Tag Archives: lion

Lions in Pakistan – wild or released – implications?

The last of lion killed in the regions of Pakistan was shot in 1842 near Kot Diji in Sindh.

However, with conserved population of the species (hosted by the Gir Forest in Gujarat, India) now expanding to the south and west, the possibility of lions leaving their protected areas and eventually expanding their range north or west into Pakistan is a possibility.


Recent social media alludes to active trade in lion cubs

There are even hints that lions have already moved into the Pakistani countryside bordering India (Naqaush, 2014).

Is another explanation possible? Might captive animals be  released in remote areas and then been seen and considered ‘wild’ specimens?

Recent social media posts allude to an active trade in cubs. When cubs become adults they become a new proposition. What if a collector or breeder ends up with too many males or an incompatible pair? Where do these captive lions come from? India is unlikley, africa, or african-origin captive history is more likely. WHat if those ex-captives hybridise with the wild asiatic lion?

The local countryside might, to an unwise but disgruntled owner, seem a good place to make unwanted animals ‘disappear’…for lion conservation it could be a whole new problem.


Mulki , M.A. (2012)A Walk on the Wild Side. The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 29th. http://tribune.com.pk/story/326966/a-walk-on-the-wild-side/

Naqaush, T. (2014) Asiatic lion spotted in AJK national park, DAWN Febraury 5thhttp://www.dawn.com/news/1085010/asiatic-lion-spotted-in-ajk-national-park

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.

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>.

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


Lions in Pakistan or on the shores of the Arabian sea?

Lions survived in the territories of Pakistan up until the mid 1800s, the last of them believed to be killed in 1842 near Kot Diji in Sindh, so its presence there is essentially ancient history.

However there have been recent rumours of lions being spotted in a national park of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, with observers suggesting that these are animals migrating from India. However the lion stronghold of  Gujarat in India (particularly the Gir Forest and the Arabian coastal strip) are hundreds of miles south. These unusual  sightings may relate to mis-identification of other animals (such as leopards) or, more speculatively, released animals from clandestine captive collections (the latter has been suggested for leopard sightings in Mediterranean western Turkey in the late 20th Century).

On the rocks in a Gujarat port – ready to take a swim. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7D6G-AhSts

There have been incidents of illegal trade in live African lions into Pakistan in the recent past; how do you get rid of illegal lions? Could that be part of the explanation? In addition of course there are a number of zoos in Pakistan which have captive Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica) in their animal collections, although these rare specimens would most likely be kept properly secure. Nevertheless the fact that lions are present in the peninsular of north-western India raises some interesting sightings. Animals from the Gir forest (landlocked by extensive tracts of agricultural land) sometimes have to disperse.

By moving across agricultural landscapes and areas of human habitation a small but significant number end up living adjacent to industrial sites, within small coastal forest scrub lands and adjacent to busy ports. The spectacle of a lion walking along a beach or being seen swimming in the sea is, despite its apparently improbability, a matter of fact.


Anon (2016) Lion spotted in Arabian Sea off Gujarat coast, rescued. Pakistan Telegraph (ANI) Sunday 3rd January 2016  http://www.pakistantelegraph.com/index.php/sid/239929847

Anon (2010) Four lions Imported illegally to Karachi. BBC News South East Asia  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12074775

Khan, H.N. and Craig, T. (2015) In North-west Pakistan big cats are more feared than global terrorists, The Guardian Weekly/Washington Post 19th September 2015.

Mulki ,M.A. (2012)A Walk on the Wild Side. The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 29th. http://tribune.com.pk/story/326966/a-walk-on-the-wild-side/

Naqaush, T. (2014) Asiatic lion spotted in AJK national park, DAWN Febraury 5th http://www.dawn.com/news/1085010/asiatic-lion-spotted-in-ajk-national-park




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/

Was the lion ever native to India?

lion india ashokaIn 2013 a book was published by Valmik Thapar which presented the idea that both the cheetah and the lion were most probably non-native species in India, introduced as captive animals from Africa or Central Asia, trained or used for Royal entertainment in the many substantial parks across the subcontinent and, with the demise of the various imperial and local royal dynasties between the 1200s and the mid 20th century, feral animals had become established as wild populations, hence the species now being seen as native (and rare – the lion, or extinct  -the cheetah).

