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.


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

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.


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

Food for lions: diet in the Atlas mountains

Wild boar were certainly a main prey species for lions in the Atlas Mountains, but also red deer (Barbary deer) and barbary sheep, plus oryx, addax and small gazelles(Cuvier’s gazelle, Dorcas gazelle, Dama gazelle).

As human inhabitants became more numerous the temptation for predating livestock grew.  Lions were a threat to the mixed flocks (sheep and goats) which were kept in mountainous areas by pastoralists. Flocks would not be left overnight  near wooded areas or places known to be inhabited by predators, and would be moved closer to villages or to open ground at least.

Flocks up in the higher ground that would stay out but if the herder was wary they would put up rough stockades of thorn bushes as protection from leopards, jackals and hyenas. This appears likely because the same type of temporary construction was used by local guides taking people travelling through the mountains if the had to stay overnight in a remote areas in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Cattle were also vulnerable and many accounts mention their demise at the jaws of lions. Additionally on the domestic front were pack animals, the camels and mules used by travellers and pastoralists.

It would not be unusual for a rough stone shed or shelter to be made near regular pastures (especially in cattle pastures) for farmers to stay in overnight – more common in lowlands hills though. If a flock had been attacked previously, the farmer would stay in the hope the visiting predator would venture in again and could be shot. There are certainly accounts of this ‘stake out’ approach in Tunisia and Algeria in the 1800s.


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 2-16, Article ID 6901892 9 pages

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

Lion in Gabon may be the last of his kind…

In 2016 a camera trap caught the presence of a male lion in Gabon, in the Plateaux Batéké National Park (PBNP) in southeast Gabon – the first seen in the country for 20 years.

IImage result for lion hiddent was thought that no free-ranging lions were left in Gabon to the point that lions were listed as locally extinct in Gabon, at a regional workshop held to define the current status and conservation strategies for the lion in West and Central Africa (IUCN 2006). One notable outcome of this consensus on the presence of lions is that the species is also no longer considered by national legislation in Gabon.

One question with the Gabon animal was where had it come from? How could this individual –  a large, easily recognisable and generally visible species – have appeared in the area. Was it locally present or had it arrived from outside Gabon?

Fortunately some hair samples were collected from the vicinity when the camera trap sighting was made and these have been made available to researchers examining genetic origins of lion populations. The subsequent genetic study just recently published by Barnett et al (2018) which has revealed that indeed the animal is related to the historic population of the Batéké region of Gabon. As a long lived species, this animal has been able to survive persecution, but this single male may be the very last individual from that population.

The whole episode reminds us of a few stark realities which conservation planners, species specialist groups and legislators need to be kept aware of in their deliberations and decisions.

  1. Lions are long lived and can to some degree adapt to solitary (or non-pride) lifestyles, including nocturnal habits which enable them to evade detection for long periods
  2. One-off sightings (or other evidence such as tracks or calls) of individual animals should not be discounted even if considered unlikely
  3. The Precautionary Principle should be applied when considering declarations of extirpation, down-listing or de-categorising of species either locally or globally.
  4. Despite all our wisdom, rationality, and understanding of probability, if a species seeks to survive, adapt and find means to do so (that may not make sense to us as humans), it will.

Barbary lions survived in Morocco for over twenty years beyond when they were commonly thought extinct. They also survived in Algeria for perhaps 60 years longer than once thought. Now, nearly 100 years later, and with 21st century technology and conservation biologists and wildflife professionals working across Africa, we find lions in Gabon surviving for 20 years unnoticed. Other examples of the species’ survival undetected for more than a decade include hidden populations in Ghana where presence is still under debate (Angelici and Rossi 2017).

The real question is  – will we use this knowledge to shape our strategies and actions to save a species which has seen perhaps a 50% population decline in the past decade?


Angelici, 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

Barnett, R., Sinding, MH.S., Vieira, F.G. et al. 92018)  No longer locally extinct? Tracing the origins of a lion (Panthera leo) living in GabonConserv Genet .

Hedwig D, Kienast I, Bonnet M, Curran B, Courage A, Boesch C, Kühl H, King T (2017) A camera trap assessment of the forest mammal community within the transitional savanna-forest mosaic of the Batéké Plateau National Park, Gabon. Afr J Ecol (in review)

Saul H. (2016) Male lion filmed roaming in West African nation of Gabon for the first time in 20 years. The Independent



Major predators in the modern world?…as now wolves roam across every country in mainland Europe…

If there was ever a serious consideration of reintroducing wolves into Britain, it is worth reflecting on the lessons of wolf migration in Europe.

News has come in this New Year that farmers in Belgium have been alerted to evidence that  a female wolf originally from eastern Germany that has been making a pioneering trek through the Netherlands and into the northern Flanders region.

This confirms  a return of the predator to every mainland country in Europe, turning back decades of persecution. Wolves have recently migrated into Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Denmark – the latter after a 200 year absence. even in Denmark, where there is a rather pragmatic acceptance of wolves, the wolf debate is value driven rather than about concrete problems based in reality. Their populations have abundant roe deer available as prey and few issues arise.

However our response need be not one of horror, shock or fear. The success and impact of wolf populations will be a measure of how we, as humans, react (or overreact) to the presence of these animals. In the UK relative hysteria arises when the singularly  smaller and more wary lynx escapes a zoo and spends  a few days in the local countryside.

