Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo), also known as the Nubian or Atlas lion, became extinct or ‘extinct in the wild’ in the 20th century. It used to be found in North Africa from Egypt to Morocco. The last known animal in the wild was shot dead in the year 1922 on the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. This subspecies is believed to have vanished in captivity as well.
It is regarded as the largest and the heaviest of all the lion subspecies with estimated weight of 180 to 270 kilos (400 to 600 lb) for males and 120 to 180 kilos (260 to 400 lb) for females. Many experts do not agree with these weight ranges, as they are highly exaggerated in their opinion.
Barbary lions in captivity and possible surviving individuals
Romans were very fond of Barbary lions. They used them in the Coliseum for battle with Gladiators. In the Middle Ages, the big cats kept in the menagerie at the Tower of London were also Barbary lions. This has been proved by DNA testing on the two well-preserved skulls excavated at the Tower in 1937. They have been radiocarbon dated to 1280-1385 AD and 1420-1480 AD. Dr Nobuyuki Yamaguchi of the Wildlife Conservation Unit at the University of Oxford said the growth of civilizations along the Nile and in Sinai Peninsula by the beginning of the second millennium BC stopped genetic flow, thereby isolating lion populations. These lions survived till 100 years ago in those regions of wilderness in northwestern Africa, which we know today as Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia.
Till 18th century lions were mostly restricted to jungles, but with the affuelance coming to Europe nobles, businessmen and other wealthy people started using these animals for various other purposes. By 19th and the early 20th century Barbary lions were often kept in hotels and circus menageries.
Those which were in the Tower of London were transferred in 1835 on the orders of the Duke of Wellington to London Zoo, which had more humane conditions. “Sultan”, a famous purebred Barbary lion lived in the zoo in 1896.
At present there are several dozens of such cats in captivity believed to be Barbary lions: Beemer, claimed to be a male Barbary is at the Wisconsin Big Cat rescue in Rock Springs. Another is known from Leipzig. It is said that Port Lympne Wild Animal Park has twelve individuals descended from animals owned by the King of Morocco. Eleven specimen believed to be of this subspecies were found in Addis Ababa zoo. They are said to be the descendants of those owned by Emperor Haile Selassie. Addition to these there are several of them in Zion Wildlife Gardens in New Zealand. The belief is that there are about 250 lions in the world.
Mitochondrial DNA research made public in 2006 also supported the distinctness of this subspecies. A unique mtDNA haplotype found to be present in some of those museum specimens thought to be of Barbary descent. This is a good molecular marker for identifying—and excluding—other probable Barbary lions. The research revealed that five samples of lions tested from the famous collection of the King of Morocco are not, according to this norm, maternally of this subspecies. However, another mtDNA research conducted, the same year, revealed that a specimen from Neuwied Zoo (which also originated from the collection of the King of Morocco) is not of sub-Saharan origin according to its mitochondrial lineage and, thus, very likely a descendant of a Barbary lion.
In a major study published in 2008, it was revealed that four “Atlas” lions from Morocco did not show any unique genetic characteristics. However, the cats from the same country did share mitochondrial haplotypes (H5 and H6) with the central African lions and together with them were part of a major mtDNA grouping (lineage III). This also included Asiatic samples. The authors claimed, this scenario was in line with their theories on the evolution of lion. They conclude that lineage III developed in east Africa, and then travelled north and west in the first wave of lion expansions out of the region some 118,000 years ago. It seemingly broke up into haplotypes H5 and H6 inside Africa, and then into H7 and H8 in west Asia.
The above studies show that while historical Barbary lion was morphologically distinct, its genetic exclusivity remains uncertain. The taxonomic status of existing lions, often considered as Barbary lions, including those that originated from the collection of the King of Morocco, is still uncertain.
A study of skulls of the African, Asiatic, extinct Cape and Barbary (North African) lions, conducted in 1968, showed the same characteristics – the very narrow bar – that existed in the Barbary and Asiatic lion skulls. This indicates that there may have been a close relationship between the lions from Northernmost Africa and Asia. It is also assumed that the South European lion, which became extinct around AD 80-100, could have represented the connecting link between the North African and Asiatic lions. Assumption is that Barbary lions had the same belly fold (hidden under their manes) that are seen in the Asian lions today.
Project to ‘breed back’ Barbary Lions
After years of research related to the Barbary lions and stories of surviving examples, WildLink International has launched an ambitious International Barbary Lion Project in collaboration with Oxford University. For this latest DNA techniques are being employed to identify the DNA ‘fingerprint’ of the subspecies. ‘WildLink’ has collected bone samples from the remains of the lions in various museums across Europe, like those in Paris, Turin, Brussels etc. Samples have been sent to Oxford University where experts are extracting DNA sequences from the bones that identify the lion as a distinct subspecies. While the Barbary may be extinct, and is undoubtedly extinct in the wild, WildLink International has recognized a handful of lions in captivity around the world that may be the descendents of the original Barbary Lions, like the royal lions in Rabat’s (Morocco) Temara Zoo. These animals will be examined against the DNA fingerprint on the basis of which degree of any hybridization (from crossbreeding) can be determined. After this the best lions will be taken up for a selective breeding program to ‘breed back’ the Barbary lions. The final stage of the project will be to release the offspring into a National Park in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.