This is an intriguing idea. The basis for these ideas runs from the lack of early accounts of either lion or cheetah in the region, but the subsequent rise of the follwing occurences in the time since Alexander the Great:

  • An active series of royal hunting parks and hunitng as a royal passtime with the use of lions and cheetahs being particlualry culturally important
  • Animals were exported to India from Central Europe and the middle east and also from Africa
  • The genetics of Indian lions show inbreeding suggesting an originally tiny population (escapee captive animals)
  • The genetics of captive Asiatic Lions (in the USA) shows traits of African subspecies.
  • Indian lions are ‘tame’ relative to their African counterparts (including accounts form North Africa)

Thapar and his co-writers concede that they examine this as naturalists and hitorians, rather than from a deep scientific examination of evidence. But the proposal does raise testable questions:

What are the research implications?

Do we understand the genetics of Indian lions relative to (and as different from) African lions? See recent work by Barnett et al. (2014).

Are all Asiatic lions Asiatic-African hybrids? This was the case in American Zoo animals in the 1980s – but those zoos may have mismanaged Asiatic-African pairings in captivity earlier in the 20th century.

What are the conservation implications?

Should Asiatic lions still be conserved? – YES – even if they are non-native to India, they are the last remnants of the lions which once ranged from Egypt to India (i.e. to the banks of the Indus river).

Might Indian lions be close relatives of Barbary Lions? – This is an intriguing possibility (see Barnett et al. 2014).

What about an Indian – Moroccan Royal lions Hybrid? – if Indian lions are ‘tame’ (which is NOT the case with many captive Moroccan Royal lions), then you could out-breed ‘tameness’ and retain an authentic the asiatic (northern) subspecies of lion. Similalry Asiatic lioins could eb used to retain or ‘clean up’ the Moroccan lions if they are wshown to be Barbary/subSaharan hybrids.


There is little reason to accept Thapar’s hypotheses. Improvements in genetic analysis will enable us to better understand lion phylogeny in due course. In the meantime, precaution suggests continued efforts in Indian lion conservation are strongly recommended.



Anon (2014) New Genetic Study Reconstructs Distribution History of Lion. Sci-News.com http://www.sci-news.com/genetics/science-distribution-lion-01892.html

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

Thapar V., Thapar R., and Ansari Y. (2013) Exotic Aliens: the lion and cheetah in India. Aleph, India.


Insights into late survival & extinction of the Barbary lion

Late sightings of lions in North Africa may seem surprising and certainly some of the stories have oddities about them (Black et al. 2013). What should not be forgotten, however, is how distinguishable a lion is from other similar species in the region – the chances of people mis-identifying a lion are relatively slim.

Even among the most recent sightings of Barbary lions in Morocco and Algeria the variation of circumstances when people see the animal is huge – for example one sighting is a photograph taken while flying over the Atlas mountains, another is lion observed by locals on a bus, whilst several others occur when the animal was shot (Lee et al. 2015).

Assessment of historical sightings by expert panel reveled the reliability of these sightings is generally high, so varied sources can be sensibly used to map out the story of the species’ decline.

Supp1 Figure

Observations of lions in North Africa 1895 – 1960 Grey shading indicates Mediterranean scrub land. Triangular markers indicate lion sightings; (sightings 7–21) in Morocco (western Maghreb) and sightings 133-149 in Algeria (eastern Maghreb). Black circles denote human population centers. Dashed lines indicate national boundaries.

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

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



The sixth vision: could the former northern range become a refuge for Panthera leo?

One perspective on Barbary lion and North Africa revolves around the ‘romantic’ notion of reintroducing this charismatic species back into its former range. A second perspective is more pragmatic and equally visionary; using the species as a focus for driving the restoration of habitats in the region. A third vision, more pragmatic perhaps, would be to drive a tourist industry for economic benefit. A fourth vision is to preserve genetic diversity in Panthera leo or even selectively ‘breeding-back’ the Barbary lion, by retaining the genes held by lions from the Moroccan Royal collection (although this could still be achieved in captivity). A fifth vision would see North Africa developed as a new enclave for Panthera leo persica (currently only extant in India) – from the wild population most closely related to the Barbary lion.

Could there be a sixth vision – to provide an enclave for Panthera leo as climate change disrupts the suitability of existing habitats south of the Sahara? A recent paper shows the risk of decline in current habitats suitable for lions (Peterson et al 2014). Up in the northern strip of Africa, along the Mediterranean coast there are potentially some small enclaves of habitat. Would it be prudent to make these a refuge for lions?

If so, which lions would we put there? What sort of ecosystem should develop as a result (prey, landscape, human use)? Which might be the best locations? What controls might be needed to protect humans, livestock and lions?

