Category Archives: History

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 https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1224

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

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.

 

Reading:

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

A new angle on modern lions’ backstory

Modern lions (Panthera leo) began their exodus out of North Africa towards the end of the Pleistocene, eventually reaching as far as India. Much later, just around 5,000 years ago, another group of lions left the continent, reaching what is today Iran, in the Middle East, forming populations which are now extinct. This understanding of movement in prehistory may have important implications for the conservation of modern lions, since the study by Barnett et al. (2014) identifies that lion populations in West Africa and Central Africa, which have drastically declined over the past few decades, are actually more closely related to the Indian lion than to the more numerous populations of lions in East Africa (for example lions in Somalia or Botswana).

Today in India fewer than 400 Asian lions (P. leo persica) survive in the wild, living on the Kathiawar Peninsula in Gujarat, and this subspecies is listed as ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Despite the large geographical distances between them, these lions also seem closely related to the Barbary lions of North Africa. Could a conservation plan involving Indian lions be part of the answer for recovery of North African populations – and could North Africa itself be a potential refuge for the Asiatic lion?

 

Further Reading:

Barnett, R. et al (2014) Revealing the maternal demographic history of Panthera leo using ancient DNA and a spatially explicit genealogical analysis. BMC Evolutionary Biology 14:70  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-70

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/26736688

Lions in Pakistan or on the shores of the Arabian sea?

Lions survived in the territories of Pakistan up until the mid 1800s, the last of them believed to be killed in 1842 near Kot Diji in Sindh, so its presence there is essentially ancient history.

However there have been recent rumours of lions being spotted in a national park of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, with observers suggesting that these are animals migrating from India. However the lion stronghold of  Gujarat in India (particularly the Gir Forest and the Arabian coastal strip) are hundreds of miles south. These unusual  sightings may relate to mis-identification of other animals (such as leopards) or, more speculatively, released animals from clandestine captive collections (the latter has been suggested for leopard sightings in Mediterranean western Turkey in the late 20th Century).

On the rocks in a Gujarat port – ready to take a swim. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7D6G-AhSts

There have been incidents of illegal trade in live African lions into Pakistan in the recent past; how do you get rid of illegal lions? Could that be part of the explanation? In addition of course there are a number of zoos in Pakistan which have captive Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) in their animal collections, although these rare specimens would most likely be kept properly secure. Nevertheless the fact that lions are present in the peninsular of north-western India raises some interesting sightings. Animals from the Gir forest (landlocked by extensive tracts of agricultural land) sometimes have to disperse.

By moving across agricultural landscapes and areas of human habitation a small but significant number end up living adjacent to industrial sites, within small coastal forest scrub lands and adjacent to busy ports. The spectacle of a lion walking along a beach or being seen swimming in the sea is, despite its apparently improbability, a matter of fact.

Reading:

Anon (2016) Lion spotted in Arabian Sea off Gujarat coast, rescued. Pakistan Telegraph (ANI) Sunday 3rd January 2016  http://www.pakistantelegraph.com/index.php/sid/239929847

Anon (2010) Four lions Imported illegally to Karachi. BBC News South East Asia  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12074775

Khan, H.N. and Craig, T. (2015) In North-west Pakistan big cats are more feared than global terrorists, The Guardian Weekly/Washington Post 19th September 2015.
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/19/pakistan-man-eating-leopards-abbottabad

Mulki ,M.A. (2012)A Walk on the Wild Side. The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 29th. http://tribune.com.pk/story/326966/a-walk-on-the-wild-side/

Naqaush, T. (2014) Asiatic lion spotted in AJK national park, DAWN Febraury 5th http://www.dawn.com/news/1085010/asiatic-lion-spotted-in-ajk-national-park

 

 

 

More on the Northern (near) extinctions

The demise of lions from northern regions (above the Sahara) followed a sequence starting in Europe in ancient historical times, central Asia and Egypt and along the North African coast, then a slow shrinkage from the eastern Mediterranean countries.

Small populations of Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) clung on in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan to the end of the 19th Century and some micro populations continued in the latter three countries into the 20th century, but have only remained in the Gir forest in India since that time.

The Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) disappeared from coastal Morocco in regions near the larger human population centres in the 19th century, but survived in remote areas of the High Atlas of Morocco and the Saharan Atlas (north central Algeria) and Aures mountains in northeastern Algeria into the second half of the 20th century.

detailed lion extinctions in North Africa and Middle east to India (Black version 2015)

Reading:

Bartosiewicz, L. (2009) A lion’s share of attention: Archaeoogy and the Historical Record. Acta Archaeologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. DOI: 10.1556/AArch.59.2008.2.2

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

The solitary lion?

credit: http://www.photomaroc.net/image/713-Jbel_hebri_rocher

photo credit: http://www.photomaroc.net/ image/713-Jbel_hebri_rocher

The lion is distinctive in being the only big cat which lives in extended social groups.

The North African ecosystem is
a relatively low energy system (click here) with little food available for carnivores when compared to African savannah or Indian dry forests. Lions
were known to move above the (temporary) snow line in the Atlas Mountains – an even more harsh environment.

This probably explains the reasons for most sightings of Barbary lions in the 18oos and19oos referring to either single animals, pairs, or pairs with cubs; the larger pride structures associated with East Africa are not encountered, and the type of female-dominated family groups which are commonly encountered in India are not described in documented North African sightings.

Some commentators suggest that the behaviour of the Barbary lion was more similar to the Siberian tiger – relatively solitary. There are certainly many examples of single animals being cornered and shot in isolation.

Reading links:

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. (2015) Room to move in? http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/barbarylion/2015/04/22/room-to-move-in/

Insights into late survival & extinction of the Barbary lion

Late sightings of lions in North Africa may seem surprising and certainly some of the stories have oddities about them (Black et al. 2013). What should not be forgotten, however, is how distinguishable a lion is from other similar species in the region – the chances of people mis-identifying a lion are relatively slim.

Even among the most recent sightings of Barbary lions in Morocco and Algeria the variation of circumstances when people see the animal is huge – for example one sighting is a photograph taken while flying over the Atlas mountains, another is lion observed by locals on a bus, whilst several others occur when the animal was shot (Lee et al. 2015).

Assessment of historical sightings by expert panel reveled the reliability of these sightings is generally high, so varied sources can be sensibly used to map out the story of the species’ decline.

Supp1 Figure

Observations of lions in North Africa 1895 – 1960 Grey shading indicates Mediterranean scrub land. Triangular markers indicate lion sightings; (sightings 7–21) in Morocco (western Maghreb) and sightings 133-149 in Algeria (eastern Maghreb). Black circles denote human population centers. Dashed lines indicate national boundaries.

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

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 https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1224

 

 

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).
Article originally posted on by :

https://twilightbeasts.wordpress.com/2014/07/04/to-worship-the-lion/

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.

Reading:

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 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?

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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.