Category Archives: Extinction

De-extinction: dinosaur to dodo… or at least to the Barbary lion?

Is the prospect of a lion living wild in the Moroccan landscape just fantasy fiction?

Is the prospect of a lion living wild in the Moroccan landscape just fantasy fiction?

The growth in knowledge of genetic technologies has raised the topic of “De-extinction”, the recovery of extinct species. But is it worth spending money and resources to produce a conservation ‘gimmick’, like a resurrected mammoth? This is a question of ethics; the value of a curiosity. But there are practical implications as well; if we are to reintroduce species into the wild, are we really good enough at reintroductions to make this a success (Donlan 2014)?

De-extinction discussions often relate to famous species such as the Woolly Mammoth, Passenger Pigeon, Dodo and Thylacine and are often criticised for the “Jurassic Park” element of the argument. However one step back from those more spectacular proposals are recently lost sub-species including the Barbary Lion (Jones, 2014) as potential ambassadors or mascots for conservation and biodiversity recovery in their lands of origin. This prospect has been the on-off discussion concerning the fate of the lions of the Kings Collection in Morocco for decades (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

However, the argument for this type of work needs to go deeper. Recovery of such a formidable species into the wild requires a transformation in the landscape and in the thinking of local people, including the conservationists themselves to develop a sensible and worthwhile model of reintroduction. Reintroduction must match biology, socio-economics, local culture and politics – and most of these factors do not involve scientific expertise, but skills and knowledge in quite different aspects of work.


Donlan, J.  (2014) De-extinction in a crisis discipline. Frontiers of Biogeography, 6(1)

Jones, K.E. (2014) From dinosaurs to dodos: who could and should we de-extinct? Frontiers of Biogeography, 6(1)

Nowell K.,  and Jackson P. (1996) Wild cats, status survey and conservation action plan. Gland: IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group.

The Northern Lions

The last micro populations of lions north of the Sahara held out in the North West of Africa (Algeria and Morocco) and in Iraq, Iran and India in the East. Of these, just 400 remain in the Gir Forest with a small number now appear to be established in the Kodinar Coastal strip in southern Gujarat, India.

Lion distribution map inc 20th century in northThe last record of lions in Iraq was possibly the two shot by a Turkish governor in 1914 near Mosul and later in 1918 in the lower Tigris . The last Iranian lions had largely dissappeared in the 1940s with sporadic sightings by railway engineers in the years during the second world war. A lion was also thought to have been seen near Quetta in Pakistan in 1935.

In 1963, the last pride of five Persian lions was hunted in the Dasht-i Arzhan districy of Fars Province in Iran. According to Guggisberg, national newspapers and media “celebrated” the killing of these lions with pictures and fanfare. The pride consisted of a female with four cubs in a cave, the male had been shot already. Just as in earlier accounts from Algeria in the 1880s, the female was shot on the spot, and the cubs were taken as trophies. No subsequent sightings have been reported from Iran, although an attempt was made to reintroduce lions into the region in the 1970s, but the animals dissappeared, presumably shot.


Divyabhanusinh A. (2008) The Story of Asia’s Lions. The Marg Foundation.

Guggisberg C.A.W. (1963) Simba: the life of the lion. London: Bailey Bros. and Swinfen

Schnitzler, A.E. (2011) Past and Present Distribution of the North African-Asian lion subgroup: a review. mammal Review, 41, 3.

Lion decline indicates mass extinction

Estimates suggest that today there are around 32,000 to 35,000 lions left. Sixty years ago this  figure was somewere between 400,000 and 500,000, so in a lifetime we have seen a decline of 90 percent or more. Over that period the lion population in India (Panthera leo persica) has clung on and grown from just under 200 animals to about 350 – 400 animals today (from a low in the 1890s of about 20 individuals). Even in the 1940s lions were observed as far west as Iran but the entire Middle East no longer is home to these animals. Over this period the North African population has also dissappeared (with the last sightings in the late 1950s).

Worse still, the remaining bulk of population in sub-saharan Africa (see figure below) is patchy and sometimes involves tiny micropopulations, particularly in Central and West Africa, which could easily follow the fate of Middle Eastern and North African populations.

Riggio et al (2012) Densities of lions in Africa


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

Riggio, J., Jacobson, A., Dollar, L. et al. (2012) The size of savannah Africa: a lion’s (Panthera leo) view.Biodiversity Conservation. DOI 10.1007/s10531-012-0381-4

Patterns of lion decline in North Africa

Map of last sitings of barbary lions in 20th Century

The last pockets of habitat where lions were seen in the mid 20th century (1930s – 40s). Well-known populations in central Morocco (Ifrane) and western Algeria (Oran) had already disappeared.

Although there is no definitve survey data for barbary lion presence in North Africa, it is possible to use the information from reported sightings to map the final decline of the species. A quick summary is given in the figure opposite. The mid-grey expanse is the Maghreb ecosystem which was suitable habitat for lions stretching from south-west Morocco through to north-east Tunisia.

