Author Archives: Simon Black

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

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



Are the captive lions from the King of Morocco’s collection still relevant to lion conservation today?

Moroccan lion, Port Lympne Reserve, UK. Can this animal offer something different for global lion conservation? (Photo: S Black)

The IUCN is looking to re-designate the taxonomy of lions, splitting them into two sub-species. Most lions in zoos are descended from East, North Eastern and Southern African lions, Panthera leo melanochaita, of which there are about 30,000 in the wild. Lions from India and West and Central Africa are a separate, highly endangered group of just 1500 individuals in the wild, Panthera leo leo (Bertola et al, 2016; Black 2016). Of the latter group perhaps 100 are kept in zoos, all originating from India.

Lions descended from animals held in the collection of the King of Morocco (and Sultans before) have been kept as a distinct group for decades. It is possible that today’s Moroccan lions are part of P. l. leo, the highly endangered group (Black 2016).

 Moroccan lions number just under 100 captive animals – potential direct relatives of animals spread across the northern distribution – a vital breeding pool for future lion survival. Moroccan lions are still successful breeders in captivity.

Globally, lions have declined by about 90% in recent decades. Most of the 30,000 left are in Eastern and Southern Africa (Panthera leo melanochiata) . Of the few remaining in the ‘northern’ sub-species (Panthera leo leo ) populations can be counted as follows:

* India – 400 in the wild – 100 in captivity

* Middle East – extinct since the 1940s

* North Africa – extinct since the 1950s

* West Africa – about 250 in the wild

* Central Africa – about 800-1200 in the wild

There are few if any lions from West and Central Africa in zoos today and only 100 captive animals verified in the Indian lion studbook. If the 80 animals in the Moroccan Royal group (in Rabat zoo and in European zoos) are proven to be closely related, they will add significantly to the gene pool. The Moroccan animals in zoos may be the last chance to save the subspecies from disappearance in Africa.

Additionally, Morocco itself could become a wild safe harbour for reintroduction of animals, despite no lions being in the wild since the 1950s. This would also give a long term base from which to support lion recovery in West Africa, for example.

Whilst the IUCN revision of taxonomy puts a number of subspecies debates to bed, it also provides real clarity of the the threat to Panthera leo leo and its vulnerability in isolated pockets across west and central Africa and North-west India. It is staggering to consider that just a few hundreds of  animals are spread across these vast areas of previous habitat.

The conservation landscape for lions has changed dramatically in the wild. Now the Moroccan  Royal lion population has quite possibly become more important than ever.



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

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

New steps forward now possible for India’s lions?

India s lion relocation news cutting

After decades of political debate, it is now possible that a small number of India’s lions will be translocated into the Kuno wildlife reserve. This offers a major opportunity to expand the population away from the high density situation currently apparent in the Gir forest in Gujarat (which is currently surrounded by highly populated rural landscape).

A translocation was prrevioulsy attempted in 1957 in Chandrprabha Sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh but failed due to lack of follow up, monitoring and management.

The Kuno Sanctuary itself was first surveyed in 1993-4 as part of an assessment of possible additional habitats for lions. It provides a chance to have a second wild population kept clear of the Gir population as an insurance against unforeseen threats, such as infectious disease.

Venkataraman (2010) suggests two ways of optimizing the natural dispersal of lions, either (i) adaptive population management within the satellite habitats by translocating and active management of the sub-poluations or (ii) facilitating the corridors for natural dispersal. A new population in Kuno  would represent option 1. A future Kuno population would be mamnaged alongside existing sub-populations which have already dispered into areas outside the Gir forest including  coastal areas to the south, Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS), and hill ranges extending from MitiyalaSavarkundla-Palitana-Shihor towards the Junagadh, Amreli and Bhavnagar districts of Gujarat.

The coming years will be an interesting time for active conservtion management of lions.




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.

Divyabhanusinh, C. (2005) The Story of Asia’s Lions. Marg Publications, Mumbai, India.

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.

Venkataraman, M. (2010) ‘Site’ing the right reasons: critical evaluation of conservation planning for the Asiatic lion Meena. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 2010, Vol.56(2), pp.209-213

Leopards hang on in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq

Leopard killed at Cinar Turkey in 2013

Leopard killed at Çınar, Diyarbakır-Turkey in 2013 (Avgan et al 2016)

The Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor) is listed as “endangered” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The bulk of the remaining population is in Iran, with the animal historically in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan and Armenia. The status of leopards in Iraq and south-eastern Turkey has been unclear for decades and there has been no evidence of a reproducing population reported outside Iran.

Recent decades have seen on-going armed conflicts in important parts of the potential leopard distribution range, particularly the Zagros Mountain range in Iraq and Turkey, so no studies have been conducted to prove the presence (or absence) of the species from that range. Militarised zones such as this can also offer opportunities for otherwise persecuted rare species to persist relatively unmolested by human activities and less affected by landscape use such as agriculture, pastoralism and resource off-take.

Avgan et al (2016) report 10 confirmed and 2 unconfirmed leopard records between 2001 and 2014 from northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey – all were males, which could have been long-range dispersers from Iran (over 500km away). However, the long distances between these records and the nearest known breeding populations in Iran suggests to Avgan and colleagues that a so far unnoticed reproducing population may occur along the north-western part of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran, northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey.



Avgan, B.,  Raza, H.,  Barzani, M. & Breitenmoser, U. (2016) Do recent leopard Panthera pardus records from northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey reveal an unknown population nucleus in the region?, Zoology in the Middle East, 62:2, 95-104, DOI: 10.1080/09397140.2016.1173904

Lions clinging on in the not-so-available wilderness

The forest lion of Gabon, captured by a remote video camera. (Photo: Philipp Henschel/Panthera)

A lion population has been re-discovered in northwest Ethiopia in a game park adjacent to Sudan’s Dinder National Park.

A single lion has been seen in the Batéké Plateau National Park in the Congo – the first seen there for 20 years.

Isolated claims are made by people of seeing lions in Pakistan, bordering the areas of India around Gujarat. Within India itself lions have spread into surrounding sites in the State of Gujarat, outside the Gir forest.

Are lions in these disparate areas having a comeback – or is it landscape pressure that is forcing a few individuals to extend their range to find new territories?

Just as for the tiger, new monitoring technologies such as camera trapping are revealing new ranges for lions. This is not necessarily good news (lions may be dispersing to avoid other threats). In the case of Gabon however, the active work by government to reduce poaching has made habitats available again. This is good news and is a basis for making progress with lion conservation.



Anon (2016)Lions rediscovered in Ethiopia’s Alatash game park. BBC News.

The Forest Lion. Pacific Standard

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

Other links: