Perhaps the most magnificent of all lions in history was the Barbary Lion of North Africa. Long extinct in the wild now, this most majestic of cats was characterized by its massive size and great mane that covered as much as half of its body surface. The lion roamed over a large part of northern Africa, in an area ranging from Atlas Mountains in the west (modern day Morocco) to Nubia in the east (modern day northern Sudan) and was thus known as Atlas or Nubian Lion. The scientific classification is Panthera Leo Leo.
Physically, the Barbary Lion was amongst the largest of all recorded lion subspecies in history. It is thought to have weighed nearly five hundred and fifty pounds on average for adult males. Females were around three hundred and fifty pounds in weight. The body length was believed to be as much as eleven feet. The built was compact and muscular and legs were short. Even as the Barbary Lion stood only three feet tall, nearly a foot shorter than the modern day African Lion, it was approximately fifty percent bigger than lions of today in overall size.
Apart from its size the other main distinguishing feature of Barbary Lions was their well developed mane. It extended from the head and neck down to the shoulders and greater part of back. On the underside it covered the entire belly and extended further to include groin area. It was said to be long and thick and darker in color than the manes seen in Sub-Saharan lions today. The mane around the face was golden in color and as it moved outward it became black, giving the Barbary Lion a very regal look. Even the females and young males were said to possess long hair around neck and upper chest regions of their body.
There are still other attributes that distinguish the Barbary Lions from the African and Asiatic subspecies of lions extant today. These include a grayer coat; a longer, shaggier fur and a more prominent tail tuft in case of Barbary Lions. Plus the skull and facial structure of Barbary Lions was unique. They possessed a higher occiput (back of skull) and more rounded cheek bones that converged to form a narrower muzzle. Alongside the difference in mane color (that became darker as it extended down the animal's back) was the difference in eye color. The iris of these lions was considerably lighter in color than the one seen in eyes of current day lions.
As with the morphology, the habitat and lifestyle of these great cats was different too from lions in other parts of Africa. Barbary Lions existed in arid and mountainous areas surrounded by deserts. They led a solitary lifestyle and existed as pairs consisting of a single male and female rather than well developed prides. This may be owing to sparsity of prey animals in their range, that forced them to exist in smaller groups. Their prey species consisted primarily of Barbary sheep and deer, wild boar and gazelle. The mode of hunting and killing is thought to be the same as the one seen in big cats today, in light of evidence recovered from carcasses.
The breeding season for Barbary Lions in the wild was said to be around the month of January. Pregnancy lasted one hundred and ten days after which between one to six cubs were born. The cubs were covered with very dark colored rosettes at birth and used to open their eyes and begin to walk at one and two weeks of age respectively. Maturity was reached at three years of age for both genders, with females coming into estrus as early as two years of age but not reproducing until an year or two later. As the young reached adulthood they were abandoned by the mother, with both males and females moving out to establish their territories in the wild. This was unlike the behavior seen in lion societies today where only males are kicked out and females usually stay for most of their lifetime in a single pride.
Historic records suggest that there used to be a single continuous population of lions across North Africa, Middle East, Western and Southern Asia. In the middle it was joined by the subspecies of lion now known as South European Lion that became extinct around two thousand years ago. The Barbary Lions evolved in North Africa around one hundred thousand years ago from the African population of lions. Still they maintained certain physical similarities with the Asiatic Lion. In fact they are said to be closer in their genetic and physical makeup to the Asiatic Lions seen in Gir Forest of India these days than to the lions south of Sahara in Africa, that were separated from Barbary Lions by vast expanses of deserts that made interbreeding impossible. The skull structure of Barbary and Asiatic Lions has certain similarities. Also the Barbary Lions are said to possess the same belly fold, hidden underneath the thick mane, that is characteristic of the Asian Lions.
For millennia the Barbary Lions resided undisturbed in woodlands and mountains over a vast territory, extending over the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Sudan today. This was until humans started to move into these parts and settle along the banks of river Nile. The Berbers came around three thousand years ago. The decline of Barbary Lions in reality began with the ascendancy of the Roman Empire. The Romans captured thousands of these majestic creatures from the wild and moved them into private menageries and gladiatorial arenas across their dominions. The Roman Emperors wanted to entertain their populace and display to them their control over nature. The Barbary Lions were the famous lions who fought in the Roman Coliseum with armed and unarmed men for the entertainment of their captors. At times they were slaughtered in the thousands over the whim of the Caesars.
