ESSAY

We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquita is preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.

Barbary lions date back to the Pleistocene era 2.6 million years ago. Yet ironically, today they are extinct in the wild. Some 80-100 Barbarys live in zoos in Europe and Morocco, but there’s no way to definitively prove that they are 100% purebloods. This is because no DNA strain of a Barbary lion in the wild exists for comparison.

Barbarys in the wild were destroyed in the last 200,000 years. Before then, they roamed through Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, the Maghreb, Northern African deserts, and mountains down to the Mediterranean Sea. Scientific and conservationist communities can’t agree on when they became extinct in the wild. Some Barbary lions exist in captivity, but scientists can’t prove definitively that they’re purebloods.

Date of Extinction?

Historians say Barbarys were extinct in Morocco in 1922. But three years later, in 1925, Marcelin Flandrin photographed a lion from the window of a plane from Casablanca en route to Dakar. Other scientists say the Barbary (Panthera leo leo) became extinct in the 1920s.

Anecdotal “evidence” tells of a hunter who killed a Barbary near Marrakech in 1942. Some Barberys were sighted in Morocco and western Algeria in the 1940s. In 1956, people riding a bus saw a Barbary outside their windows near Sétif, Algeria. More recently, Barbarys prevailed in eastern Algeria but disappeared during the French – Algerian war (1958-1962). The forest, their habitat, was a military hideaway, and war explosives decimated the area.

Dr. Simon Black, University of Kent, U.K., said the Barbary could have prevailed in the wilds of Morocco and Algeria until 1965, based on published post-extinction Barbary sightings, and personal interviews with old people from remote communities.

Black also factored in the Barbary’s ability to live in the wilderness for decades, unseen by people. It’s impossible, Black said, for anyone to say they saw the last Barbary in the wild die.

Why the Date of Extinction Matters

Black says one shouldn’t hastily pin a date of extinction because:

  1. If an animal is wrongly considered extinct, all conservation efforts may stop.

  2. The local community where these animals live will stop cooperating with conservationists.

  3. Scientists will stop looking for the species.

  4. Scientists won’t conserve the rare ones that still exist in the wild, believing they are extinct.

  5. This will affect many African lions that may live in fragmented habitats and remnant populations, as they need greater help to survive in the wild.

  6. A more recent extinction date for Barbary lions raises several questions:

  • How did these lions survive in degraded North African ecosystems?

  • Knowledge of the above will help people conserve remnant lions in West and Central Africa.

  • If the Barbary lions were more recently taken into captivity, they would be closer descendants to royal lions than previously expected.

The Barbary Lion’s History with Mankind

British mammalogist R.I. Pocock said in 1936, “Lions which earned that distinction (King of the Beasts) deserved it on account of their magnificent appearance due to a huge black and tawny mane covering the neck and shoulders, long enough to almost sweep to the ground, and passing through the belly almost as deep black fringe. Such animals are no longer wild animals. They inhabited Barbary and the Cape and are believed to be extinct.”

Their frightening beauty made the Barbary lions popular among the Romans during gladiator games, which were held from 264 BC to 404 AD. Thousands of lions were slaughtered under Caesar.

Barbary Lions were precious gifts sent from one royal family to another. In 1235, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II gave England’s King Henry III three Barbary lions (which were mistakenly called ‘leopards’). The lions inspired the King to make England’s first zoo in the Tower of London. The ‘leopards’ were confirmed to be Barbary Lions when their skulls were unearthed in 1937.

In 1667, Spanish traveler Marmol, wrote, “There are so many lions in this country (Morocco) that they are not feared.” At Fez, Morocco, in the 16th and 17th centuries, lion fights were held in an auditorium where archers competed with the lions.

In 1899, Sayajirao Gaekwar III of Baroda, Hindostan built an amphitheater that was specially prepared to entertain local and European guests by hosting battles between a lion and a tiger.

Also by the 19th century, the Turkish administration came to control the entire region except for Morocco. With their firearms, they implemented a lion eradication policy that decimated the Barbary lions in the wild.

When the French colonized Algeria, bounty hunting of Barbary lions continued up to their extinction in Algeria and Tunisia by the 19th century, according to Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, Associate Professor, University of Malaysia Terengganu.

In Morocco, the Barbary lions are believed to have survived until the 20th century. Black notes a sighting in Gabon in 2016, when a lion was caught on a camera trap which, through DNA evidence proved to be a Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo) which had been believed to be extinct for 20 years.

