Category Archives: P. leo leo

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.



Bauer, H., Packer, C., Funston, P.F., Henschel, P. & Nowell, K. 2016. Panthera leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15951A97162455.

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.



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

The solitary lion?


photo credit: 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?

Spot the ‘wannabees’: are they Barbaries?

There are plenty of animals in zoos and private collections which the proprietors claim to be ‘barbary lions’. In the early 1970s during work at Rabat Zoo, Leyhausen and Hemmer set out a list of characteristics to sift out animals with possibly Barbary lion ancestry using the following criteria:

Male Indian Lion before and after!

A captive male Indian lion (P.l. persica) grows a luxuriant dark mane in Berlin zoo (top), whilst his wild counterpart has a much more modest offer (photos N Yamaguchi)

1. longer, shaggy fur
2. huge mane (head to belly)
3. mane darker to the rear
4. a greyish colour to coat
6. well-developed tail tuft

5. long hair ( & juvenile )
(neck/throat/front legs/belly)
7. high crown (so a straight line from nose to top of head)
8. rounded cheek and narrow muzzle
9. concave profile to front of skull
10.prominent anterior edge of the pelvis

11. pale yolk yellow iris  (not dark yellow or olive)
12. narrow post-orbital constriction of skull

Many observers distill this list down to the first three items – the shaggy fur, mane size and mane colour.

Unfortunately these three characteristics are affected by climatic considerations. If you put a lion in a colder climate it grows a shaggier mane. This means that shaggy lions in zoos in Europe and North America are no more likely to be of  Barbary ancestory than anywhere else.


Further Reading:

Patterson, B.D., Kays, R.W., Kasiki, S.M. and Sebestyen, V.M. (2006) Developmental effects of climate on the lion’s mane (Panther leo). Journal of Mammology, 82(2): 193-200

Yamaguchi, Nobuyuki; Cooper, Alan; Werdelin, Lars; MacDonald, David W. (2004). “Evolution of the mane and group-living in the lion (Panthera leo): a review”. Journal of Zoology 263 (4): 329.

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


Big shaggy beast & other myths

Contemporary descriptions of the fabled Barbary Lion tend to emphasise the size, hairiness and ferocity of the sub-species. It would seem that these views are a mix of ancient historical accounts (for example use of the lions in the Roman Coliseum Games), descriptions of the animals as ‘large maned’ and perhaps some exaggerated hunting records.

Scientific accounts give a more sober view. Both Guggisberg (1963) and Hemmer (1978) describe the animal as a medium sized lion. However it did perhaps have a thickset build, emphasised  by a relatively short leg length and deep body when compared with lions on the African savannah. These features may have been an adaptation to a mountainous habitat, with a different mix of prey species and are reflected in some of the artistic images of the animal.

Arab Courier taxidermyOne of the most striking depictions is the Arab Courier taxidermy by Jules Verreaux, arguably the most spectacular (and at one time controversial) taxidermy ever created and which is now housed in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg. This diorama includes two mounted lions thought to be of North African origin (but not yet genetically tested), collected as wild shot individuals in the mid 1800s, certainly no later than its creation in 1867 for the Paris Exposition. Interestingly the attack on the camel is by a pair – male and female, suggesting, if collected together, they were both sexually mature adults (however dozens of barbary lions were shot by French colonial hunters in Algeria around this period, so we cannot be sure that they are a true pair).

The ferocity of the attack is evident in the diorama, but interestingly, both animals are of relatively modest size. The medium sized animals described by science, perhaps?


Further Reading:

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

Hemmer H. (1978) Grundlagen und derzeitiger Stand des Zuchtprogrammes zur Rückerhaltung des Berberlöwen (Panthera leo leo). In: Seifurt S, Müller P, editors. Congress Report, 1st International Symposium on the Management and Breeding of the Tiger, 11th and 12th October 1978 in Leipzig, Abb. 1. Zoological Garden. Leipzig: International Tiger Studbook. 65–72.

Yamaguchi N, Haddane B. (2002) The North African Barbary lion and the Atlas Lion Project. International Zoo News 49 (321): 465-481.