Category Archives: History

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  https://www.catsofthewild.com/episodes/the-barbary-lion

 

Why is the Barbary Lion still important?

Until recently lions were colloquially split into various geographic grouping, often supported by characterisations from natural historians and hunters of the time variously covering ‘biggest’ , fiercest’, ‘tamest’, ‘most cowardly’ and so on. Historically names followed a range of different local clades, the Cape lion, Indian lion, Senagalese lion, Persian lion (sometimes known as the Mesopotamian lion), Nubian lion, various groups across central and eastern Africa and of course the Barbary lion.

Significant recent genetic studies have enabled more accurate categorisation of lions sub-populations into two subspecies, based on several phylogenetic studies. The Cat Classification Task Force of the Cat Specialist Group revised lion taxonomy into two subspecies – the northern sub species Panthera leo leo and the Southern subspecies Panthera leo melanochaita.

The northern species is the nominate species – first encountered by scientific classification as the animals were present and encountered in the accessible landscapes of antiquity around the Mediterranean. However in today’s global population the northern subspecies only accounts for 10% or less of the global lion population (much less if we include captive lions).

The diminishing micro-populations of lions in West Africa today mimics the decline of the Barbary lion in North Africa – can lessons be learned? For example in Senegal, the lion is the national symbol and the ‘name’ of the famous national football team. How many lions live in the wild in Senegal – less than 50.

And what of the supposed captive lions from Morocco – the likely descendants of the last Barbary lions? Well they may represent nearly half of the captive collection of all northern lions. If we ignore these animals it will be to our peril.

Lion conservation in captivity has, perhaps run a full circle in 50 years since Hemmer and Leyhausen raised excitement about the lions being moved from the King of Morocco’s collection in the Royal Palace in Rabat into new enclosures in the city zoo.

Lion populations in the wild have certainly more than halved since then, possibly are at a quarter of the levels in the 1970s.

Are we ready to use what knowledge and resources we have to turn things around?

Reading:

Bertola LD, Jongbloed H, Van Der Gaag KJ, De Knijff P, Yamaguchi N, Hooghiemstra H, et al. (2016) Phylogeographic patterns in Africa and High Resolution Delineation of genetic clades in the Lion (Panthera leo). Sci. Rep. Aug 4; 6: 30807.

Black, S.A. (2016) The Challenges and Relevance of Exploring the Genetics of North Africa’s Barbary Lion and the Conservation of Putative Descendants in Captivity. International Journal of  Evolutionary Biology Article ID 6901892, http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2016/6901892

Fragmentation of lion populations: a global threat

Lions are one of the more numerous charismatic carnivores, merely ‘vulnerable’ according to the IUCN Red List.

However the real picture, aside from core populations in east Africa, is one of fragmentation. For most of their historic range lions are today only found either in isolated protected areas, the remnants of habitats from their former range (particularly in West Africa, Central Africa and India) or in fenced reserves (Southern Africa).

Their history of survival and decline elsewhere suggests this is a very poor situation. We see our surviving African and Indian populations suffering pressures for the last two or three decades but clinging on. This may not be sustainable. In North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco) and the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey) the same situation held true from the 1880s through to the 1940s (even 1950s). Today few people would associate any of those countries with the lion.

Will we say the same about many of its current range states in the next ten or twenty years?

Reading:

Black, SA (2016) “The Challenges and Relevance of Exploring the Genetics of North Africa’s “Barbary Lion” and the Conservation of Putative Descendants in Captivity,” International Journal of Evolutionary Biology, vol. 2016, Article ID 6901892, 9 pages, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6901892.

Black, SA, Fellous, A, Yamaguchi, N. and Roberts, DL (2013) Examining the extinction of the Barbary Lion and its implications for felid conservation. PLoS ONE,  8 (4), Article ID e60174

Bauer, H,  Chapron, G,  Nowell, K. et al., (2015) Lion (Panthera leo) populations are declining rapidly across Africa, except in intensively managed areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112 (48), pp. 14894–14899.

