Conservation of Morocco’s Barbary Lions

The ultimate goal of the international Barbary Lion Project is to reintroduce the magnificent Barbary Lion to a National Park in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Considering the fact that there are no known Barbary Lions in the wild, this will be no easy task, but conservationists have tracked down what they believe to be Barbary Lion descendants in a number of zoos around the world, and through an intricate and painstaking process referred to as ‘breeding back’ they hope to recreate the genetic make-up of the original species.

The Barbary Lion is considered to be amongst the largest in physical size of all lion subspecies in recorded history. The male was characterized by its huge mane which covered up to half of its body, extending over the belly to between its hind legs. Around the face the mane was golden in color, shading to black over the rest of the body. The male Barbary Lion is believed to have weighed an average of 550 pounds, with females weighing up to 350 pounds. With a compact and muscular build and relatively short legs the body of the male Barbary Lion measured up to eleven feet in length.

Barbary Lions lived in arid and mountainous regions, roaming over a large region in North Africa, from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to Nubia – modern-day northern Sudan. Due to its home territory, the Barbary Lion is sometimes referred to as the Atlas Lion or Nubian Lion. While most lions exist in prides consisting of many members, Barbary Lions were more solitary, living in male and female pairs more often than not. This may have been out of necessity, as their habitat supported sparse prey as a food source – mostly Barbary sheep, deer, gazelle and wild boar.

After living for centuries undisturbed, the decline of the Barbary Lion population coincided with the rise of the Roman Empire. Thousands of Barbary Lions were captured by the Romans and moved to arenas and private menageries to entertain Roman Emperors, officials and the general population throughout the Roman Empire. The large majority of these lions were slaughtered in captivity. With the fall of the Roman Empire and the later occupation of the region by the French, the lions were eventually killed off, with the last of the Barbary Lions in Morocco being shot in 1921. At the time it was concluded that this magnificent beast had become extinct.

However in the late 20th century, some scientists found a group of lions in a zoo in Rabat that bore the distinctive characteristics of the Barbary Lion species. More lions thought to be Barbary Lion descendants were discovered in Ethiopia, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Spain, France, Germany and the United States. However, it remains to be seen whether Barbary Lions will once more roam wild in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.