Principle Threats

Trade in Lions

Lions in Culture

Royal Barbary Lions

The Barbary lion (also known as the Atlas Lion or Nubian Lion) ranged from Morocco to Egypt.  Royal Barbary lions are credited with physiological distinctive features including extensive mane, a pointed crown of head, narrow muzzle, physically bigger than other African lions and with different coloured eyes.  These characteristics set Barbary lions apart from the African lion we are more familiar with. Their supposed increased size may explain why Ancient Romans used Barbary lions for gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum.   However, it is unclear how true these claims about physical differences are.  The features of a lion’s mane are influenced by environmental factors such as habitat and temperature.  Barbary-type manes occur on lions living in countries with cooler climates.  As such, the extensive mane may not be an honest indicator of Barbary ancestry.  Recent evidence suggests that Barbary lions may also have unique family structures, living in pairs or small groups rather than a pride.

These lions gained their Royal status by virtue of their presence in royal palaces.  Due to intensive hunting, Barbary lions started to become rare from 1899 and were moved by the Sultan of Morocco into the Royal Palace in Rabat.  Their descendants were transferred to Rabat zoo in Temara.  This has led to claims of the existence of Barbary lions in modern-day zoos and attempts to reintroduce the species using hand-written details from Rabat zoo stud-books. (html)

The connection with royalty extends beyond Morocco.  They were kept as pets by Kings and Queens of England who considered them to be symbols of power. Excavations of the moat that surrounds the Tower of London in 1937 unearthed two alleged medieval (12th – 13th century) Barbary lion skulls.  These lions are thought to be part of a royal menagerie formed by King John.  With recent advances in DNA-testing, researchers have concluded, “Our results are the first genetic evidence to clearly confirm that lions found during excavations at the Tower of London originated in north Africa.” This provides further evidence not only of the Barbary lions’ royal connections, but also direct animal trade between Africa and Europe. (html)

The work of Barnett et al. (2006) on the development of mitochondrial DNA analysis means captive lions and museum exhibitions can now be tested for the unique sequence present in Barbary lions.  Their initial study on five samples taken from the King of Morocco’s lion collection have shown them not to be maternally Barbary lions.

Morocco’s coat of arms was adopted in 1957.  It displays two rampant Barbary lions holding a shield.  The shield has a royal crown on the top, and depicts a green pentagram on a red background in front of the Atlas Mountains and a rising sun.  The Arabic inscription translates as ‘If you glorify God, he will glorify you’.

Morocco’s national football team are nicknamed The Atlas Lions (or Lions of the Atlas). (html)

The Wind and the Lion is a 1975 adventure film partly based on the 1904 Perdicaris incident which involved a US invasion and rescue mission to Morocco. (html)

CBarnett R, Yamaguchi N, Barnes I, Cooper A (2006) Lost populations and preserving genetic diversity in the lion Panthera leo:  Implications for its ex situ conservation.  Conservation Genetics, 7(4) 507-514 (pdf)

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