Category Archives: Ecology

Human leopard conflict – a classic lose-lose situation

There have been an increasing number of leopard-human conflicts in recent years across India, possibly due to increasing human land-use encroaching onto leopard habitat. The same is true for other big cat species across the globe. Leopard attacks have been recently reported in Turkey as one example. Few places in the world experience large human population densities alongside major predators as India and Bangladesh. In these areas conflict includes leopard attacks on humans, leopard attacks on livestock, or people attacking leopards (usually retribution).

However, killing of big cats is involved complex motivatioal factors on the part of the people prepard to carry out such an attack (Inskip et al 2014).

Attacks by animals on humans are the most rare and circumstances vary; for example, when natural prey populations are unusually low in times of drought; when an injured animal seeks ‘easier’ prey; when someone has  an unfortunate encounter with an animal traversing a human-dominted landscape; or a person’s unexpected encounter at close quarters in the wild. Attacks on livestock can be limited with appropriate security, but are difficult to avoid. The most questinoable area of conflict is human retribution, because it involves a high degree of risks to people. Human injury in such circumstances are common.

People need to better understand predator behaviour to avoid these situations. For example, most retribution attacks would be better managed by letting the animal escape (its most preferred option) without the need for contact.

Further Reading:

Anon (2013) Shepherd kills first Anatolian leopard sighted in Turkey for years. Daily News.

Inskip C. and Zimmerman, A. (2009) Human-felid conflict: a review of patterns and priorities worldwide, Oryx, 43(1), 18–3

Inskip C., FahadZ., Tulley, R., Roberts, T and MacMillan D.(2014) Understanding carnivore killing behaviour: Exploring the motivations for tiger killing in the Sundarbans, Bangladesh. Biological Conservation 180: 42–50

Khandal, D. (2012)  Human-Leopard Conflict, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Conservation India, 30th March 2012. 

Can North Africa take lessons from Indian conservation?

Mountain, forest, steppe, coastal regions, dense populations, agro-ecosystems, pastoral pressures on natural landscapes, diverse range of native species. These words could describe both the mediterranean biome of North Africa and major biomes in India. Most strikingly, several of the major species associated with North Africa are represented in some regions in India. The lion, leopard and striped hyena are most notably present, so perhaps the practical experience of working with lions and leopards in Gujarat in north-western India offers clues to how the recovery of Maghreb ecosystems in future decades could be modelled.

Gujarat is a region of high population density with a landscape that has experienced considerable human modification for agriculture. Additionally there is a local pastoral popuation, the Maldhari, who live inside the national park, home to the Asiatic lion. The lions themselves are also not confined to the national park and have been known to range far across the agricultural regions of Gujarat, increasingly so in the past few decades. Lions have set up home on the scrublands on the southern coastal region of the state, suprisingly close to population centres and human infrastructure.

North Africa's historical biodiversity is compatible with India temperate regions - even elephant existed in the Maghreb until historical times. Modern India is justifiably proud of its biodiversity heritage [Map adapted with North African additions from concept by Karanth (2014) photos: K. Varma, N. Mehta, S. Mahanta, H.S. Singh, H. Malik].

North Africa’s historical biodiversity (left) is comparable with India’s temperate regions – elephant existed in the Maghreb in historic times [Adapted from Karanth (2014)  photos: K. Varma, N. Mehta, S. Mahanta, H.S. Singh, H. Malik; S Black].

Further reading:

Anon (2012) Lions make coastal belt their home. Times of India

Jain A. (2014) Why dozens of India’s Asiatic lions are Dying. BBC News

Karanth, K.U. (2014) Fifty Years of Conservation. National Geographic Voices, Posted by Wildlife Conservation Society on November 9, 2014


Would a big cat species be able to survive in North Africa today?

A significant argument against reintroduction of lions into North Africa is that with the combination of deforestation, desertification and impacts on landscapes, plus the continued ingress of human communities, livestock and infrastructure into formerly wild areas, there is little space for a large carnivore in the region.

However the experience with lions in India is that the animals can be quite resourceful in surviving in a region which is relatively heavily populated. In Gujarat, India the human population is 310/km2 (800/sq mi). In Algeria this is 16/km2, but it should be noted that most of the land area is desert. In Tunisia there is proportionally less desert and the human density is 70/km2. In Morocco it is 74/km2.(World bank).

However larger cats still appear to hang on (just) – indeed the leopard may still survive in the Atlas mountains, although last seen in the late 1990s. A much smaller feline, the serval has been recently spotted in the Atlas for the first time. Most of the other species keep to remote Saharan areas.

In the southern fringes of the region where the Saharan and the Sahel link to sub-saharan Africa, several cat species are present, even if in low numbers. Scat analysis by scientists working in southern Algeria identified continued presence of leopard. Several cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) were shot during the early 1990s in southern Morocco and Cuzin (2003) suggested although  a few individuals could survive (less than 20), they are most likely extinct. Recent camera trapping in southern Algeria (covering an area of 2,800 square kilometres) the first systematic survey across the central Sahara identified four individual cheetahs.

