Category Archives: P. leo leo

Canine Distemper in Gir lions highlights restricutions of population size and range

See the source imageFrom September 12 and October 2 2018, a total of 23 lions have died in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park due to an outbreak of Canine Distemper, carried by domestic dogs, but known to have previously caused a mass wipeout of lions in East Africa’s Serengeti-Masai Mara ecosystem.

Asiatic lion expert Ravi Chellum summed up the situation: “If you allow the entire population of a species to be concentrated in one place without any populations in other areas as a safeguard to mitigate risk, this kind of scenario is bound to happen.”

Whilst issues with a small founder population are real, in the case of Asiatic lions which dwindled to about 20 animals in the 1930s, the issue is unavoidable. Genetic variation is very low among Asiatic lions with animals to some degree related to any other since they all descended, and this lack of genetic variation makes them vulnerable to the effects of disease.

Chellum has long advocate that these lions should be housed in different geographical areas so that they can develop new adaptation to their geography which can then reflect in their genetic structure. Separated sub-populations also act as a potential buffer to the spread of disease. Despite significant planning and identification of potential areas outside Gujarat, no progress has been achieved.

In June, the government announced that 109 sq km of area in Amreli and Bhavnagar districts of Gujarat would be reserved as a new sanctuary for lions. State politics has dogged plans for relocation of a small sub-population of these animals. Perhaps now is a serious prompt for a rethink on this strategy. India’s lions are the last large wild group of lions of the newly designated subspecies (recommend to the IUCN in 2016), Panthera leo leo, the northern group which ranged from West Africa and northern Africa across the Middle East into South Asia.

No one seriously challenges the cultural and biological importance of lions in Indian ecosystems, so some effort is needed to enable their sustainable conservation as a nationally and regionally important species.

Reading:

Anon (2018) Gujarat lion deaths: What killed 11 big cats? BBC News 25th September 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-45636746

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

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

Chellam, R., Joshua, J., Williams, C.A. & Johnsingh, A.J.T. (1995) Survey of Potential Sites for Reintroduction of Asiatic Lions. Unpublished Report, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, India.

DownToEarth (2018) Those who have endangered the Asiatic Lion’s future, have to be held accountable. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/-those-who-have-endangered-the-asiatic-lion-s-future-have-to-be-held-accountable–61789

Johnsingh, A.J.T. , Goyal, S.P.  and Qureshi, Q. (2007) Preparations for the reintroduction of Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica into Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, Madhya Pradesh, India. Oryx , 41(1), 93–96.

Stop and think – what about lions today?

There are perhaps as few as 20,000 lions left in the wild. When I first started studying lions just over a decade ago we thought there were 40,000. Will this figure halve again over the coming 10 years? For a sobering comparison, when I was a child there were 40,000 tigers in the wild; now only around 4,000. The similarity in the lion figures is startling. Decline is real and fearsome.

A comprehensive set of studies of lion genetics has recommended the IUCN to consider the lion family tree as two subspecies. One is the North/West /Central subspecies, Panthera leo leo (which includes lions in West and Central Africa and India, and the previous, now extinct populations in the Middle East, and of course the extinct Barbary lion of North Africa). The second is Panthera leo melanochaita from South and East Africa (i.e. about 90% the world’s population). All remaining ‘northern’ lion populations are tiny and very vulnerable. The ‘southern’ populations are much larger but many animals are cut off from each other in fenced reserves or fragmented landscapes.

Zoos may have a significant part to play in managing, sustaining and recovering the ‘northern’ subspecies Panthera leo leo. There are around 100 Asiatic (Indian) lions in captivity, but I do not know of a single captive lion from West or Central Africa in any zoo, even in their home countries on the African continent. There are a further 80 captive lions which may be related to the extinct North African Barbary lion. maybe the captive Addis Ababa lions in Ethiopia are linked I some way to this group.

