Tag Archives: leopard

Lions in the Rif of northern Morocco

Leopards were commonly hunted in Morocco well into the 20th century.

A colleague recently visited the national park of Talassemtane in the Rif mountains touring the area with a local guide. The guide told them that these mountains, near Chefchaouen, still retained dense fir forests up until after the second World War and that only shepherds visited the summits because people who lived in the towns and villages of the valleys were afraid of the wild landscape and the possible presence of lions. According to the guide, researchers from the Ceuta, believed that the lion was still present during the 20th century up until the time when mountains of the area had been deforested. Do these observations have any basis in fact?

Certainly there were lions in Morocco up to and including the second world war, although they were seen further south. One was shot in the High Atlas Mountains as late as 1942 in the Tizi‐n‐Tichka pass, and a few years before a pair were seen south of the Atlas ranges on the Saharan fringes, with a further group seen in the same area in the mid 1930s. All of the known 20th century sightings were south of Fez, often in the areas around Ifrane, Azrou, Kenifra and further south around Toubkal or further south again beyond Assa.

The last known sighting in the north (the Rif Mountains and up towards Tetouan) was of a lion killed in 1895. However this does not rule out lions holding on in that region much later in small groups, especially if areas were not visited by people. For comparison, in Algeria several small lion populations were known up to the 1930s and up to the late 1940s, even though many sources suggest the disappeared by the 1890s. The last known sighting in Algeria was in 1956.

Extinction models show that, accounting for the frequency and spacing of sightings, lions could have persisted in both Morocco and Algeria up to the early 1960s (Black et al 2013; Lee et al, 2015). Only the destruction of habitat along the Mediterranean coast during the French-Algerian War suggests that lions might have disappeared earlier, perhaps by 1958.

Of course fear of lions (real or imagined) only tells part of the story of concerns by local people in the Rif Mountains in the 1940s. The other factor which may have concerned people in the area would be leopards. They still persist in Morocco today and would have been an important threat to livestock and, as we know from other regions, also a threat to people.

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

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

Lee TE, Black SA, Fellous A, Yamaguchi N, Angelici FM, Al Hikmani H, Reed JM, Elphick CS, Roberts DL. (2015) Assessing uncertainty in sighting records: an example of the Barbary lion.PeerJ 3:e1224 https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1224

Schnitzler, A.E. (2011) Past and Present Distribution of the North African-Asian lion subgroup: a review. mammal Review, 41, 3.

Rural, sub-urban & urban cats: understanding unintended impacts in the dynamics of big cat conservation

Alley cat by Nayan Khanolkar

A leopard ghosts through an alley in a suburb of Mumbai bordering Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Leopards often enter the streets at night, which can lead to conflict with humans. This outstanding photo taken by India’s Nayan Khanolkar, was Urban category winner in the Natural History Museum’s 2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Leopards have been shown to shift territories in areas where tiger conservation in protected areas has allowed the larger species to dominate a habitat. This means that leopards, a highly adaptable species, are pushed into rural and urban areas. Inevitably, this brings them into conflict with people.

Although leopards may adapt and co-habit with tigers and people, depending on the prey-base available to all three species, leopards themselves are the underdogs in these interactions. There is some evidence that leopards adapt with nocturnal dispersal into human landscapes (to avoid contact with the humans already living there). The photograph above is an illustration of this sort of behaviour (other insights in this short clip )

It appears that leopards avoid tigers in space, but humans in time and these differences in behaviour have implications for managing conservation in areas where human-dominated landscapes border leopard and tiger territories.


