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Wednesday, June 30, 1999 Published at 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK

World: Africa

Extinct lion set for comeback

The Barbary lion has a darker mane and belly hair

A South African wildlife organisation is planning to make the leap from species conservation to resurrection.

The Hoedspruit Centre for Endangered Species thinks it may be bringing the infamous Barbary lion back from the dead. The species was certified extinct after the last known animal was shot in Morocco in 1921.

This massive beast - which could be 3m long and weigh up to 250kg - was the kind of lion Roman emperors brought from North Africa to eat Christians during Roman games.

The Barbary, distinguished from ordinary lions by its thick black mane and belly hair, was always a royal beast. The former ruler of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was rumoured to keep them at his court.


In 1996, a British animal rights group, Animal Defenders, rescued a number of animals from an abandonned circus in Mozambique, which may have been used as a front for smuggling animals from game parks.

Among the animals, which had been kept in pitiful conditions, there were three lions which bore a striking resemblance to Barbaries.

[ image: Haile Selassie kept Barbary lions at his court]
Haile Selassie kept Barbary lions at his court
They were taken to Hoedspruit, a 12,000 hectare private wildlife reserve near the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Hoedspruit's owner, Lente Roode, has successfully bred cheetahs and released them back into the wild.

"I wasn't looking for Barbary lions," she said. But she was excited - and distressed - at her new charges.

The lions were so unused to the world outside their cages that they were frightened of grass and too nervous to drink water from pools in their enclosure.

One lion died, and Lente Roode was left with a 12-year old male - Giepie - and a female - Sharon. As Sharon was infertile, she started looking for other possible Barbary lions.

She heard of some in Ethiopia, but in the end she acquired another pair from Bologna, Italy.

Arturo and Sissi are brother and sister, and Lente Roode hopes that Sissi and Giepie will take to each other, mate and produce a new strain of Barbary lion.

Mixed breeds

But some experts are sceptical about whether a Barbary lion could even exist after so many years.

[ image: The liger: Cross-breeding can blur the definition of a species]
The liger: Cross-breeding can blur the definition of a species
Giepie's hair looks very similar to that of a stuffed Barbary lion in the British Museum. But only genetic tests from several animals would be enough to bring the Barbary officially back to life.

In any case, the notion of a species is complex. Species are often defined by an ability to mate, but a lion and tiger can produce offspring called a liger, so the boundaries are blurred.

Lente Roode has appointed a panel of five scientists from Pretoria who eventually hope to determine whether Giepie and Sissi have produced a new line of Barbary lion. But genetic research is expensive and she says her first concern is to try and breed lions to return to the wild.

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