lairs’ usually caves as a base, so that is quite a peculiarity related to the landscape.

Although snow can persist on the highest peaks, the snowfall in the Atlas Mountains tends to be limited to the January February period and the strength of the African sun means that in general although snow cover will occur, the evaporation of a snowfall is quite fast compared to equivalent altitudes in Europe or North America.

Lions were known to range up to 3500m and footprints were used by hunters to track animals in the snow. If an animal was being pursued it would keep to remoter areas and if that meant the snowline it would stay there (see my point about caves below)and would be less likely to drop into lowlands if there was human activity unless there was prey (e.g. livestock). The animals would use mountain passes to track prey and keep to areas clear of human presence. So a lion in the snow would be somewhat transient – due  to both the passing nature of snowy conditions in the lower altitudes and the lesser need for the lions themselves to be at higher altitudes other than for transit.

Due to lower density of prey in the North African ecosystem (compared to African savannah or open forest) lions tended to be single, in pairs, breeding pairs or breeding pair with juveniles, rather than the expansive prides of southern Africa (Asiatic lions in India have smaller prides but not as small as North African lions). Single animals would often range on their own, certainly single males (of which at least one photograph exists), but there are also records of single females being shot in high mountain passes. The range of a lion in North Africa would have been quite extensive – we see this today in desert dwelling lions in Namibia for example. In northern forests of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria in the 19th century some ranges were predictable to the point that locals would know a path that a lion took – and could tell hunters (N Yamaguchi pers comm). However in the Atlas mountains and southern Morocco, certainly in the 20th century, this was much less predictable as the distances animals travelled was far greater.

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

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