Tag Archives: Extinction

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>.

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.


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.

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