Monthly Archives: July 2014

Rapid decline of North African lion populations from 1500AD

Here is a quick snapshot of historical sightings of lions in North Africa, as documented since the 1500s. This figure shows the shrinking presence of the species shown as dots and triangles across the Maghreb (shaded region in the maps below). By the 1900s the population was effectiely split into a western (Morocc0) and eastern (north east Algeria) sub-populations (Black et al 2013).

At best, the only lions left are the residents in Rabat Zoo, derived from the King of Morocco’s private collection.

Lion distribution Twitter maps combo


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

Moroccan lions in zoos today

A number of zoos in Europe have lions descended directly (and exclusively) from animals which were in the King of Morocco’s royal collection in Rabat in 1969. A few examples on the animals in captivity are shown here:

PL-3 Suliman

Male at Port Lympne Zoo, UK (Photo N Yamaguchi)


Male lion (Milo) at Port Lympne, UK (Photo: S Black)

Rabat-2 females

Lionesses at Rabat, Morocco (Photo: N Yamaguchi)

During the 1990s Port Lympne in Kent (UK) was one of the few zoos with a breeding group outside Morocco. Suliman (left) was sourced from Rabat zoo and at one stage was the sire to about a quarter of the total population of animals outside Europe. He is now retired from the breeding programme.

Two of Suliman’s sons are important breeding animals. One has since been transferred to Zoo Hannover (Chalid) to join a group of females. The remaining brother Milo (left) is now intended as the prime breeding male at Port Lympne. His current partner is a lioness sourced from Madrid zoo.

Several females have been imported from Morocco into European zoos over the past decade. The focus of zoo-based breeding is to preserve important bloodlines represented by various animals across several zoos. Active arrangements for transfers of animals have been revived over recent years.

Further Reading:

Black S, Yamaguchi N, Harland A, Groombridge J (2010) Maintaining the genetic health of putative Barbary lions in captivity: an analysis of Moroccan Royal Lions. Eur J Wildl Res 56: 21–31. doi: 10.1007/s10344-009-0280-5

Barbary lions as part of the wider story of the species Panthera leo

The Barbary lion was isolated in the Maghreb in North eastern Africa where the Atlas Mountains provided a natural barrier to the encroachment of the Sahara to the south. The map below shows the distribution (in green). Lions formerly ranged across Africa, the middle east, southern central Asia into India. Only the most inhospitable deserts and impenetrable rainforests and swamps were free of lions.

The demise of the Barbary lion population in North Africa in the 1800s and 1900s mirrored the disappearance of the Asiatic lion from the Middle East over the same period. IN more recent times the shrinking of populations in Central and West Africa has been equally alarming.

Today lion populations are extremely fragmented as indicated by the blue patches in the map. The only stronghold of the Asiatic lion is in the Gir Forest in Gujarat, India (although lions form this national park have since started to spread west to coastal forests and scrub and on occasions north into the mountains bordering Pakistan).

Lion distribution map

Distribution of lions (Panthera leo) past and present Adapted by S Black


Further links on past and present distributions of charismatic species:


Big shaggy beast & other myths

Contemporary descriptions of the fabled Barbary Lion tend to emphasise the size, hairiness and ferocity of the sub-species. It would seem that these views are a mix of ancient historical accounts (for example use of the lions in the Roman Coliseum Games), descriptions of the animals as ‘large maned’ and perhaps some exaggerated hunting records.

Scientific accounts give a more sober view. Both Guggisberg (1963) and Hemmer (1978) describe the animal as a medium sized lion. However it did perhaps have a thickset build, emphasised  by a relatively short leg length and deep body when compared with lions on the African savannah. These features may have been an adaptation to a mountainous habitat, with a different mix of prey species and are reflected in some of the artistic images of the animal.

Arab Courier taxidermyOne of the most striking depictions is the Arab Courier taxidermy by Jules Verreaux, arguably the most spectacular (and at one time controversial) taxidermy ever created and which is now housed in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg. This diorama includes two mounted lions thought to be of North African origin (but not yet genetically tested), collected as wild shot individuals in the mid 1800s, certainly no later than its creation in 1867 for the Paris Exposition. Interestingly the attack on the camel is by a pair – male and female, suggesting, if collected together, they were both sexually mature adults (however dozens of barbary lions were shot by French colonial hunters in Algeria around this period, so we cannot be sure that they are a true pair).

The ferocity of the attack is evident in the diorama, but interestingly, both animals are of relatively modest size. The medium sized animals described by science, perhaps?


Further Reading:

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

Hemmer H. (1978) Grundlagen und derzeitiger Stand des Zuchtprogrammes zur Rückerhaltung des Berberlöwen (Panthera leo leo). In: Seifurt S, Müller P, editors. Congress Report, 1st International Symposium on the Management and Breeding of the Tiger, 11th and 12th October 1978 in Leipzig, Abb. 1. Zoological Garden. Leipzig: International Tiger Studbook. 65–72.

Yamaguchi N, Haddane B. (2002) The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas Lion Project. International Zoo News 49 (321): 465-481.