Royal Lions Descendants

Yamaguchi credits the sultans and kings of Morocco for the Barbarys’ existence today. Moroccan nobles kept these lions in captivity and presented them as gifts to the sultans and kings.

The sultan of Morocco had a special garden in his palace for the Barbarys, which stayed in cages but had special times to walk through the garden to feast on live oxen, goats, or sheep. In 1953, the French deposed Mohammed V and the royal family was exiled first to Corsica, then to Madagascar, leaving behind 21 Barbary lions in the palace grounds. Three of them were sent to a zoo in Casablanca, and the rest were sent to a zoo in Meknès, an imperial city in Morocco. In 1955, with the return of Sultan Mohammed V, the 18 lions in Meknès were returned to the royal palace in Rabat.

From 1970 – 1973, the number of Barbarys in Rabat totaled 39 adults and 49 cubs. In 1973, King Hassan II placed the lions under the administration of the Ministry of Agriculture, making them part of The Rabat Zoo.

The Trail of the Royal Lions

That same year, 28 individuals were moved to circuses in France, Portugal, and Spain. Then in 1974, some cubs were kept in Rabat, and others were sent to other zoos. Some adult lions were, from 1973 to 1978, sent to National Zoos in Washington DC, the Frankfurt Zoo and the Leipzig Zoo (both in Germany), the Lyon Zoo in France, the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, and the Havana Zoo, Cuba.

Royal Descendants

As of 2002, the descendants of the royal Barbary lions totaled 80 in zoos worldwide. Research by Yamaguchi and Black traced the animals of known Moroccan heritage and discovered that:

  1. Some were in the Rabat Zoo of Morocco.

  2. Two descendants were in Israel.

  3. All the rest were in zoos in Europe.

  4. Since the early 2000s, no transfers of lions were made to other zoos.

  5. Those that were transferred before the year 2000 did not produce new cubs.

The Studbook

In 1969 a studbook emerged from King of Morocco’s collection which recorded all the animals bred, along with its parents. To update the studbook, Information was culled from handwritten records, websites, numerous databases, and personal meetings from zoos in Europe.

With this record, many zoos have formed a breeding program to keep and breed only members of this ‘royal lion’ group. They are kept apart from all other lions. The program has had some success, including a far healthier royal lion population.

The Genetic Mess

The royal family Barbarys have been traced to the zoos where they are today, and the studbook includes the number of cubs born over time. Despite this, one still can’t guarantee that these descendants of the royal lions are purebred Barbary lions.

No Gold Standard

This is because a nuclear DNA profile is the gold standard in proving beyond a doubt whether a species is pure. This can’t be done with Barbary Lions because:

  1. There are no Barbary lions in the wild from which they can get a comparable DNA sample.

  2. Yamaguchi said museum specimens are the most reliable source for nuclear DNA profiles.

  3. In 2013, Black that museum specimens such as bones and taxidermy “are mostly 140 years or older—so a full genomic comparison is not currently possible.”

However, Black wrote in a 2013 paper that the descendants from the Moroccan Royal collection, “could be closer relatives to wild ancestors than previously considered”, adding that he supports the conservation of the Moroccan Royal lion bloodline for now “until science can tell us otherwise”.

Zoo Stories

  1. The Czech Dvur Kralove park zoo, which is part of the pan-European endangered species program, announced the birth of three Barbary Lion cubs in 2020.

  2. In 2019 two Barbary lion cubs were born in the same zoo.

  3. The global population of Barbary Lions in captivity falls between 90-100 purebred Barbary Lions.

Reintroduction to the Wild

Is it possible to reintroduce Barbary lions to the wild? Yes, Black says, theoretically with:

  1. A long-term plan.

  2. Political, and community support.

  3. Prey provision like barbary sheep, boar, deer, and gazelle — all of which are also endangered species.

  4. Landscape restoration.

  5. Protective measures for humans and their livestock.

How Lions Contribute to our Ecosystem

  1. As the principal predator of their habitats, lions help control herbivore populations (plant-eating animals like elephants and giraffes)

  2. If lions aren’t present to control the herbivore population, competition will increase among them, resulting in the extinction of some.

  3. There will be a reduction of biodiversity.

  4. Lions prey on the weakest of a herd, contributing to disease control and resilience of the herd population.

  5. If lions did not exist there would be a symbiotic relationship between parasites and herd animals. Parasites could increase and spread throughout the herd, resulting in fewer healthy animals