Category Archives: Cultural Impact

cultural impact

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


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.



Book review: “When the last lion roars”

This month sees publication of a historical review by Sara Evans, considering the lion in history, society and culture and, to some extent in our minds as human beings.

Sara has made sure that the narrative is dotted with up to date science and comment on the status of lions globally. It makes an interesting start point for further study by a student, without being inaccessible. The insights of conservation professionals and scientists are revealing and the author’s own experiences in the  wild places brigs a personal touch to the story.

The book is dotted with maps and tables and has a thorough set of colour plates.

When the Last lion Roars is a gentle but detailed read, allowing wildlife enthusiasts to be introduced or reminded  of facts around our often considered most familiar of wild animals.

I can imagine that brining the many and varied experiences, research and personal contacts has made the creation of this book a labour of love for the author. But the effort made is timely. If we do not take the message seriously and engage with how on earth we live and accommodate magnificent, dangerous predators like lions, soon enough there will be none to speak of and this book will be just a compelling lesson in history.


Evans, S. (2018) When the last lion roars: the rise and fall of the king of beasts. Bloomsbury Wildlife, London. (link)

Major predators in the modern world?…as now wolves roam across every country in mainland Europe…

If there was ever a serious consideration of reintroducing wolves into Britain, it is worth reflecting on the lessons of wolf migration in Europe.

News has come in this New Year that farmers in Belgium have been alerted to evidence that  a female wolf originally from eastern Germany that has been making a pioneering trek through the Netherlands and into the northern Flanders region.

This confirms  a return of the predator to every mainland country in Europe, turning back decades of persecution. Wolves have recently migrated into Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Denmark – the latter after a 200 year absence. even in Denmark, where there is a rather pragmatic acceptance of wolves, the wolf debate is value driven rather than about concrete problems based in reality. Their populations have abundant roe deer available as prey and few issues arise.

However our response need be not one of horror, shock or fear. The success and impact of wolf populations will be a measure of how we, as humans, react (or overreact) to the presence of these animals. In the UK relative hysteria arises when the singularly  smaller and more wary lynx escapes a zoo and spends  a few days in the local countryside.

As ever conservation is first and foremost about cultural norms and political preference. A country’s viewpoint may be as much at odds with another for the most intangible reasons. Attitudes in the UK towards predation by pet cats versus attitudes towards the same pet cats in Australia or the United States, for example.

The question for conservationist in the UK should really aim to understand before rewilding with major predators is not ‘why’ but rather “why not?”



Anon (2017) lynx escapes from animal park in Wales. BBC News. on line

Barkham, P. (2017) Denmark gets its first wild wolf pack in 200 years. Guardian Environment. on line

Boffey, D (2018) Pioneering wolf becomes first sighted in Belgium for a century. Guardian Environment. on line


Captive lions from North Africa: an early history

Photo published for Barbary lion skull - Google Arts & Culture

The oldest skull of a Barbary lion found in the UK was recovered in the 1930s by workmen digging the moat at the Tower of London. The skull turned out to be the remains of an animal that was kept in the royal menagerie 700 years ago. A second skull was discovered at around the same time.

Scientists at Oxford and the Natural Histotry Museum determined that the second one of these lions lived between 1420 and 1480. The other dating showed that the older remains were of an animal that lived between 1280 and 1385. So these remains are the oldest for a lion found in the UK since the extinction of wild cave lions during the last ice age.

The sultans of Morocco kept their own lions in a lion garden at various palaces in medieval times. There are even stories (and artistic depictions) of prisoners being thrown to the animals.

NHM (2016) Barbary lion skull from London

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

To worship the lion

Sketch of a pride of Cave lions. Note the lack of manes on the big standing male. Art by Tabitha Paterson (@TabithaPaterson)

Sketch of a pride of Cave lions. Note the lack of manes on the big standing male. Art by Tabitha Paterson (@TabithaPaterson)

We think of lions, today, as African animals. This is mostly true. However, there is still a tiny refugium of non-African lions, isolated in the Kathiawar peninsula of India, and centred on the Gir forest reserve. Here, 400 or so Asian lions eke out an existence, beset on all sides by people and farmland, the last remnants of an empire that once spread from Tunisia via Turkey to the Tigris and beyond.  But, even this is only a fraction of the range that lions once held.

During the Pleistocene, highly differentiated lion subspecies (or perhaps separate species, opinion is divided) roamed from Spain to Siberia, through the steppes of Beringia, and into the Americas as far south as Mexico. Their fossils are surprisingly common in Britain too. In fact, excavation of the site of Trafalgar square uncovered a number of lion fossils where now their equally impressive bronze cousins lie today. The cave lion (Panthera spelaea) occupied all of Eurasia and Beringia. The closely related American lion (Panthera atrox) was found over the contiguous lower 48 states.

