The barbary lion (panthera leo leo) was the largest of all the lion species. Weighing about 200 kg and reaching a length of 3.5 meters, these fearsome predators were once widespread across Northern Africa from Morocco to Egypt, and were the species of lion that the Romans captured for use in the arenas. Male barbary lions were noted for their massive and very dark colored mane, and female barbary lions had a small light-colored mane as well.

The extiction of the barbary lion began in the middle ages as Arabic communities expanded in the Sahara. As wild habitats shrunk, the lions began to prey on domestic livestock, causing the local Ottoman governments to call for the extermination of all lions and put a prize on any lion killed.

By 1700 the barbary lion was already quite rare. The last Egyptian barbary lions were killed in the 1790s. In Tunisia the last lion was killed in 1891 and the last Algerian barbary lion was killed in 1912.

A hunter killed the very last barbary lion in Morocco in 1920.

…maybe not so extinct after all

Although officially listed as no longer in existence, evidence has recently been found that the famed Barbary lion might not be so extinct after all. Dr. Hym Ebedes of the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute in South Africa discovered, to his great surprise, 11 lions at the zoo in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which greatly resembled the Barbary lions of the past. They were larger than the African lion and the males had the characteristic black mane that reached half way down the back and underbelly. How the hell did 11 lions that are not to supposed to be alive, get to a zoo in Ethiopia?

The lions are the direct descentants of lions kept in the royal palace of Emperor Haile Selassie. The Selassie dynasty called itself the Lions of Ethiopia and the family kept lions as pets throughout the years as a symbol of power. When the family was overthrown by a military coup in 1974, the animals were sent to the zoo.

The question now is whether the lions at Addis Ababa zoo are in fact direct descents of the Barbary lion or some hybrid form. It is possible that the Selassie family obtained the animals from a private collector in Europe in the early 1900's before they became extinct. Inquiries into the possibility of this type of purchase have drawn blanks from Ethiopian historians and no records exist of this transaction. At this point, the best chance for finding answers to the lions' background is through DNA analysis.

Wildlink International, a non-profit animal welfare organization, is using the latest DNA technology to "fingerprint" (pawprint!) the exact species of the lions found in Addis Ababa. Bone samples have been taken from museums across Europe and will be compared to samples from the living lions. Wildlink has also located lions around the world that are hybrid descendants of the Barbary. Out of these, the best candidates will be chosen, those most closely related to the Barbary, and breeding will begin. The final stage of this project will be to reintroduce the lions into the wild, thereby resurrecting the formally extinct species.

Since the discovery of the 11 lions in Ethiopia, Barbary lions sightings have been reported elsewhere. Dr Haddane Brahim of the Parc Zoologique National de Rabat, Morocco claims that there are at least 40 Barbary lions in captivity in that country. It is also believed that a lion rescued from a circus in Mozambique in 1999 might be from the same sub-species.

At the time of writing there was no information about the results of these tests.

Picture: (comparison of Barbary and African lions)


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