Addis Ababa lion

A lion in Addis Ababa Zoo, Ethiopia

Lions are quite long-lived and can persist undetected for decades. This happened in North Africa, where lions had become almost mythical beasts by the late 1890s, but actually survived in northern Algeria into the late 1950s at a time when Gerry Durrell was founding the zoo in Jersey. I often wonder what Durrell might have done had he known that Barbary lions were still out there in the wild… However, this is not a purely historical issue since in 2016 a lion was caught unexpectedly on a camera trap in Gabon, and later confirmed by DNA evidence to be a survivor of a population thought extinct for 20 years – one of the important Central African relic populations of the ‘northern’ lions Panthera leo leo.

Lions in the Mountains

As lions in North Africa became increasingly persecuted, populations sin the lowlands and coastal forests were eliminated and the population retreated to remoter areas to avoid human contact. Although in parts of Morocco and Algeria lions were not be seen in previously commonly inhabited areas for many decades, the animals were still observed unexpectedly in remoter, less well-explored areas years later.

Lion behaviour in the mountains would be more solitary, somewhat like the Siberian Tiger (A Harland pers.comm) than communal (as per lions in East Africa). However, even under these circumstances  lions tend towards social behaviour (Black et al. 2013), so a pair of animals would more likely stay together than disperse. It also seems, from hunting accounts, that in mountainous areas they would use ‘lairs’ usually caves as a base, so that is quite a peculiarity related to the landscape.

Although snow can persist on the highest peaks, the snowfall in the Atlas Mountains tends to be limited to the January February period and the strength of the African sun means that in general although snow cover will occur, the evaporation of a snowfall is quite fast compared to equivalent altitudes in Europe or North America.

Lions were known to range up to 3500m and footprints were used by hunters to track animals in the snow. If an animal was being pursued it would keep to remoter areas and if that meant the snowline it would stay there (see my point about caves below)and would be less likely to drop into lowlands if there was human activity unless there was prey (e.g. livestock). The animals would use mountain passes to track prey and keep to areas clear of human presence. So a lion in the snow would be somewhat transient – due  to both the passing nature of snowy conditions in the lower altitudes and the lesser need for the lions themselves to be at higher altitudes other than for transit.

Due to lower density of prey in the North African ecosystem (compared to African savannah or open forest) lions tended to be single, in pairs, breeding pairs or breeding pair with juveniles, rather than the expansive prides of southern Africa (Asiatic lions in India have smaller prides but not as small as North African lions). Single animals would often range on their own, certainly single males (of which at least one photograph exists), but there are also records of single females being shot in high mountain passes. The range of a lion in North Africa would have been quite extensive – we see this today in desert dwelling lions in Namibia for example. In northern forests of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria in the 19th century some ranges were predictable to the point that locals would know a path that a lion took – and could tell hunters (N Yamaguchi pers comm). However in the Atlas mountains and southern Morocco, certainly in the 20th century, this was much less predictable as the distances animals travelled was far greater.

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

Yamaguchi, N. and B. Haddane, B. (2002) “The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas lion project,” in International Zoo News, vol. 49, pp. 465–481, 2002

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

 

 

So what’s the big deal about a bunch of zoo lion cubs?

Five lion cubs have recently been shown to the public for the first time with great fanfare at Neuwied zoo in southwestern Germany.

The litter of cubs — three males Baz, Chaka and Sab and two females Jumina and Lin  — were born at the zoo in April 2017,  to six-year-old female Zari (previously from Hannover zoo) and the incumbent male, Schroeder (who was born in Olomouc Zoo in the Czech Republic), who is nearly ten.

So what is the big deal? The zoo presents them as barbary lions – certainly Schroeder and Zari are established on the European zoo studbook for lions descended from the King of Morocco’s collection. Around 300 animals are lsited on the studbook going back to the origninal animals taken form the King’s Palace in the late 1960s and placed in Rabat zoo.