Peterson and Radocy Climnate change predictions


Peterson A.T., Radocy, T., Hall, E., Peterhans, J.C.K., and Celesia, G.G. (2014) The potential distribution of the Vulnerable African lion Pathera leo in the face of changing global climate. Oryx 06/2014; 48(04):1-10. DOI:10.1017/S0030605312000919

To worship the lion

Sketch of a pride of Cave lions. Note the lack of manes on the big standing male. Art by Tabitha Paterson (@TabithaPaterson)

Sketch of a pride of Cave lions. Note the lack of manes on the big standing male. Art by Tabitha Paterson (@TabithaPaterson)

We think of lions, today, as African animals. This is mostly true. However, there is still a tiny refugium of non-African lions, isolated in the Kathiawar peninsula of India, and centred on the Gir forest reserve. Here, 400 or so Asian lions eke out an existence, beset on all sides by people and farmland, the last remnants of an empire that once spread from Tunisia via Turkey to the Tigris and beyond.  But, even this is only a fraction of the range that lions once held.

During the Pleistocene, highly differentiated lion subspecies (or perhaps separate species, opinion is divided) roamed from Spain to Siberia, through the steppes of Beringia, and into the Americas as far south as Mexico. Their fossils are surprisingly common in Britain too. In fact, excavation of the site of Trafalgar square uncovered a number of lion fossils where now their equally impressive bronze cousins lie today. The cave lion (Panthera spelaea) occupied all of Eurasia and Beringia. The closely related American lion (Panthera atrox) was found over the contiguous lower 48 states.

Range of lions since the Pleistocene. Image by Ross Barnett

Range of lions since the Pleistocene. Image by Ross Barnett

The cave lion is, and was, a pretty special felid. Considerably larger than modern lions, it was the apex predator of the Pleistocene food web (with perhaps some competition from Homotherium).  As it lived in Europe at the same time as anatomically modern humans, it has been depicted in numerous pieces of parietal and portable art. The cave walls of Chauvet and Lascaux contain brilliantly realistic images of this extinct animal, showing that it lived in prides, and that males were maneless. We know this because in a few images, the adult male scrotum is obvious, and the mane is absent.

Pride of cave lions from Chauvet cave. Public domain image.

Pride of cave lions from Chauvet cave. Public domain image.

It also seems that early Europeans had some kind of cultural affinity for the cave lion. One of the most amazing pieces of art to come from this period, exquisitely crafted from mammoth ivory, shows a half-lion, half-human chimera. This löwenmensch, as it is known in german, testifies to some kind of ritual or mythic importance for the cave lion in the culture of the time. Like the venus figurines, löwenmensch, have been found at multiple sites, showing that the idea was not just an isolated one but shared amongst communities.

Löwenmensch from Hohlenstein-Stadel. Image by Dagmar Hollmann via Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Löwenmensch from Hohlenstein-Stadel. Image by Dagmar Hollmann via Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Further reading:

Nice piece by the Telegraph, featuring our very own Ross Barnett: ‘Super-sized lions’ roamed UK in Ice Age.

Barnett, R., et al. (2014), ‘Revealing the maternal deomgraphic history of Panthera leo using ancient DNA and a spatially explicit genealogical analysis’, BMC Evolutionary Biology, 14, 70. [Full Article]

Barnett, R., et al. (2009), ‘Phylogeography of lions (Panthera leo ssp.) reveals three distinct taxa and late Pleistocene reduction in genetic diversity’, Molecular Ecology, 18 (8), 1668-77. [Abstract]

Conard, N. J. (2003), ‘Palaeolithic ivory sculptures from southwestern Germany and the origins of figurative art’, Nature, 426 (6968), 830-32. [Abstract]

Franks, J. W. (1960), ‘Interglacial deposits at Trafalgar Square’, The New Phytologist, 59, 145-150Montellano-Ballesteros, M. and Carbot-Chanona, G. (2009), ‘Panthera leo atrox (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) in Chiapas, Mexico’, The Southwestern Naturalist, 54 (2), 217-22. [Abstract]

Montellano-Ballesteros, M., and G. Carbot-Chanona (2009). ‘Panthera Leo Atrox (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) in Chiapas, Mexico.’ The Southwestern Naturalist 54, no. 2 , 217-22. [Abstract]

Packer, C. and Clotte, J. (2000), ‘When Lions Ruled France’, Natural History, 109, 52-57. [Full Article]


Posted on BarbaryLion with thanks to Ross Barnett and colleagues at TwilightBeasts: Jan Freedman (@janfreedman), Tabitha Paterson (@TabithaPaterson), and Rena Maguire (@justrena).
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