Barbary North African Lion

Barbary (North African) Lion

Today we are talking about the famous Atlas lion, also known as the Barbary lion, which was part of the Panthera leo leo population of North Africa, but has now disappeared from the region. Initially appearing in the coastal regions of Barbary of the Maghreb, this population was decimated following the spread of weapons and bounties to shoot lions.

Following a complete check of hunting and observation records, it is revealed that some low density groups survived in Algeria until the 1960s and in Morocco until about 1965.

atlas lion

Until 2017, the Barbary (North African) Lion was considered a distinct lion subspecies. However, morphological and genetic analyses show that the Barbary lion does not differ markedly from samples recovered in West Africa as well as North Africa. The Atlas lion then belongs to the same Phylogeographic group as the Asiatic lion.

The Barbary lion has known several names such as “Berber lion“, “North African lion”, “Atlas lion” and “Egyptian lion”.

From now on, there is no more project of lion of the atlas. Five felids had been determined to have enough barbarian DNA to save this endangered species. The only lioness was Sarabi who died of cancer in 2007, and it is unlikely that the four males are still alive.

1 ) the Barbary Lion : Primary Characteristics

According to the stuffed males in zoological collections, the length from the head to the tail varies from 2.35 to 2.8 meters, for the females a maximum length of about 2.5 meters is reached. The color of the zoological specimens of the Atlas lion ranges from light to dark fawn. Concerning the mane, in some cases it extended over the shoulder and under the belly and up to the elbows. The hair of the mane is measured from 8 to 22 cm long.

The Atlas lion is said to have been the largest lion according to some 19th century hunting stories, giving a male weight ranging from 270 to 300 kg. However, this data is not necessarily accurate as captive lions were significantly smaller, however this could be explained by poor holding conditions preventing them from developing to their full potential.

barbary lion

Mane variation has long been considered as a morphological characteristic that can be used to assign subspecies status to lion populations.

However, mane development differs with age and region, so it is not a sufficient criterion for subspecies identification. The size of the mane is not considered as evidence for the origins of Barbary lions.

In order to be factual, the results of mitochondrial DNA research support the genetic distinction of Barbary lions in a single haplotype found in museum specimens and believed to be of Barbary lion descent. The presence of this haplotype is considered a reliable molecular marker for identifying captive Barbary lions.

It is tangible that Barbary lions have developed a long-haired mane, due to the low temperatures in the Atlas Mountains compared to other African regions, especially in winter.

2 ) Past Habitats of the Atlas Lion

Some old accounts testify that in Egypt, lions were ubiquitous in the Sinai Peninsula, along the Nile River, in the eastern and western deserts, in the Wadi El Natrun region and on the Mediterranean Sea coast. Various historical observations as well as hunting records from the 19th and 20th centuries show that lions have occupied the Atlas countries from Tunisia to Morocco.

Lions in atlas mountains
Lions in Algerian Atlas Mountains

In Algeria, the Barbary Lion appears in the hills and wooded mountains between the Pic de Taza in the east, the west of Ouarsenis and the plain of the northern river Celif. By the 1830s, lions had probably been eliminated near coastal and human settlements. By the mid-19th century, the number of lions had been greatly reduced as bounties were awarded for kills. Until about 1884, the cedar forests of Chelia and the surrounding mountains were still home to lions, which disappeared in the Bône region in 1890, the Khroumire and Souk Ahras regions in 1891 and the Batna province in 1893. The last lion observed in Algeria dates back to 1956 and is located in Beni Ourtilane.

In Morocco, the last hunting of the Atlas lion took place in 1942 near Tizi n’Tichka, in the Atlas Mountains. A small remaining population may have survived in isolated mountain areas until the early 1960s.

3) Taxonomic History

In 1758, Carl Linnaeus proposed the scientific name “Felis leo” to designate a specimen of lion from Constantine in Algeria. Following this description, some specimens of this North African mammal were described and stated as subspecies within the 19th century:

Felis Leo Barbaricus exhibited by the Austrian zoologist Johann Nepomuk Meyer in 1826 was a lion skin from the Barbary Coast.

Barbary lion map
Barbary Lion Map

Felis leo nubicus portrayed by Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville in 1843 was a Nubian male lion sent by Antoine Clot from Cairo to Paris and died in the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in 1841.

In the XXth century, many debates and controversies about the classification of lions and the validity of subspecies took place:

In 1939, Glover Morrill Allen evaluated F. l. barbaricus and nubicus as synonyms of F. l. leo.

Reginald Innes Pocock ranked the lion in the genus Panthera, when he wrote about the Asiatic lion.

In 1951, John Ellerman and Terence Morrison-Scott admitted only two subspecies of lion in the Palearctic kingdom, namely the African lion Panthera leo leo and the Asian lion P. l. persica.

However, various authors consider P. l. nubicus as a confirmed subspecies and synonym of P. l. massaica.

In 2005, P. l. barbarica, nubica, and somaliensis were associated under P. l. leo.

In 2016, the IUCN Red List reviewers adopted P. l. leo for all lion populations in Africa.