A. E. Schnitzler, AE (2011) Past and present distribution of the North
African-Asian lion subgroup: a review. Mammal Review, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 220–243.

 

 

 

 

 

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. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/01/taxidermy-carnegie-museum-skull/

 

 

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.

Reading

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

How to win another 10 years for the Moroccan lions

The lions which are direct descendents from the captive collection of the Sultans and later Kings of Morocco are all in zoos. There is a healthy group of lions in Temara Zoo in Rabat, plus even more related individuals spread across a dozebn or so zoos across Europe, with around 100 animals in captivity overall. Ten years ago there were about 80 of these lions and many of those were beyond breeding age, or had already contributed significantly. Just around then, old and alone, the last female with genetic representation from founder animal 7 died and with her 1/12th of the genetic basis of the captive population.

Unfortunately until the studbook was developed from detailed examination of handwritten zoo records and a sweep of various databases, websites and personal contacts acrtoss European zoos the precariousness of the captive population was unknown. However since then a number of zoos have joined the programe to breed the animals and there have been successful transfers that have made the population a lot more healthier. When the studbook was devised it was hoped that a reinvigorated programme would give the zoo population another 10-15 years breathing space as a viable captive group.

However a few animals are underutilised – males needing suitable females – and some breeding pairings have been completely unsuccessful. Greater cooperation is needed between zoos to maximise the strenght of the whole population, not just the small groups held in each zoo exhibit. The first ten years since the revival of the breeding program has since passed. Concerted effort and active partnership is needed now to get inactive males and females together to develop breeding pairs.

Reading:

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

Black S, Yamaguchi N, Harland A, Groombridge J (2010). Maintaining the genetic health of putative Barbary lions in captivity: an analysis of Moroccan Royal Lions. Eur J Wildl Res 56: 21–31. doi: 10.1007/s10344-009-0280-5

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

Occasional sightings suggest lions cling on in West Africa

Currently the West African populations of lions are Critically Endangered (Henschel et al., 2014) and currently occupy only 1% of their historical range. The presence of lion in Ghana is therefore very important, although it is known that many west african sub-populations cling on in single figure numbers.

A recent paper (Angelici and Rissi, 2017) suggests a recent sighting 11 years since the last confirmed lion presence in Mole National Park. If present the small number of individuals (perhaps as few as two or three) suggested by the sightings reported in the paper, might appear insignificant. Neverthless many populations in West africa are of this size, totalling perhaps less than 200 across the entire region – the ast wild representatives of the IUCN’s newly designated northern subspecies of lion Panthera leo leo (the rest are in India).

The few individuals in Mole are a sub population of a tiny population across Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger and Nigeria (Henschel et al., 2014), which itself is a tiny population of Panthera leo leo globally (probably less than 2000 animals including in captivity).

Although we rarely consider individual animals in conservation, with lions it has reached that stage. If a few individuals can be conserved in Ghana, they might provide hope for continuation across the region and for the northern sub-species Panthera leo leo as a whole.

References:

Angelicic, F.M. and Rossi, L. (2017) Further lion, Panthera leo senegalensis Meyer, 1826, sightings in Mole National Park, Ghana, and possible first serval Leptailurus serval Schreber, 1776 record after 39 years (Mammalia Felidae). Biodiversity Journal, 8 (2): 749-752

Henschel, P. et al. (2014) The lion in West Africa is Critically Endangered. PLoS ONE, 9: e83500. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083500

 

 

Decline of the cats – the precipice is nearer than we think

In 1970 there were nearly 40,000 tigers. In the late 1990s this was estimated to be 5,000 – 7,000. Today there are less than 4000.

The global cheetah population has declined startlingly to today’s count of just 7,100 individuals, confined to 9% of its historical distributional range (Durant et al, 2017). 60 – 70% of previous lion and cheetah habitats in West and Central African protected areas have  seen recent disappearance of both species (Brugière, Chardonnet, & Scholte, 2015).