The lightest grey patches in central Morocco and north central Algeria indicate where lions had been present up to the 1920s. The darker grey regions indicate where the last micro-populations survived from the 1930s up to the early 1960s (at the latest). The important last populations may well have been completely isolated in North Setif, Biskra and Batna, the Saharan Atlas, southern Morocco on the Saharan fringe, and the southern High Atlas. It is possible that lions traversed the arid zones between the High Atlas, the Saharan fringe and the Saharan Atlas mountains, but the rest of the Algerian populations in the east were probably quite separate after the early 1900s.

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

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.

When did the Barbary lion fall extinct in the wild?

The dates of final extinction of the Barbary Lion have been a favourite topics of speculation for many commentators big cat decline in recent decades. Typical dates encountered in books and on the web include

Giser 1875 young lion by tree and cenetery

An authentic sighting?

The Barbary lion was known to range Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Any other populations in the Libyan desert and into Egypt were very sparse and probably disappeared in ancient times, probably before the rise of human civilisation in the region (Yamaguchi and Haddane, 2002). Although hundreds of lions were exported for the Roman Games and Berber tribes took cubs as gifts in the 1600s through to the 1800s, the major culls of the population occurred in the 1800s as part of a colonial pest control programme (particularly in Algeria). Later in the century encounters were generally made by  hunters or farmers.

Typically, the story goes that the last lion was shot in Morocco in 1927 (or 1921), but this date is based on rather superficial knowledge of available accounts (someone said ‘the last lion was shot on that date’, so that must mean the last lion was shot on that date, and so on). Some accounts are based on a proposal (perhaps by a local personality) as an assertion of knowledge, rather than on a detailed cataloguing of specific sightings.

A dig into the literature reveals suggestion of later dates by well-established scholars including Cabrera  (1932),  Guggisberg (1963) Hemmer (1978)  each of whom made well-researched projections on the dates for likely extinction of lions based on collations of accounts in previous decades. All three of these commentators suggest survival of lions in North Africa into the 1930s.

However any of ‘best judgement’ is inevitably compromised by (i) the ranging of populations across national boundaries, (ii) the remoteness of available habitat areas (and therefore likelihood that narrative accounts will be recorded for such localities), (iii)  confounding factors such as reported sightings of domesticated animals or confusion with other wild species, and (iv) the reputability of the eyewitness account. Even a cursory glance at the two maps produced by Black et al (2013) illustrates that sightings of lions ‘shifted’ from the northern coastal regions (up to 1900) broadly southwards to the remote regions bounding the Sahara. Of course, this shift is a combination of removal of lions from Northern areas and (prior to 1900) a lack of visitors to the remoter southern fringes fo the Maghreb (due to war, lack of road access and relatively inhospitable terrain).

A number of researchers working in North Africa over the past 20 years, particularly Dr Amina Fellous, Dr Fabrice Cuzin and Prof Mohan Haddadou have encountered testimonies by local people during interviews which describe fairly recent encounters with lions in remote areas. Recent research using both the historical record and new interview evidence combined with probability modelling has identified that lions disappeared from Morocco and Algeria around the late 1950s /early 1960s. Over 50 years earlier the population had shrunk from its former range spanning both Tunisia and Algeria – and no lions have roamed in Tunisia since the 1890s.


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: 465-481.

Rapid decline of North African lion populations from 1500AD

Here is a quick snapshot of historical sightings of lions in North Africa, as documented since the 1500s. This figure shows the shrinking presence of the species shown as dots and triangles across the Maghreb (shaded region in the maps below). By the 1900s the population was effectiely split into a western (Morocc0) and eastern (north east Algeria) sub-populations (Black et al 2013).

At best, the only lions left are the residents in Rabat Zoo, derived from the King of Morocco’s private collection.

Lion distribution Twitter maps combo


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

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:


Recent extinction of lions from North Africa

Popular consensus is that the last lions disappeared from Morocco nearly one hundred years ago, clinging on in the remote Atlas mountains up to the 1920s, but exterminated from the rest of North Africa much earlier and certainly by the 1890s. However recent research has challenged this view.

The established consensus was previously, based largely on the historical accounts of colonial travelers and European big game hunters. Although Ángel Cabrera (1932), Charles Guggisberg (1963) and Helmut Hemmer (1978) recognised the possibility of later survival in remote areas, Yamaguchi and Haddane (2002) were the first to identify reports of a specific sighting later than 1930. Separate to this, in Algeria, ongoing research over recent years has uncovered an extensive set of eyewitness accounts from local people. A deeper examination of historical and first hand oral reports by local people in Morocco and Algeria identified how micro populations of lions survived in remote regions across the North African Maghreb. The study (Black, Fellous, Yamaguchi and Roberts, 2013) uses recently gathered data on the last sightings of the Barbary lion in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco makes for interesting reading:


The research has prompted a number of interesting summaries for example John Platt’s blog article in Scientific American.

Other reading:

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

Schnitzler, A.E. (2011) Past and Present Distribution of the North African-Asian lion subgroup: a review. mammal Review, 41, 3.