Since there are only a few hundred lions in India and a few hundred in West and Central Africa which represent the northenr subspecies of lion, Panthera leo leo (Bertola et al, 2016; Black 2016). the north african population is no loinger present in the wild, and its most likely remnant are the 100 or so animals in european Collections and in the Mrooccan collection at Rabat. So these five new cubs may yet have an important role to play in lion conservation.

Reading:

Asian Age (2017) German zoo displays rare barbary lion cubs http://www.asianage.com/photo/life/290617/german-zoo-displays-rare-barbary-lion-cubs.html

Associated Press (2017) 5 rare barbary lion cubs go on show in a zoo in Germany

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

Spot the lion habitat

Typical savannah landscape in southern Africa

Lions are commonly associated with the savannah grasslands of southern and southeastern africa. They live in large prides, hunting herds of antelope and other ungulates of the grasslands. However these expansive grasslands are specific habitats to sub-saharan lions of eastern and southeastern Africa Panthera leo melanochaita. These habitats are the heartlands for lions in the modern world.

Unexpected sight of lions in desert dunes, southwest Africa

Dry forest in the Gir, India

Yet lions also survive in quite doverse habitats, such as the desert dunes of Namibia.

This would have been true for the northen subspecies Panthera leo leo in areas of the middle east and North Africa. Camels were known to be tracked by lions on isolated trails in the late 1800s. Animals were reported in the desert firnges of southern Morocco up to the 1930s and were also known in isolated forests and oases in western Algeria,

For  today’s remnant population in India mostly live in the dry forests of the Gir. These forests are less productive in dry years with prey numbers falling under challnging conditions. Some lions have chosen to venture beyond the Gor,, across agirculaural land and into new but limited habotats in the coastal forests and dunes of Gujarat. Smaller populations survive in the forests of central and west Africa, in the deserts of southwestern Africa.

Northern lions also previously roamed the marshes of the middle east, the mountains of North Africa occasionally up above the snowline, down to the coastal forests of the Mediterranean.

Image result for cork forest algeria

Mediterranean cork oak forests would seem to be an unfamiliar habitat for lions.

High Atlas plateau, North Africa. The last lions in Morocco were seen at high altitudes in the 1930s and 1940s.

Reading:

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, 2016. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijeb/2016/6901892/abs/

Yamaguchi, N. and B. Haddane, B. (2002) “The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas lion project,” inInternational Zoo News, vol. 49, pp. 465–481, 2002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here be lions…but not many

A group of 14 Asiatic lions in the Gir forest, Gujarat India

This picture taken in the last stronghold for lions in India, the Gir Forest, depicts approximately 3% of the wild population of Asiatic (Indian) lions and about 0.5 % of all lions from the IUCN soon to be designated northern lion subspecies Panthera leo leo.

Or putting it another way, nearly 0.1% of global population of lions (now suggested by some to be as low as 20,000) which has seen significant decline even in the past decade.

There are about 400-500 lions in India, slowly populating spaces outside the Gir (which is a problem) and potentially some are due to be translocated in small numbers to a new location in Kuno Wildlife Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.

As for the 20,000 global lion population count, well a further sobering sense of reality is needed:

There are maybe only 6 lion populations left in Africa that can by scientific standards be considered to have any future. The number of 20,000 might seem to some to mean that there are still “plenty” of lions, but maybe 8,000 of these are a total added over very many small populations.Africa is a very large continent, and if you add up 20 lions here and 30 lions there it is not difficult to end up with 20,000 overall. The problem is that those small populations will soon disappear, and that the rate of decline is now very serious even in countries that still have a few large populations.

In 2015 the IUCN stated last year that “The Lion population is inferred to have undergone a reduction of approximately 42% over the past 21 years (approximately three Lion generations, 1993-2014)” and estimated that fewer than 20,000 lions remain.

 

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.

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

 

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

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? https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/barbarylion/2015/04/22/room-to-move-in/