Work to determine its genetic blueprint will boost the efforts already being made to breed the Barbary lion in captivity. Chris Hellier reports.
A laboratory at Oxford University's Zoology Department could hold the key to the future of the mighty Barbary lion. A likely sub-species, Panthera leo leo, it was declared extinct in the wild in the 1920s when a hunter shot the last known individual in the Atlas Mountains. Barbary lions, however, may be clinging to survival in captivity. If so, recent studies by Barbary expert Dr Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, at the university's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, may help to preserve the animal's diminishing gene pool and save it from extinction.
The distinctive north African lion, also known as the "Atlas" or "Nubian" lion, once fought gladiators and Christians in Roman arenas and was a symbol of strength and courage which inspired medieval knights. The lions were characterised by short legs and a deep chest, a very clear, light iris, rather than the usual brown, and, in adult males, a flowing mane which spread over the shoulders and covered the belly to the groin. They were highly prized by Roman emperors and Moroccan kings. The former ruler of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, is believed to have kept a pride of Barbary lions at his court.
In association with Oxford University, a UK-based organisation, Wildlink International, now plans to return Barbary lions to part of their former range. Records suggest around sixty captive lions, although cross-bred with sub-Saharan lions, may have Barbary ancestors. As yet, however, the science does not exist to distinguish true Barbary lions from lookalikes. Dr Yamaguchi is thus attempting to discover the characteristics of the Barbary sub-species using the latest DNA techniques.
Previous efforts to identify and breed Barbary lions in the 1970s were unsuccessful, partly because too many institutes were involved. Several zoos claim to have produced Barbary specimens but, says Kay Hill, Barbary Project Director at Wildlink, most schemes have been little more than efforts to breed big mane lions. Moreover, "it seems that every time someone finds a lion displaying a large dark mane, they claim to have a Barbary lion, which is very misleading."
Identifying Barbary lions is doubly difficult since definitions are blurred and lion genetics is not fully understood. According to Peter Jackson, chairman of the Cat Specialist Group at the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the division of the world's lions into seven sub-species may not even be valid. Barbary lions were isolated from other lions so long ago, however, that they may well have evolved unique markers.
Wildlink aims to identify these markers by testing the skeletal remains of known Barbary lions in museums and collections aroundthe world, including Barbary bones from the Coliseum in Rome. Once the Barbary blueprint is established, they will be able to test living lions displaying Barbary traits to determine their degree of hybridization. Lions closest to the original Barbary will then be bred in an effort to preserve the species.
Wildlink has already had some success. Three cubs recently born at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, Kent, and two born last year at Temara Zoo, Rabat, are descended from the Moroccan King's Collection which remained pure until the 1960s. If the cubs' Barbary credentials are scientifically proven, they may form the nucleus of a group of lions to be released in a proposed park in the Atlas Mountains, where some 40,000ha of land has been set aside by the Moroccan authorities.
Published in Travel Africa Edition Thirteen: Autumn 2000 Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)