Further reading:

Carter, N., Jasny, M., Gurung, B. and Liu J. (2015) Impacts of people and tigers on leopard spatiotemporal activity patterns in a global biodiversity hotspot. Global Ecology and Conservation 3(1): 149:162.  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989414000833

Nichols, S. (2014) Conservation targeting tigers pushes leopards to change. Michigan State University http://csis.msu.edu/news/conservation-tigers-pushes-leopard-change





Leopards hang on in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq

Leopard killed at Cinar Turkey in 2013

Leopard killed at Çınar, Diyarbakır-Turkey in 2013 (Avgan et al 2016)

The Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor) is listed as “endangered” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The bulk of the remaining population is in Iran, with the animal historically in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan and Armenia. The status of leopards in Iraq and south-eastern Turkey has been unclear for decades and there has been no evidence of a reproducing population reported outside Iran.

Recent decades have seen on-going armed conflicts in important parts of the potential leopard distribution range, particularly the Zagros Mountain range in Iraq and Turkey, so no studies have been conducted to prove the presence (or absence) of the species from that range. Militarised zones such as this can also offer opportunities for otherwise persecuted rare species to persist relatively unmolested by human activities and less affected by landscape use such as agriculture, pastoralism and resource off-take.

Avgan et al (2016) report 10 confirmed and 2 unconfirmed leopard records between 2001 and 2014 from northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey – all were males, which could have been long-range dispersers from Iran (over 500km away). However, the long distances between these records and the nearest known breeding populations in Iran suggests to Avgan and colleagues that a so far unnoticed reproducing population may occur along the north-western part of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran, northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey.



Avgan, B.,  Raza, H.,  Barzani, M. & Breitenmoser, U. (2016) Do recent leopard Panthera pardus records from northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey reveal an unknown population nucleus in the region?, Zoology in the Middle East, 62:2, 95-104, DOI: 10.1080/09397140.2016.1173904  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09397140.2016.1173904

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>.

Human leopard conflict – a classic lose-lose situation

There have been an increasing number of leopard-human conflicts in recent years across India, possibly due to increasing human land-use encroaching onto leopard habitat. The same is true for other big cat species across the globe. Leopard attacks have been recently reported in Turkey as one example. Few places in the world experience large human population densities alongside major predators as India and Bangladesh. In these areas conflict includes leopard attacks on humans, leopard attacks on livestock, or people attacking leopards (usually retribution).

However, killing of big cats is involved complex motivatioal factors on the part of the people prepard to carry out such an attack (Inskip et al 2014).

Attacks by animals on humans are the most rare and circumstances vary; for example, when natural prey populations are unusually low in times of drought; when an injured animal seeks ‘easier’ prey; when someone has  an unfortunate encounter with an animal traversing a human-dominted landscape; or a person’s unexpected encounter at close quarters in the wild. Attacks on livestock can be limited with appropriate security, but are difficult to avoid. The most questinoable area of conflict is human retribution, because it involves a high degree of risks to people. Human injury in such circumstances are common.

People need to better understand predator behaviour to avoid these situations. For example, most retribution attacks would be better managed by letting the animal escape (its most preferred option) without the need for contact.

Further Reading:

Anon (2013) Shepherd kills first Anatolian leopard sighted in Turkey for years. Daily News. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/shepherd-kills-first-anatolian-leopard-sighted-in-turkey-for-years.aspx?PageID=238&NID=57317&NewsCatID=378

Inskip C. and Zimmerman, A. (2009) Human-felid conflict: a review of patterns and priorities worldwide, Oryx, 43(1), 18–3

Inskip C., FahadZ., Tulley, R., Roberts, T and MacMillan D.(2014) Understanding carnivore killing behaviour: Exploring the motivations for tiger killing in the Sundarbans, Bangladesh. Biological Conservation 180: 42–50

Khandal, D. (2012)  Human-Leopard Conflict, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Conservation India, 30th March 2012. 

Would a big cat species be able to survive in North Africa today?

A significant argument against reintroduction of lions into North Africa is that with the combination of deforestation, desertification and impacts on landscapes, plus the continued ingress of human communities, livestock and infrastructure into formerly wild areas, there is little space for a large carnivore in the region.

