History books tell us that the last wild Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) was probably killed in 1922 by a French colonial hunter in Morocco. But in repeating the tale of this well-documented death, the history books may have left a chapter or two out of the story.
Barbary, or Atlas, lions once roamed throughout the deserts and mountains of northern Africa, ranging from Morocco to Egypt, far to the north of their sub-Saharan relatives. The largest lion subspecies, Barbary lions were once upon a time admired for their size and dark manes (although those two qualities have been greatly exaggerated and almost mythologized over time) and were kept by the royal families of Morocco and other north African nations. It wasn't just Africans who admired them: the lions famously battled gladiators in the Roman Coliseum, were displayed in European zoos and parks, and even lived briefly at the Tower of London. But all of that exploitation took a terrible toll: The Romans killed thousands of lions in their games, the Arab empire that followed squeezed the remaining animals into smaller territories, and the arrival of European hunters in the 19th century polished them off. Europeans killed so many of these animals that they were quickly exterminated from most of their remaining historic range. None were seen between 1901 and 1910. By the 1920s Western scientists assumed that they were gone.
Or were they? According to new research published April 3 in PLoS ONE, Barbary lions may have remained alive in wilds of Algeria and Morocco—hidden and safe from most human eyes—for several decades, possibly as late as 1965. The authors—including Simon Black and David Roberts from the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology in England and Amina Fellous from the National Agency for Nature Conservation in Algiers—combed through published and first-hand accounts of lion sightings in the years after their supposed extinction. They also found dozens of people who saw the lions well after 1922. "Our interview work was with old people from remote Algerian communities," Black says. "We are fortunate in developing a rich data set since several colleagues have been collecting this information over 10 to 20 years, so our sources are first- or second-hand accounts." Some of the witnesses they interviewed recalled childhood sightings of the lions. Others recounted tales told by their parents or other family members.
With those sightings in hand, the scientists then set out to infer when the lions really went extinct in the wild. This is tough to do, because the moment of extinction for any species is rarely, if ever, actually witnessed. To develop their dates they turned to a 2005 paper published in Mathematical Biosciences that reviewed statistical models using a species's last sighting to calculate when it likely went extinct in the years after the final observation. Black and his co-authors calculate that the Barbary lion probably died out in Morocco in 1948 and mostly likely went extinct in Algeria in 1958. Because we're talking statistical probabilities, there is a confidence interval on that number suggesting that the extinction date could have been slightly earlier or as late as 1965.
Of course, statistics don't always account for human behavior. The last sighting the team was able to uncover was in 1956 in a forested area in Algeria, when several people on a bus saw a lion just north of the town of Stif. Black reports that the forest "was destroyed in 1958 during the French-Algerian War, so it is possible the last lions disappeared at that time."
Why does it matter exactly when the Barbary lion went extinct? Black and his co-authors say this research has relevance for the conservation of the rest of Africa's lions. Small, fragmented populations in certain regions could require additional attention to ensure their survival. The authors also advocate against declaring any species as extinct too quickly. Doing so, they say, could remove any incentive to keep looking for and conserving that species, thereby pushing it into the same fate as the Barbary lion.
But wait, the story continues
Regardless of when it happened, Barbary lions are without a doubt extinct in the wild, but could they still exist in captivity? Several zoos around the world claim to have Barbary lions in their collections. In all likelihood most if not all of these big cats are not real Barbary lions but rather hybrids with lions from sub-Saharan Africa. "I seriously doubt pure north Africa lions occur in captivity anymore," Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, the conservation organization dedicated to big cats, told me last October when I first started investigating this story.
But what about Rabat Zoo in Morocco, which claims to have 35 purebred Barbary lions? Their lions are descended from a collection held for more than a century by the country's sultans and kings. Black thinks it might be possible that some of the Rabat "Royal" cats are purebloods, although he concedes that the necessary genetic tests to prove it would be difficult to accomplish without both money and better reference material. "The only reliable reference samples are museum specimens—bones and taxidermy skins which are mostly more than 140 years old—so a full genomic comparison is not currently possible." Museum samples did, however, provide a few sequences of mitochondrial DNA; a paper published in Conservation Genetics in 2005 (pdf) reported on an initial test of five Royal lions and concluded that they, at least, were not of maternal Barbary descent.
Whether or not the remaining Royal lions are pure, efforts are underway to both preserve their genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding. Black says controlled breeding—and a studbook that he helped create—will ensure that the population will remain healthy. "Several additional zoos in Europe have taken on collections of these animals, and new breeding pairs have been established in the hope of increasing the population from the current level of approximately 80 animals," he says. "New cubs have been born in the past two years, so momentum for conserving the population has been reestablished after a lull of 20 years."
So, when did the Barbary lion truly go extinct? Most sources say 1922. Some sources refer to a lion that was supposedly killed by a hunter near Marrakech in 1942, but that appears to be anecdotal. Black and his co-authors say the actual extinction could have been as late as the 1960s. Five decades later, it seems that some of the lion's genes may still persist. We may never know the truth about when the Barbary lion disappeared, but it's possible that the story of the Barbary lion is still being written.
A Barbary lion photographed in Algeria in 1893 by Sir Alfred Edward Pease, public domain
An 1898 drawing of a Barbary lion by Joseph Bassett Holder, public domain