The first camera trap footage showing a cheetah in southern Algeria in . Credit: Farid Belbachir/ZSL/OPNA; courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society (2009)


Busby et al (2009) Genetic analysis of scat reveals leopard (Panthera pardus) and cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in Algeria. Oryx, 43(3), 412–415

Première nationale: un serval photographié dans le moyen Atlas (photo: Salim Meghni)

Wildlife Conservation Society. “Critically Endangered Cheetahs In Algeria Snapped With Camera Trap.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 February 2009. <>.

World Bank accessed October 2014.

Here, in times past, lions roamed…

Ain Talawan1ss

Lion country: Ain Talawan (Photo: N Yamaguchi)

This landscape is more reminiscent of Scotland than Africa, but is a valley in north-eastern Algeria. Accounts of lions in this region continued up to the early 20th century (Black et al 2013). One of the more memorable regular encounters by local people with lions used to occur in this region.

The stream above the valley runs near a track which was frequently used by local people taking goods to market.

However the stream, although fairly unassuming (see the photo below) was an importnat water point for lions. This meant that people regularly had to drive lions away from the area with sticks when travelling through the area. A colleague in Algeria has collected verbal accounts from an old man who used to travel this route in the 1920s.

An unassuming stream in hills above Ain Talawan. (Photo: N Yamaguchi)

The scene is reminiscent of the encounters in the Gir Forest in Gujarat, India which the local Maldhari people  experience with the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica).

A Maldhari and his livestock in the Gir forest. He has a stick to steer his animals and to protect them and himself against lions.









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 Royal Lions

Large carnivores of North Africa

north african carnivores

Only the leopard still survives in North Africa, although its presence has been very rarely encountered since the 1990s

Perhaps just a few hundred years ago (and even as late as the 1860s by some reports) North Africa was still home to three large predators, the Barbary lion, the Barbary leopard and the Atlas bear.

The Maghreb of North Africa (i.e. the area north of the Sahara, up to the Mediterranean coastline westwards from Libya, through Tunisia, Algeria along to the Atlantic coastline of Morocco) boasts a diverse range of species packed into ecosystems ranging from Mediterranean coastal scrub, juniper steppe, oak and cedar forest, conifer forest. In addition there are high altitude montane landscapes, semi-arid regions and desert. The major carnivores of the Maghreb preyed on a variety of species including the wild boar, barbary sheep, red deer, gazelles, addax, scimitar horned oryx, bubal hartebeest, domestic livestock (goats, sheep, cows, horses and camels) as well as smaller animals from barbary apes, to rodents, reptiles, birds and insects. The closest comparison to the historic landscape would perhaps be present day western India and (perhaps) Pakistan, still home leopard, bear and lion.

The most significant change which has impacted upon the decline of large carnivores is the transformation of the Maghreb landscape  in recent decades through land use change, desertification and increased human habitation. Many of the wild prey species were hunted out during the 19th century; only wild boar remain in any significant numbers. although other ungulates still persist. By the early 20th century it appears that remaining Barbary lions became more reliant on hunting livestock, so more persecution from humans followed until its eventual, final extirpation.


Naquash, T. (2014) Asiatic lion spotted inAJK national park, Dawn News, 5 February.

Hamdinea, Watik; Thévenotb, Michel; Michaux, Jacques (1998). “Histoire récente de l’ours brun au Maghreb“. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences 321 (7): 565–570. doi:10.1016/S0764-4469(98)80458-7

Nawaz, M.A. (2007) Status of the Brown Bear in Pakistan. Ursus 18(1): 89-100

Slimani, H. and Aidoud, A. (2002) Desertification in the Maghreb: A Case Study of an Algerian High-Plain Steppe. in Environmental Challenges in the Mediterranean 2000–2050. Proceedings of the NATO Advanced Research Workshop on Environmental Challenges in the Mediterranean 2000–2050 Madrid, Spain 2–5 October. pp 93-108 DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-0973-7_6.

The Geography of the Atlas Mountains

Map of North Africa plainLions inhabited north Africa from the Mediterranean coasts of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia up to the mountain slopes of the Atlas ranges which fringe the northern of the Saharah. The shaded areas of the map (right) show the most suitable habitats across the region. Lions observed traversing semi-arid areas kept close to water points.

The High Atlas range runs west-east from Morocco’s atlantic coast (north of Agadir) into the Morocco/Agleria Border. Lions could be tracked in the snow of the High Atlas mountains.

The Middle Atlas in Morocco (around cities such as Fez) run northeastwards towards the coast. Sightings were common in the forests of these regions. North of the middel Atlas are the coastal Rif mountains which spread up towards Tanger (Tangiers) overlooking the Mediterranean towards Gibraltar and Spain (the Rif are geologically similar to Spain’s Sierra Nevada, rather than being part of the Atlas chain).

The Anti Atlas in Morocco run from the Saharah in the south up towards Agadir and the High Atlas range.Lions were not commonly seen in this region, although several later sightings in the 1930s suggest small populations had been marginalised to these remote semi-arid areas.