In 2017, the Cat Classification Working Group of the Cat Specialist Group grouped the North African, West African, Central African and Asian lion populations to P. l. leo.

the atlas lion

Genetic research

In 2006, the results of a phylogeographic analysis using samples of African and Asian lions were revealed. A vertebra from the Natural History Museum in France was one of the samples, this vertebra coming from the Nubian part of Sudan. As far as mitochondrial DNA is concerned, these samples correspond to lion skull samples from the Republic of Central Africa, Ethiopia and the northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Despite the fact that this Barbary Island predator is morphologically different, its unique genetics remain questionable. In a comprehensive study of lion evolution, 357 samples of both wild and captive lions from India and Africa were analyzed. The hypothesis that this group developed within East Africa was verified, and that approximately 118,000 years ago, this group traveled north and west in the first wave of lion development.

From there, it split into Africa and then into western Asia. The African lions are possibly a single population that has interbred during several waves of migration since the Late Pleistocene.

Lion Attacking a Dromedary
Lion Attacking a Dromedary

4) the Barbary Lion in Captivity

These beasts were kept in the menagerie of the Tower of London in the Middle Ages were Atlas lions, DNA tests performed on two carefully preserved skulls testify to this.

Is it possible that Barbary lions are still present in captivity?

The Rabat Zoo in Morocco claims to have 35 purebred Barbary lions. In fact, the lions come from a collection kept for more than a century by sultans and kings of the country. These lions present in the zoological garden of Rabat displayed characteristics considered typical of the Barbary lion.

Ideally, genetic testing of these “royal” cats should be carried out, but this requires financial means and adequate equipment.

In any case, no matter if the lions are royal or not, many efforts are made to preserve their genetic diversity and to avoid inbreeding. A breeding program that is controlled by a book will keep the lion population healthy. During the last two years two new cubs have been born in order to re-establish a dynamic.

In March 2010, two cubs were moved to the Texas Zoo in Victoria, the WildLink International program was set up to ensure the survival of the Atlas lions.

A barbary lioness was sent to the Port Lympne Wildlife Park in 2011 in order to bond with a male.

Living Treasures Wild Animal Park in New Castle, Pennsylvania, claims to keep two Barbary Lions in a park collection. The Zoo des Sables d’Olonne in France, is also said to keep a male and female Atlas lion.

Barbary Lion in Captivity

5) Behavior and ecology

The lions of the Atlas began to become rare at the beginning of the XXth century, it is at this time that they could be seen in small family groups or in couples. Despite the various persecutions, the lions lived in groups and particularly in the east of the Maghreb.

As gazelles and deer became scarce in the Atlas Mountains, lions preyed on livestock, as well as wild boar and red deer.

Sympatric predators in this region included the African leopard and the Atlas bear.

6) When Did the Barbary Lion Go Extinct

According to the history books, the last wild Barbary Lion was killed in 1922 by a French colonial hunter in Morocco. However, digging deeper into this history, some chapters may have been forgotten.

Because of their incredible reputation, the lions fought great gladiators in the Roman Coliseum. In addition, they were displayed in European parks and zoos while living quickly in the Tower of London. All these actions obviously had terrible repercussions, Romans killed thousands of lions. The Arab empire that came afterwards confined the animals to small territories. No more lions of the Atlas were seen between 1901 and 1910. Thus in the 1920s these were supposedly extinct by Western scientists.

But were they really extinct? A published study shows that Barbary lions could have remained alive in the wilds of Algeria and Maros, hiding from human eyes for many years, perhaps as late as 1965. Simon Black and David Roberts of the Durrell Institute have collected all kinds of evidence. For example, they have found dozens of people who have seen lions after 1922. Other elderly people tell us that they saw lions during their childhood or through the stories of their relatives.

With the help of these different observations, the scientists were then able to draw more realistic conclusions about the disappearance of these lions. This is a complicated task, as the extinction of a species is never or very rarely observed. Using different methodologies, Black and his co-authors calculated that the Barbary lion probably became extinct in Morocco in 1948 and in Algeria in 1958.

However, this is a probability, so it is possible that the date of extinction was earlier or later. Moreover, statistics do not consider human behavior.

The date of extinction of the Barbary lion is very important for the conservation of the rest of the African lions. Indeed, today’s lions are also endangered, and this could lead them to the same fate as the Atlas lions in their natural habitat.

7) the Cultural Importance

Indeed, this carnivore appears in a frequent way within the art of the literature of ancient Egypt.

For example the statues as well as the statuettes of lions found within Hierakonpolis and in Koptos in Upper Egypt date from the beginning of the dynastic period. Within ancient Egypt, the deity with a lion’s head Sekhmet was venerated as a protector of the country.

She was the representation of destructive power but also as the protector against famine and disease. Various lion artifacts have been found in the tombs of the Aegean islands of Crete, Paros, Evia, Chios and Rhodes. In 2001, a mummified lion was found within the tomb of Maia, in a necropolis dedicated to Tutankhamun at Saqqara. It showed signs of malnutrition and had probably lived in captivity for several years.

In Roman North Africa, lions were often captured by hunters to be used for venatio shows.

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