Thursday 19 March 2009

Barbary Lion

Barbary lion
Photo by etrusia_uk

The Barbary lion is ahead of the Bengal tiger. This is not in terms of running etc. but in terms of being extinct in the wild. Whereas the Barbary lion is extinct in the wild, the Bengal tiger is nearing that grizzly end. Indeed the Barbary lion was thought to be totally extinct but it seems that there are some individuals in zoos etc. that have the right DNA (see below). This lion is a subspecies that used to live in the wild in these areas:
  • North Africa, from
  • Morocco to
  • Egypt.
The last one was apparently shot in 1922 in the Atlas Mountains:

Atlas mountains marked red - map in public domain.

The Name

This lion is also called the Atlas lion or Nubian lion (Panthera leo leo). The term "Barbary" was used by Europeans during the period 16th to 19th century to refer to the area now occupied by Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya:

The name comes from the Berber people of north Africa. There is a rare cheetah that we know little about that inhabits the deserts of north Africa, including Morocco.

The tiger is considered the largest species of cat in the world. The males weighing on average, 305 kg or 671 lbs (another source says 400 - 594 lbs). The Barbary lion is considered the largest of the lion species, weighing 397-600 lb (180 to 272 kg) for the males and females 290-400 lb (130 to 180 kg). This is similar to the weight of the tiger or Bengal tiger. The average weight of the lion generally is 225 kg or 495 lbs.

What differentiates the Barbary lion from other lions?

The heavier mane (and I presume heavier lion generally) used to be thought to be the distinguishing feature of this lion subspecies. However, it was later found that the size and color of a lion's mane is affected by environmental factors such as temperature so this was not an accurate marker. Subsequent DNA tests on "museum specimens" (presumed stuffed or some such item) indicated a distinct DNA for this subspecies. This is considered to be a possible "good molecular marker" for this lion.


Having identified a DNA marker there were plans to identify those lions in captivity that closely matched the Barbary lion for DNA, to breed from them and to then introduce them into a National Park in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. This project has sadly stalled and fizzled due to lack of funding. The project was organised by WildLink International in association with Oxford University, UK. I would have thought that unless funding can be found fairly quickly the remaining lions in captivity will die out unless they are breed, which might, it seems, lead to inbreeding difficulties.

Where are the few remaining Barbary lions?

Being used as they were as symbols of status in captivity and exhibits (hotels) and in zoos etc. a very few remain. We can thank:
  • the King of Morocco as descendants of lion owned by him are thought to remain (in Port Lympne Wild Animal Park) and
  • Emperor Haile Selassie as at one time eleven descendants from animals owned by him were found in Addis Ababa zoo.
Selected factors about lions generally

The lion is the second largest wildcat after the tiger but it is taller than the tiger. 10,000 years ago lions were the most widespread large mammal after humans. Now they are critically endangered in northwest India and in Africa the lion is considered vulnerable under the IUCN Red List. See IUCN Red List and Cats. Assessments on the numbers of subspecies continues to be re-evaluated downwards. At one time it was thought that there were 12 subspecies. Now 8 is considered a more accurate assessment and that could be too high.

The male lion's mane is one of its most distinctive features. It makes the animal look bigger. The denser and the darker the better from the point of view of a female lion.

See a later page on the Barbary lion

Michael Avatar

  1. Photo: Barbaray Lion published under a creative commons license:
  2. Image if IUCN chart: published under Wikimedia® creative commons license license = Attribution-ShareAlike License

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