However the experience with lions in India is that the animals can be quite resourceful in surviving in a region which is relatively heavily populated. In Gujarat, India the human population is 310/km2 (800/sq mi). In Algeria this is 16/km2, but it should be noted that most of the land area is desert. In Tunisia there is proportionally less desert and the human density is 70/km2. In Morocco it is 74/km2.(World bank).

However larger cats still appear to hang on (just) – indeed the leopard may still survive in the Atlas mountains, although last seen in the late 1990s. A much smaller feline, the serval has been recently spotted in the Atlas for the first time. Most of the other species keep to remote Saharan areas.

In the southern fringes of the region where the Saharan and the Sahel link to sub-saharan Africa, several cat species are present, even if in low numbers. Scat analysis by scientists working in southern Algeria identified continued presence of leopard. Several cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) were shot during the early 1990s in southern Morocco and Cuzin (2003) suggested although  a few individuals could survive (less than 20), they are most likely extinct. Recent camera trapping in southern Algeria (covering an area of 2,800 square kilometres) the first systematic survey across the central Sahara identified four individual cheetahs.

The first camera trap footage showing a cheetah in southern Algeria in . Credit: Farid Belbachir/ZSL/OPNA; courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society (2009)


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

Première nationale: un serval photographié dans le moyen Atlas http://ecologie.ma/premiere-nationale-un-serval-photographie-dans-le-moyen-atlas/ (photo: Salim Meghni)

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>.

World Bank http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.POP.DNST accessed October 2014.

Large carnivores of North Africa

north african carnivores

Only the leopard still survives in North Africa, although its presence has been very rarely encountered since the 1990s

Perhaps just a few hundred years ago (and even as late as the 1860s by some reports) North Africa was still home to three large predators, the Barbary lion, the Barbary leopard and the Atlas bear.

The Maghreb of North Africa (i.e. the area north of the Sahara, up to the Mediterranean coastline westwards from Libya, through Tunisia, Algeria along to the Atlantic coastline of Morocco) boasts a diverse range of species packed into ecosystems ranging from Mediterranean coastal scrub, juniper steppe, oak and cedar forest, conifer forest. In addition there are high altitude montane landscapes, semi-arid regions and desert. The major carnivores of the Maghreb preyed on a variety of species including the wild boar, barbary sheep, red deer, gazelles, addax, scimitar horned oryx, bubal hartebeest, domestic livestock (goats, sheep, cows, horses and camels) as well as smaller animals from barbary apes, to rodents, reptiles, birds and insects. The closest comparison to the historic landscape would perhaps be present day western India and (perhaps) Pakistan, still home leopard, bear and lion.

The most significant change which has impacted upon the decline of large carnivores is the transformation of the Maghreb landscape  in recent decades through land use change, desertification and increased human habitation. Many of the wild prey species were hunted out during the 19th century; only wild boar remain in any significant numbers. although other ungulates still persist. By the early 20th century it appears that remaining Barbary lions became more reliant on hunting livestock, so more persecution from humans followed until its eventual, final extirpation.


Naquash, T. (2014) Asiatic lion spotted inAJK national park, Dawn News, 5 February. http://www.dawn.com/news/1085010

Hamdinea, Watik; Thévenotb, Michel; Michaux, Jacques (1998). “Histoire récente de l’ours brun au Maghreb“. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences 321 (7): 565–570. doi:10.1016/S0764-4469(98)80458-7

Nawaz, M.A. (2007) Status of the Brown Bear in Pakistan. Ursus 18(1): 89-100

Slimani, H. and Aidoud, A. (2002) Desertification in the Maghreb: A Case Study of an Algerian High-Plain Steppe. in Environmental Challenges in the Mediterranean 2000–2050. Proceedings of the NATO Advanced Research Workshop on Environmental Challenges in the Mediterranean 2000–2050 Madrid, Spain 2–5 October. pp 93-108 DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-0973-7_6.