Learning from the history of lions in North Africa PART 1: People and Lions – threats and challenges

Special contribution

Lara J. Bazzu

Worcester Prize Winner 2021, Durrell Institute of Conservation & Ecology


Historical human interaction with lions in North Africa

The “Barbary” lion of North Africa holds particular fascination, being enshrined in cultural emblems of Roman, Medieval, and Colonial periods and in current national identities of the region. As far back as Roman times, Barbary lions were transported from Carthage across the empire for use in gladiatorial games (Yamaguchi and Haddane 2002). Later during medieval times lions were kept in European menageries and their physical attributes inspired paintings and sculpture (Black 2016). The Barbary lion  was the first lion type encountered and catalogued by emergent natural scientists of the Enlightenment. By the 1800s and early 1900s North African lions were frequently showcased in zoological gardens (Black et al. 2013) and their remains displayed in stately homes and museums.

The continuous capture and killing of Barbary lions was extensive throughout Roman, Arabic, Turkish and European colonial periods, enduring well into the 19th century (Peterson et al. 2014) By the 1920s, the lions of North Africa were generally considered extinct in the wild (Black et al. 2013). Captive individuals were still kept in the gardens of the sultan of Morocco towards the late 1800s (Burger and Hemmer 2005) and these are often referred to as the Moroccan royal lions (hereafter Moroccan lions). Remarkably, the latest evidence suggests wild lions actually persisted in small numbers in North Africa until the late 1950s or early 1960s before dying out (Black et al. 2013).

Figure 1. Current distribution of lions (Panthera leo) in sub-Saharan Africa and India, plus 20th century locations of the last populations in North Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Adapted from: Black (2016).

Historically, the range of lions (Panthera leo) spanned across Africa, the Middle East and southwestern Asia (Black 2016). In 2017 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognised two revised subspecies of lion (Figure 1):  Panthera leo melanochaita in Southern and Eastern Africa and Panthera leo leo which includes lion populations found in India, Central and West Africa and those which formerly inhabited North Africa, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula and Southwest Asia (Kitchener et al. 2017).  As previously seen in North Africa, remaining lion populations are now in serious decline across Africa with estimates suggesting a shocking 43% decrease in the period 1993-2014 (Black 2016).

Current threats to lions worldwide

Today the only real strongholds for lions are in Eastern and South-Eastern Africa, whereas across Central and Western Africa only micro-populations (some as few as 5 or 10 animals) remain under threat of extinction while in Asia, a small population still persists in India (Black 2016). At present, globally, there may be as few as 20,000 lions (Trouwborst et al. 2017), a frightening reduction from the 500,000 individuals in the 1950s (Frank et al. 2006). More worryingly, of the last 60 recorded populations of lions, only six have more than 1,000 individuals (Trouwborst et al. 2017), the minimum threshold for a sustainable population (Black 2016). Lions are declining due to habitat loss, reduction in prey, direct killing by humans (e.g. to protect livestock), unregulated trophy hunting and a surge in trade of lion body parts (Trouwborst et al. 2017). The effects of climate change are predicted to increase existing pressures, alongside a rise in the frequency and severity of diseases (Peterson et al. 2014). Even fences are a problem in Eastern and Southern Africa where nominally large populations are divided into isolated sub-groups (Trinkel et al. 2017).  Unless these numerous threats are addressed, the majority of Africa may become lion-free (Lee et al. 2015).

Lion conservation challenges

Recent reclassification of lion subspecies has identified that almost 90% of lions in the wild inhabit Eastern and Southern Africa, namely the P. l. melanochaita subspecies, while the few survivors of the second subspecies persist in the rest of Africa and Asia (Black et al. 2010). There are possibly fewer than 250 P. l. leo living in West Africa (Barnett et al. 2018), around 400 in Asia and roughly 1000 in Central Africa (Black 2016). In addition, there are barely 100 Asiatic lions in captivity and around 100 captive Moroccan lions (Black 2016). The genetic value of Moroccan lions, should not be underestimated (Black et al. 2013) as they offer a potential ecological link between remaining lions in India and their closest northern subspecies relatives in Central and West Africa (Black 2016).


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