As the Roman Empire fell, Arabs moved into Africa. Their presence had a negative influence on the population of the lions and the cats declined gradually in number over time. By the end of seventeenth century, Barbary Lions were disappearing at a rapid rate from most parts of their range. The invention of gunpowder and the advent of French colonizers sealed their fate. Step by step they started disappearing in the countries of their range. The last lion was shot in Tunisia in 1891, in Algeria in 1893 and in Morocco - the final bastion of Barbary Lions - the last member of this noble subspecies was shot in the year 1921, bringing to an end the existence of these great cats in the wild. Whilst hunting is thought to have played a significant role, other factors including advent of civilization, agrarian communities and cattle herding - that led respectively to loss of land and depletion of the lions' natural prey base - are said to be the main factors responsible for the extinction of Barbary Lions in the wild.
For many decades thereafter the Barbary Lion was believed to be officially extinct. However, in the later half of twentieth century some striking findings came to light. A couple of scientists in a zoo in Rabat, Morocco came across a group of lions that bore a marked resemblance to the description of the long extinct Barbary Lions. Their amber eyes, great black mane that extended to the back and belly and groin, short legs, deep chest and high occiput indicated that they shared a close genetic resemblance with the lions that were long thought to be extinct. Further investigation brought to light the following facts. It appeared that the kings of Morocco had in private possession a long line of lions from the past. They were brought to them by Berbers in lieu of taxes and kept in royal palaces. It is thought that these animals were saved from extinction as wild lions perished elsewhere.
In the nineteen eighties more lions were discovered in Ethiopia that used to belong to deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and were languishing in a hitherto forgotten zoo. They were found to have a number of physical similarities with the Barbary Lions. Since then a few other lions have been identified in zoos across the world that are said to resemble the Barbary Lions in their genetic and physical build. Sarabi, the lioness at Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, was said to have fourteen of seventeen DNA markers of Barbary Lions. Sadly she passed away in 2007. Zion Wildlife Gardens in New Zealand reports to be in possession of thirteen of these extremely rare lions. Other facilities that are said to house Barbary Lions or their descendants include Temara Zoo in Rabat, Morocco; Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent, United Kingdom; Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire, United Kingdom; Belfast Zoo in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Madrid Zoo in Spain; Tiger Safari in Tuttle, Oklahoma, United States; GW Exotic Animals Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, United States; Parc de la tête d'Or in Lyon, France and Neuwied Zoo in Neuwied, Germany.
Some years ago an ambitious project was launched by a British conservation group Wildlink International in collaboration with Oxford University in United Kingdom. The object was to study and identify the purest living specimens of lions across the world today that bore the closest genetic resemblance to the Barbary Lions. It was then planned to breed these animals and create a sustainable population of these lions that will eventually be released into an area of one hundred and fifty square miles reserved in the Atlas Mountains by Moroccan government. Wildlink International was supposed to obtain the nearly one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in funding required for the project and Dr Noboyuki Yamaguchi of Oxford University was to spearhead the research effort. However, the possible lack of funding has meant that this project has been shelved. The website of Wildlink International is offline (wildlink.org.uk) and there is no official word as to the future of the Barbary Lion Project.
The story of Barbary Lions is one of human ignorance and cruelty through ages. Sadly the same story is being repeated south of the great Saharan desert as the African Lion of today is losing out to man in these supposedly enlightened times. Today there are only twenty thousand lions left, from a population of nearly one hundred thousand predicted a few decades ago. Poaching, trophy hunting, loss of territory and prey and conflicts with humans are the main reasons for the rapidly declining lion populations - not much different from the reasons accountable for the extinction of Barbary Lions nearly a century ago. It remains to be seen if a miraculous resuscitation of the Barbary Lions may still be achieved by passionate scientists and conservationists. At the moment the fate of these handful of animals hangs by a thread.