In 2013 analyses established that the African lion has lost at least 75% of its original habitat, with fewer than 35,000 wild African lions remaining (Riggio et al (2013).Bauer et al. ( 2015 ) assessed the trend of 47 relatively well-monitored lions in Africa, and found an alarming population decline of about 38 % over 21 years (1993–2014). In 2015 the IUCN estimated that fewer than 20,000 lions remain. Worse, it has been suggested that only 6 populations should be considered as biologically viable.

Even the adaptable leopard is now disappearing from areas of its previous range (Giordano et al , 2017).

Threats to large cats include conflict with humans, reduction of habitat and decline of prey species, all of which are inter-connected. The picture is bleak.

Further reading:

Bauer, H., Packer, C., Funston, P.F., Henschel, P. & Nowell, K. 2016. Panthera leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15951A97162455.http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T15951A97162455.en.

Brugière, D., Chardonnet, B., & Scholte, P. (2015). Large-scale extinction of large carnivores (lion Panthera leo, cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and wild dog Lycaon pictus) in protected areas of West and Central Africa. Tropical Conservation Science, 8(2), 513-527.

Durant, S. M., Mitchell, N., Groom, R., Pettorelli, N., Ipavec, A., Jacobson, A. P., … & Broekhuis, F. (2017). The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(3), 528-533.

Giordano, A. J., Tumenta, P. N., & Iongh, H. H. (2017). Camera‐trapping confirms unheralded disappearance of the leopard (Panthera pardus) from Waza National Park, Cameroon. African Journal of Ecology.

Goodrich, J., Lynam, A., Miquelle, D., Wibisono, H., Kawanishi, K., Pattanavibool, A., … & Karanth, U. (2016). Panthera tigris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e. T15955A50659951.

Riggio J, Jacobson A, Dollar L, Bauer H, Becker M, et al. (2013) The size of savannah Africa: a lion’s (Panthera leo) view. Biodiversity and Conservation 22: 17–35.

Sandom, C. J., Faurby, S., Svenning, J. C., Burnham, D., Dickman, A., Hinks, A., … & Macdonald, D. (2017). Learning from the past to prepare for the future: Felids face continued threat from declining prey richness. Ecography.

 

Let’s get serious about the Northern lions

We are familiar with the lions of Africa ranging from Southern Africa up through East African strongholds as well as the smaller populations of central and western African states. There are also Asia’s last lions in the Gir forest Gujarat, India.

Indian lions are the remnant of a huge former northern range which covered several states across northern India, through to modern-day Pakistan and westward through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, through the eastern Mediterranean states south of the Sinai desert coast through the western coastal areas of Arabian peninsular, into Egypt, and along the southern Mediterranean coast and mountain ranges of north Africa. They persisted further north in Turkey and Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia until the 19th century. Archaeological studies show they ranged further north along the Black Sea coasts during human prehistory. Intriguingly they still persisted in southern Greece into early historic times as described in Greek literature.

From this vast range today’s picture for lions is much diminished. Genetic studies now show us that the lions of Central and Western Africa are part of this northern population.

When we look at the tens of thousands of lions across Eastern and Southeastern Africa we should not take them for granted. Just ten years ago there were thought to be 40,000. Today perhaps only 20,000. We need to be vigilant in their conservation.

Further Reading:

Bertola, L.D., Tensen, L., van Hooft, P., White, P.A., Driscoll, C.A., Henschel, P., Caragiulo, A., Dias-Freedman, I., Sogbohossou, E.A., Tumenta, P.N. and Jirmo, T.H., 2016. Correction: Autosomal and mtDNA Markers Affirm the Distinctiveness of Lions in West and Central Africa. PloS one, 11(3).

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

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

 

 

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

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/barbary-lion-skull-from-the-tower-of-london.html