Tag Archives: Atlas Mountains

Dwindling ecology of the Sahara: large animals in decline


A view of the Sahara desert in Algeria – the last Algerian lions survived on the fringes of the Sahara into the 1940s with others surviving in northern coastal forests into the 1950s. (Photo by Florence Devouard)

The Bubal hartebeest is extinct, the dama gazelle and addax survive in only 1% of their former range, and various other hoofed animals from the region are extremely threatened:  the Nubian Ibex clings on in parts of Algeria whilst the Barbary sheep fares a little better.

Of the major predators, the Barbary Lion has certainly been extinct in the wild for 50-60 years (assuming some of its ancestors still survive in a handful  of zoos). The African wild dog no longer inhabits the Sahara desert (and was only present in southern fringes. The Saharan cheetah only inhabits 10 per cent of its former range, surviving largely unnoticed in southern Algeria. Similarly a small leopard population is known to survive in the southern Algerian Sahara, but is lost from 97 percent its historic range.

However there are opportunities for recovery: the scimitar horned oryx is extinct in the wild, but controlled releases in fenced reserves in Tunisia and Chad are looking to re-establish the wild population. Similarly the Addax has been reintroduced in fenced reserves in Morocco and Tunisia. The leopard was thought extinct in the late 1990s, but a small population appears to survive in the Atlas Mountains. Do these examples of experimental reintroductions and relic populations offer hope for wider recovery of North African and Saharan ecosystems?


Anon (2013) Sahara Desert’s large mammals Slipping Into Extinction. Environmental News Service. December 5, 2013 http://ens-newswire.com/2013/12/05/sahara-deserts-large-mammals-slipping-into-extinction/

Busby et al (2009) Genetic analysis of scat reveals leopard (Panthera pardus) and cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in Algeria. Oryx, 43(3), 412–415

Wildlife Conservation Society. “Critically Endangered Cheetahs In Algeria Snapped With Camera Trap.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 February 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090227082603.htm>.

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)


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

Room to move in?

Picture a valley in North Africa, described by Yamaguchi & Haddane (2002):
Forests 02 00777f3 1024“…Between the Middle and High Atlas lies a rocky mountainous area where green oaks dominate the landscape…where the endangered Barbary leopard may still survive… Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus), Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lervia) and wild boars live there, and Cuvier’s gazelles (Gazella cuvieri) and Barbary red deer (Cervus elaphus barbarus) may also be reintroduced…lions may be released into a securely-fenced semi-natural enclosure…to live with minimum human intervention…, releasing them into an open area is out of question… “

In the North African biosphere, the prey biomass densities are much lower than in the savannahs of Sub-Saharan  Africa or the dry forests of western India. The Moroccan Atlas is likely, on average, to be able to support probably less than four lions per 100km2. In the Gir Forest in Gujarat, India, where domestic livestock as a supplementary prey base, the carrying capacity of lions is estimated  at around 15 lions per 100 km2 (Banerjee et al., 2013).

Other comparisons with the higher energy, prey dense  and open landscape of the Gujarat (where lions can leave the forest for surrounding human-dominated areas in times of food shortfalls) show how constrained the landscape in North Africa would be:

  • Gir Forest, Gujarat (1500 km2) – 400 lions
  • Kodinar coastal forest, Gujarat (60 km2) 12+ lions

Translocation of lions in India has been planned for some time. The planned release site in Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary (an area of 900 km2) would involve reintroduction of only 5-8 animals intially (with plans to move 1-2 adult males every 5 years out of the sanctuary). So, even in a relatively large and currently established wildlife habitat with a reasonably dense prey base, only a very small number of lions would be released.

Additional complications of home range size and number of groups would be a major constraint for any lion reintroduction in North Africa. Would North African animals live in large prides as cmomonly encountered on the African savannah, in family groups, or would a single lioness holds resource territory while male coalitions attempt to maximize female groups within their range, as in India? (Black et al., 2013; Yadvendradev et al, 2009)?

Whilst having wild lions back in North Africa is a big dream for some, it has practical limitations. And then there are the significant needs of local people…


Banerjee K, Jhala YV, Chauhan KS, Dave CV (2013) Living with Lions: The Economics of Coexistence in the Gir Forests, India. PLoS ONE 8(1): e49457. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049457

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

Linares, J.C.,  Taïqui, L. and  Camarero, J.J. (2011) Increasing Drought Sensitivity and Decline of Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica) in the Moroccan Middle Atlas Forests Forests, 2(3), 777-796; doi:10.3390/f2030777

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

Yadvendradev, V.J. et al. (2009) Home range and habitat preference of female lions (Panthera leo persica) in Gir forests, India. Biodiversity and Conservation.DOI: 10.1007/s10531-009-9648-9

Patterns of lion decline in North Africa

Map of last sitings of barbary lions in 20th Century

The last pockets of habitat where lions were seen in the mid 20th century (1930s – 40s). Well-known populations in central Morocco (Ifrane) and western Algeria (Oran) had already disappeared.

Although there is no definitve survey data for barbary lion presence in North Africa, it is possible to use the information from reported sightings to map the final decline of the species. A quick summary is given in the figure opposite. The mid-grey expanse is the Maghreb ecosystem which was suitable habitat for lions stretching from south-west Morocco through to north-east Tunisia.

The lightest grey patches in central Morocco and north central Algeria indicate where lions had been present up to the 1920s. The darker grey regions indicate where the last micro-populations survived from the 1930s up to the early 1960s (at the latest). The important last populations may well have been completely isolated in North Setif, Biskra and Batna, the Saharan Atlas, southern Morocco on the Saharan fringe, and the southern High Atlas. It is possible that lions traversed the arid zones between the High Atlas, the Saharan fringe and the Saharan Atlas mountains, but the rest of the Algerian populations in the east were probably quite separate after the early 1900s.

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