Morocco mission to rescue last of the Atlas lions

Oct 03, 2012 by Jalal Al-makhfi
Barbary lions, also known as Atlas lions, play in their enclosure at Rabat zoo. Almost a century after a French colonial hunter put a bullet in what came to be viewed as the last Atlas lion living in the wild, a Moroccan zoo is struggling to claw the subspecies back from the brink of extinction.

Almost a century after a French colonial hunter put a bullet in what came to be viewed as the last Atlas lion living in the wild, a Moroccan zoo is struggling to claw the fabled subspecies back from the brink of extinction.

The majestic animal, also known as the Barbary lion and once common across north Africa, was eventually declared extinct after the 1922 hunt that saw it vanish from its natural environment.

But, remarkably, a few dozen individuals survived in captivity, and the newly opened Rabat zoo is fighting to save the bloodline and raise numbers to a viable population.

"For a long time, it was thought that the species had disappeared. But it turned out that Sultan Mohammed V (the current king's grandfather) had some Atlas lions in his private park," said Abderrahim Salhi, the zoo's head of operations.

The exotic park of the sultan, who became king at independence, had been supplied by tribesmen who hunted the mountain predators and offered them to their ruler as a tribute and proof of allegiance.

"After Morocco's independence (in 1956), the Atlas lions from the royal park formed the nucleus of the zoo and became a symbol of pride," Salhi said.

Barbary lions, also known as Atlas lions, play at their enclosure at Rabat zoo. "For a long time, it was thought that the species had disappeared. But it turned out that Sultan Mohammed V (the current king's grandfather) had some Atlas lions in his private park," said the head of Rabat zoo.

Today, this symbolism appears on the monarch's coat of arms, which depicts two lions protecting a crown, and the Moroccan football team carries their name, Atlas Lions, along with the hopes of the football-loving nation.

The male Atlas lion is distinguished by its long dark mane, which extends down its back and under its belly, and by its muscular build and dexterity, thought to have evolved from its life of hunting and climbing in the mountains.

Some observers say it is larger than its sub-Saharan relatives, weighing 225 kilos (500 pounds) or more, though the claim is disputed.

The newly renovated Rabat zoo opened earlier this year, an event followed by the birth of three lion cubs at the facility.

Staff described their arrival as a "joyous event."

"These cubs are the direct descendants of the Atlas lions, because like most of the cubs and lions here, they are a pure breed. They are not mixed," said Salhi, who personally supervised the birth of the three cubs.

The zoo itself "now has 32 lions, which is around half of the number remaining worldwide," he added, the rest being found in zoos elsewhere in Morocco and in Europe.

But for all they represent, the future of Morocco's mightiest predator is far from assured.

The male Atlas lion is distinguished by its long dark mane, which extends down its back and under its belly, and by its muscular build and dexterity, thought to have evolved from its life of hunting and climbing in the mountains.

Various factors drove the north African lions to extinction in the wild, notably the deforestation of the Atlas mountains and the influx of firearms throughout the 19th century, with people hunting the big cats for their fur and for sport.

They had already vanished in large numbers many hundreds of years earlier, captured and shipped to ancient Rome, where they provided grisly entertainment in the Colosseum and other amphitheatres around the empire.

Starved and angry, the lions were unleashed on combatants and condemned criminals, as depicted in the 19th-century French Orientalist painting "Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer", which shows a Barbary animal emerging from a pit to attack a group of Christians.

A less disturbing image meets visitors to the 50-hectare (125-acre) zoo outside Rabat, where the adult lions rest in the shade as the cubs romp nearby.

The park is home to nearly 1,200 animals, made up of around 120 separate African species, including white rhinos, elephants, hippos and cheetahs.

There are also plans to open a "night zoo" for nocturnal creatures including panthers.

But the task of preserving the Atlas lion and boosting its numbers, in collaboration with other zoos around the world, remains a key objective for the park officials.

"It is a big challenge," Salhi said. "Our priority is their protection."

Explore further: Sex? It all started 385 million years ago (w/ Video)

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Taiwan zoo fined after birth of 'ligers'

Aug 16, 2010

A private zoo in Taiwan has become the first on the island to see the birth of "ligers", hybrids of lions and tigresses, with the owner facing a fine for violating wildlife rules, officials said Monday.

Study: Weather affects lion manes

Apr 13, 2006

A study of zoo lions across the United States suggests weather conditions are responsible for differences in manes, not just genetics.

Recommended for you

'Red effect' sparks interest in female monkeys

Oct 17, 2014

Recent studies showed that the color red tends increase our attraction toward others, feelings of jealousy, and even reaction times. Now, new research shows that female monkeys also respond to the color red, ...

Roads negatively affect frogs and toads, study finds

Oct 17, 2014

The development of roads has a significant negative and pervasive effect on frog and toad populations, according to a new study conducted by a team of researchers that included undergraduate students and ...

All in a flap: Seychelles fears foreign bird invader

Oct 17, 2014

It was just a feather: but in the tropical paradise of the Seychelles, the discovery of parakeet plumage has put environmentalists in a flutter, with a foreign invading bird threatening the national parrot.

Amphibians being wiped out by emerging viruses

Oct 16, 2014

Scientists tracing the real-time impact of viruses in the wild have found that entire amphibian communities are being killed off by closely related viruses introduced to mountainous areas of northern Spain.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

jsdarkdestruction
1 / 5 (1) Oct 03, 2012
this is very questionable. the lions tested so far in the past HAVE NOT been barbary lions.
"The mtDNA results revealed that five tested samples of lions from the famous collection of the King of Morocco are not, according to this criterion, maternally Barbary"
"While the historical Barbary lion was morphologically distinct, its genetic uniqueness remains questionable, and the taxonomic status of surviving lions frequently considered as Barbary lions, including those that originated from the collection of the King of Morocco, is still unclear"