Modern lions (Panthera leo) began their exodus out of North Africa towards the end of the Pleistocene, eventually reaching as far as India. Much later, just around 5,000 years ago, another group of lions left the continent, reaching what is today Iran, in the Middle East, forming populations which are now extinct. This understanding of movement in prehistory may have important implications for the conservation of modern lions, since the study by Barnett et al. (2014) identifies that lion populations in West Africa and Central Africa, which have drastically declined over the past few decades, are actually more closely related to the Indian lion than to the more numerous populations of lions in East Africa (for example lions in Somalia or Botswana).
Today in India fewer than 400 Asian lions (P. leo persica) survive in the wild, living on the Kathiawar Peninsula in Gujarat, and this subspecies is listed as ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Despite the large geographical distances between them, these lions also seem closely related to the Barbary lions of North Africa. Could a conservation plan involving Indian lions be part of the answer for recovery of North African populations – and could North Africa itself be a potential refuge for the Asiatic lion?
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