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Page last updated at 09:04 GMT, Tuesday, 23 June 2009 10:04 UK
Return of the royal Barbary lion
Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

Barbary lion
A possible Barbary lion once living in Leipzig Zoo.

A royal stud book could help return the majestic Barbary lion to the wild.

Conservationists have created a stud book detailing every descendant of a group of lions once owned by the Sultan of Morocco.

These blue-blooded royal lions, all captive, are suspected to be the last Barbary lions in existence.

The stud book will help establish a breeding programme, and could also settle a controversy over whether the Barbary lion was a unique subspecies.

The Barbary lion is one of the most enigmatic of all large predators, both due to its impressive appearance and uncertainty over its fate.

Once numerous across north Africa, the Barbary lion was the most physically distinctive type of lion, including those living elsewhere in Africa and Asia.

Now that we have this information, zoos can come together and plan breeding exchanges to avoid inbreeding
Conservationist Simon Black

It had an extensive mane, and differences in the shape of its head included a more pointed crown and narrow muzzle. People at the time also talked of it being larger, with different coloured eyes to other lions, though it is unclear whether either difference was real.

"Historical records suggest that certain behaviours in Barbary lions were also distinctive, for example, they tended to live in pairs or small family groups rather than the prides familiar in Africa," says Simon Black, of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK.

The last firm record of a Barbary lion is an animal shot in Morocco in 1927, though there is circumstantial evidence that Barbary lions may have survived in the wild in the Atlas Mountains till 1942.

However, even by 1899, the lions were becoming rare in the wild, with those seen most often belonging to the Sultan of Morocco.

Barbary lion
A male Barbary lion depicted in 1898.

In 1912, these lions were moved from an original captive location near the Atlas Mountains to a lion garden at the Royal Palace in Rabat.

When the last Sultan was forced to abdicate in 1953, the lions were moved to two zoos, but on his return in 1955, 17 were returned to the Palace.

In 1973, their descendants were moved to Rabat zoo at Temara. Later, further examinations suggested that these zoo lions shared the characteristics of Barbary lions.

"There is strong circumstantial evidence, therefore, that the animals at Rabat zoo were a relic from the original Barbary lions collected from the wild," says Black.

However, the possibility that some Barbary lions survive, and they may be the last remnants of a lost subspecies of lion, has become an extremely marketable concept.

"It is not uncommon for zoos to advertise [that they possess a Barbary lion] when there is little or no evidence to back up the fact," Black says.

Worse, those lions that are true descendants of the original Moroccan royal lions are in danger of dying out.

Breeding exchanges

To prevent this, Black and colleagues Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, Adrian Harland and Jim Groombridge have created a Barbary lion stud book, that identifies the surviving individuals, their locations, their interrelatedness and their line of descent from the original captive Moroccan population as far back as records are known.

The researchers based the stud book on a review of the handwritten zoo records in Rabat kept from 1969 to 1998, plus a detailed review of breeding records across zoos worldwide kept from 1974 onwards.

Alongside details of the stud book, published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research, Black's team also calls for a managed and co-ordinated breeding approach to optimise the overall captive population of Moroccan royal Lions.

"Now that we have this information, zoos can come together and plan breeding exchanges to avoid inbreeding, ensure genetic diversity is maintained and with it animal health and population viability," says Black.

"In this way, if the opportunity exists to re-establish the population in the future, it is not lost by the lions dying out in captivity now," he says.

"Several zoos are still keen to continue breeding the animals. They deserve the constructive support of the scientific community."

Also that will allow time to perform genetic tests on the lions and "buy time" for scientists to further examine evidence to support whether or not these animals are true representatives of the now extinct subspecies, he says.

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