As ever conservation is first and foremost about cultural norms and political preference. A country’s viewpoint may be as much at odds with another for the most intangible reasons. Attitudes in the UK towards predation by pet cats versus attitudes towards the same pet cats in Australia or the United States, for example.

The question for conservationist in the UK should really aim to understand before rewilding with major predators is not ‘why’ but rather “why not?”



Anon (2017) lynx escapes from animal park in Wales. BBC News. on line

Barkham, P. (2017) Denmark gets its first wild wolf pack in 200 years. Guardian Environment. on line

Boffey, D (2018) Pioneering wolf becomes first sighted in Belgium for a century. Guardian Environment. on line


Leopard and Tiger spatial use implications for conservation

Conservation of wildlife is often a question of trade-offs. In most cases, including the in conservation of large carnivores the trade-off is between human needs and big cat needs. In these cases a point of tolerance by both parties is reached, relating to economics, security, retaliatory action and translocation of dangerous animals.

However it has been noted that where tiger conservation has been successful and tiger numbers have increased, there has been a knock-on reduction in leopard presence. Leopards will generally retreat from areas where tigers dominate. This is a classic shift in niche breadth as a function of interspecific social dominance (Morse 1974). Clearly a tiger is an apex predator and will take out (and prey on) leopards.  These two big cats differ in the size of prey killed, use of vegetation types, and in activity periods (Seidensticker, 1976).

In the absence of the tiger, the leopards can exist on prey which is similar in structure and less abundant than required by tiger. In the presence of tiger, leopards have been shown to shift to areas where the tiger does not occur frequently.

Also some evidence suggests that leopards are forced into predation of small livestock (which tigers do not do) when habitats and prey bases are shared (Bhattarai & Kindlmann, 2012), which raises conflict between cats and humans once again.

This has implications in areas where leopards themselves are under threat, the amur leopard in the Russian Far East being a good example.

Dramatic footage captures a tiger and a leopard in a brutal battle to the death… just a few feet from shocked tourists.

Further information:

Bhattarai, B. P., & Kindlmann, P. (2012). Interactions between Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris) and leopard (Panthera pardus): implications for their conservation. Biodiversity and conservation, 21(8), 2075-2094.
Carter et al (2015) Impacts of people and tigers on leopard spatiotemporal activity patterns in a global biodiversity hotspot. Global Ecology and Conservation, 3 910: 149-162.
Morse, D. H. (1974) Niche breadth as a function of social dominance. Am. Nat. 108: 818-830.
Seidensticker, J. (1976) On the ecological separation between tigers and leopards. Biotropica, 225-234.

Nicols, S. (2015) Conservation targeting tigers pushes leopards to change. Michigan State University. centre for Systems Integration and Sustainability

Escalation of Human-Wildlife Conflict is never the answer

This dramatic, duisturbing photograph sees local people in Bengal trying to dissuade wild elephants with firecrackers and burning balls of tar. Whilst elephants are highly destructive, dangerous, unpredictable, this type of conflict is unlikely to be productive.

An adult elephant will not be stopped, even by elephant proof fencing. As human land-use encroaches on traditional habitats and pathways of wild animals these conflict increase in frequency. Deterrents such as fencing, chilli ropes have an effect, but also the education of local people on how to respond to elephant encroachment.

A further challenge is to get officials, developers and local people to understand how to reduce the disruption of habitats by building in unsuitable areas.

An adult elephant and a calf on fire flee a crowd of people: The picture was taken by Biplab Hazra, a wildlife photographer from West Bengal.

© Biplab Hazra/Sanctuary Asia/Facebook The picture was taken by Biplab Hazra, a photographer from West Bengal.

Conflict causes escalation of consequences, for people, for wildlife or both.

Elsewhere in Assam, efforts by conservationists to give early warning to local crop producers when elephant herds are drawing near allows families and communities to remove crops from fields before the mammals encroach on the agricultural landscape. Whilst this arrangement might not be optimal, it is an example of the type of tolerance and human cooperation which reduces conflict and removes incentives of elephants to visit landscapes which would otherwise be attractive for foraging.

Other challenges occur with big cats, which can easily pass unnoticed in urban landscapes let alone villages and agricultural areas. this means living with a number of challenges discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Local people chase a leopard in Guwahati, Assam, 2009 (northeast India). The animal was tranquilized by a local wildlife official and relocated. However three people in the village had already been mauled by the big cat.

Further information these images:

Towards a global approach to lion conservation

Lions survive in 25 countries, but the habitats are highly fragmented, even in the strongholds of south eastern Africa. The ecology and breeding biology of the species means that discrete ranges are unlikely to be a long term solution to maintain numbers. This most likely involves seeking solutions where the species comes into contact with human communities and modified habitats. Biology is ‘necessary, but not sufficient‘, to inform and deliver conservation.

Other measures and resources need to be drawn upon if range-wide solutions can be developed. A recent study suggests that a range of measures is necessary to achieve the type of sustainable outcomes needed to support the species.

In addition t this, since lions themselves present threat to other endangered species such as cheetahs, wider systemic understanding of lion habitats and ecology is needed.


Anon (2017) Lion conservation requires effective international cooperation.

Trouwborst, A et al. (2017) International law and lions (Panthera leo): understanding and improving the contribution of wildlife treaties to the conservation and sustainable use of an iconic carnivore, Nature Conservation 21: 83-128 (13 Sep 2017)

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.


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.