Photo: N. Yamaguchi

Photo: N. Yamaguchi

The Tell Atlas run for 1500km from Morocco’s Middle Atlas along a line  west-east, passing south of the Algerian cities of Oran and Algiers, parallel to the Mediterranean Coast. Further shouth, the Saharan Atlas are the boundary of the Sahara itself (shown by the areas around Ain Sefra and Djebel Amour in the map).

The Aures mountains are the easternmost part of the Atlas range, crossing the northern Algeria-Tunisia border. The western Aures intersect the Saharan and Tell Atlas at the Belezma range (which hold important cedar forests). The forested mountain areas around Setif (see photograph, left) contrast strongly with the drier regions south towards the oases such as Biskra.

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

Wolf and bear movements and behaviour offer clues to challenges of future carnivore conservation

If you reintroduce a large carnivore into a location adjacent to human population centres then human-wildlife conflict is likely. It also raises some important questison – what is ‘adjacent’ and what is ‘human wildlife conflict’.

The first bear to appear in Germany in over 170 years (a migrant who had left Italy, crossed Austria into Bavaria, was deemed to be behaving in a threatening manner by (purportedly) raiding bee-hives, killing 30 sheep, devouring pet rabbits and a guinea pig and raiding wastebins, as well as ‘rearing on his hind legs’ when approached too closely by some over-curious hikers. The latter incident doomed him to the decision by local authorities that he should be shot by a hunter – his body is now displayed as a taxidermy in a Munch museum.

Only this year a female bear with cubs was disturbed by a local cable-car worker as he searched for mushrooms and unsuprisingly she attacked him although left him with injuries without appearing to attempt to kill him. The outcome was an attempt by the authorities to capture her and remove her from the area (where she had been living peacefully in the wild for 13 years). The animal died during the capture.

A wolf’s Journey: In zig-zagging his way from Slovenia to Italy, Slavc is estimated to have travelled some 2000 km. Photograph: Hubert Potočnik, University of Ljubljana

A wolf’s Journey: In zig-zagging his way from Slovenia to Italy, Slavc is estimated to have travelled some 2000 km. Photograph: Hubert Potočnik, University of Ljubljana

Experiences with reintroduced wolves has highlighted how far-ranging these animals become. Dispersion from release sites over thousands of kilometers is now being observed, although in these cases without apparent conflict issues despite proxmity to human habitation and infrastructure. Even the Netherlands hosted its first wolf in 150 years during 2013, just 30 miles from the densley populated North East coast, sparking alarmist headlines (although the animal that was found, was dead by a roadside).

 So, proximity to humans becomes inevitable. Natural behaviour (investigating bee-hives, attacking vulnerable livestock, defending cubs or warding off potential threats) becomes unacceptable aggression. What are the acceptable limits? What does this mean for lions?


BBC (2008) Notorious bear ends up in museum. BBC News

Daily Mail (2013)  The wolf’s at the door: first killer beast turns up in Holland for 150 years

Davies E. (2014) Wild Bear Danzia dies after attempt to capture her faisl in Italy. The Guardian World News

Nicholls, H. (2014) Incredible journey: one wolf’s migration across Europe. The Guardian Science

Whitlock, C. (2006) Feb up Germany kills its only wild bear. Washington Post.

A view through time: the Atlas mountain landscape

The evocative image by french watercolour artist Georges Frederic Rotig (1925) captures a pair of lions overlooking a small herd of prey, possibly barbary sheep, in a mountainous valley. Below is a blending of Rotig’s image with a view across a  valley in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It is interesting that this depiction of the lions the somewhat modest mane in the male . It is also notable that there is just a pair of animals in the hunt, reflecting stories of sightings of lions in North Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s involving small groups of animals rather than the prides familiar in sub-Saharan Africa.

Lions view the landscape


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:


The Mediterranean Maghreb

The Barbary lion lived in the Mediterranean Maghreb, the northern, mountainous area separated from the rest of Africa by the Sahara, with the Atlantic coastline to the West and the Mediterranean sea to the north. Historically the species was seen in the lowlands to the coast right up to the High Atlas (at 4000m). This varied ecosystem included snow in the winter months in the Atlas mountains, dry forests in the lower valleys and arid plains south of the Atlas edging the desert.

The following figure shows the distribution of lions as sighted between the years 1500 and 1900 journal.pone.0060174.g001(see Black et al 2013). Light green shading indicates Mediterranean scrubland ecosystems running from Morocco in the west along North Africa, north of the Atlas, Saharan Atlas and Tell Atlas mountain ranges into Tunisia. Few if any lions survived east of this region (in Libya) after 1700.

Earliest accounts in the western Maghreb from 16th to the 18th century are indicated as open circles, whilst documented sightings from 1800 to 1900 are indicated as black circular markers in the western Maghreb and as triangular markers for sightings in eastern Maghreb. Asterisks (*) denote locations of human population centers. Dashed lines indicate national boundaries.