Range of lions since the Pleistocene. Image by Ross Barnett

Range of lions since the Pleistocene. Image by Ross Barnett

The cave lion is, and was, a pretty special felid. Considerably larger than modern lions, it was the apex predator of the Pleistocene food web (with perhaps some competition from Homotherium).  As it lived in Europe at the same time as anatomically modern humans, it has been depicted in numerous pieces of parietal and portable art. The cave walls of Chauvet and Lascaux contain brilliantly realistic images of this extinct animal, showing that it lived in prides, and that males were maneless. We know this because in a few images, the adult male scrotum is obvious, and the mane is absent.

Pride of cave lions from Chauvet cave. Public domain image.

Pride of cave lions from Chauvet cave. Public domain image.

It also seems that early Europeans had some kind of cultural affinity for the cave lion. One of the most amazing pieces of art to come from this period, exquisitely crafted from mammoth ivory, shows a half-lion, half-human chimera. This löwenmensch, as it is known in german, testifies to some kind of ritual or mythic importance for the cave lion in the culture of the time. Like the venus figurines, löwenmensch, have been found at multiple sites, showing that the idea was not just an isolated one but shared amongst communities.

Löwenmensch from Hohlenstein-Stadel. Image by Dagmar Hollmann via Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Löwenmensch from Hohlenstein-Stadel. Image by Dagmar Hollmann via Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Further reading:

Nice piece by the Telegraph, featuring our very own Ross Barnett: ‘Super-sized lions’ roamed UK in Ice Age.

Barnett, R., et al. (2014), ‘Revealing the maternal deomgraphic history of Panthera leo using ancient DNA and a spatially explicit genealogical analysis’, BMC Evolutionary Biology, 14, 70. [Full Article]

Barnett, R., et al. (2009), ‘Phylogeography of lions (Panthera leo ssp.) reveals three distinct taxa and late Pleistocene reduction in genetic diversity’, Molecular Ecology, 18 (8), 1668-77. [Abstract]

Conard, N. J. (2003), ‘Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art’, Nature, 426 (6968), 830-32. [Abstract]

Franks, J. W. (1960), ‘Interglacial deposits at Trafalgar Square’, The New Phytologist, 59, 145-150Montellano-Ballesteros, M. and Carbot-Chanona, G. (2009), ‘Panthera leo atrox (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) in Chiapas, Mexico’, The Southwestern Naturalist, 54 (2), 217-22. [Abstract]

Montellano-Ballesteros, M., and G. Carbot-Chanona (2009). ‘Panthera Leo Atrox (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) in Chiapas, Mexico.’ The Southwestern Naturalist 54, no. 2 , 217-22. [Abstract]

Packer, C. and Clotte, J. (2000), ‘When Lions Ruled France’, Natural History, 109, 52-57. [Full Article]


Posted on BarbaryLion with thanks to Ross Barnett and colleagues at TwilightBeasts: Jan Freedman (@janfreedman), Tabitha Paterson (@TabithaPaterson), and Rena Maguire (@justrena).
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Lion food – try it Tunisian style

lion and boar mosaic

Mosaic of lions eating wild boar, 2nd century AD, Museum of El-Jem, El-Jem Thydrus, Tunisia

This 2nd century Roman mosaic from Tunisia is a fine example of its genre and interesting for its depiction of lions, a not unfamiliar scene in artwork of the era.

The picture manages to look both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Two lions devouring prey, yet it is two male lions. The prey is relatively large compared to the lions but it is only a pig. The scene is a  dry and sparse climate and there are depictions of human presence a temple or palace perhaps… all somewhat fanciful, surely?


Wild boar (Sus scrofa) in India.    Photo S Black

There are many pre-Roman artistic depictions of lions devouring prey in Mediterranean art (bulls, deer etc.). Perhaps fewer of lions eating wild boar. We do know that wild boar are the prey of lions in India today and boar would have been prey elsewhere in the former middle eastern range of the species. They would also have been a key prey for lions in North Africa as depicted in the mosaic. If lions were still present in the wilds of Algeria or Morocco today, then wild boar would probably be the best food source (other than domestic flocks).

We know that Barbary lions tended to operate in small family groups rather than the prides familiar in savannah landscapes, so it is interesting to see two males in this depiction – does this offer a clue to how Barbary lions behaved, perhaps?

In reality almost all lion depictions of the classical era show male lions and almost never lionesses, so little can be gained from this depiction. The Tunisian mosaic is most probably a purely artistic interpretation of events. It is satisifying, however, to see the lions depicted with a known wild prey species form the region. In classical European artwork lion prey is more often depicted as domestic cattle, donkeys, horses or wild deer. Interestingly 18th and 19th century art often depicts lions attacking horses and domestic camels.

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. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060174

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

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.