Besides 'black-maned' Cape lions, they had the "most luxuriant and extensive manes" amongst lions, with
"tresses on flanks and abdomen," according to Hepnter and Sludskii (1972). Before it became possible to
investigate the genetic diversity of lion populations, the colour and size of lions’ manes was thought to be a
sufficiently distinct morphological characteristic to accord a subspecific status to populations.
However, results of a long-term study of Masai lions in Serengeti National Park indicate that various factors,
such as ambient temperature, nutrition and the level of testosterone, influence the colour and size of lion
manes. Sub-Saharan African lions kept in cool environments of European and North American zoos usually develop
bigger manes than their wild counterparts. Barbary lions may have developed long-haired manes because of
temperatures in the Atlas Mountains that are much lower than in other African regions, particularly in winter.
Therefore, the size of manes is not regarded as an appropriate evidence for identifying Barbary lions'
ancestry. Instead, results of mitochondrial DNA research published in 2006 support the genetic distinctness
of Barbary lions in a unique haplotype found in museum specimens that are believed to be of Barbary lion
descent. The presence of this haplotype is considered a reliable molecular marker for the identification of
Barbary lions surviving in captivity.
The Barbary lion was long considered one of the biggest lion subspecies, or even the largest lion and African
cat. Museum specimens of male Barbary lion were described as having very dark and long-haired manes that
extended over the shoulder and to the belly. Head-to-tail length of stuffed males varies from 2.35 to 2.8 m
(7 ft 9 in to 9 ft 2 in), and females measure around 2.5 m (8 ft 2 in). A 19th-century hunter described a large
male allegedly measuring 3.25 m (10.7 ft) including a 75 cm (30 in) long tail. In some historic accounts the
weight of wild males was indicated as very heavy and reaching 270 to 300 kilograms (600 to 660 lb). But the
accuracy of the measurements may be questionable, and the sample size of captive Barbary lions were too small
to conclude they were the biggest lion subspecies. Nevertheless, Gettysburg Compiler (1899) described a lion
called 'Atlas', from the Atlas Mountains between Algeria and Morocco, as being "much superior to the black-maned
lions of South Africa in bulk and bravery.
Behavior and ecology
Pease accounted in 1913 that in areas where lions were not very numerous, they were more frequently found in
pairs or family parties comprising a lion, lioness and one or two cubs. He several times came across two old
lions and a lioness living and hunting together. Observations of wild Barbary lions made between 1839 and 1942
involved solitary animals, pairs and family units. Analysis of these historical records suggests that
Barbary lions retained living in prides even when under increasing persecution during the last decades,
especially in the eastern Maghreb. The size of prides was likely similar to prides living in sub-Saharan
habitats, whereas the density of the Barbary lion population is considered to have been lower than in moister
When Barbary stags and gazelles became scarce in the Atlas Mountains Barbary lions preyed on herds of livestock
that were carefully tended. They also preyed on wild boar and red deer.
Extinction in the wild
The Romans used Barbary lions in the Colosseum to battle with gladiators.
Barbary lions inhabited the range countries of the Atlas Mountains including the Barbary Coast.
Jardine remarked in 1834 that at the time lions may have already been eliminated from the coastlines,
marking the border to human settlements. In Algeria, they lived in the forest-clad hills and mountains between
Ouarsenis in the west, the Pic de Taza in the east, and the plains of the Chelif River in the north. There were
also many lions among the forests and wooded hills of the Constantine Province eastwards into Tunisia and south
into the Aurès Mountains. By the middle of the 19th century their numbers had been greatly diminished. The cedar
forests of Chelia and neighbouring mountains harboured lions until about 1884. The last survivors in Tunisia
were extirpated by 1890.
In the 1970s, Barbary lions were assumed to have been extirpated in the wild in the early 20th century.
But a comprehensive review of hunting and sighting records indicates that the last Barbary lion was shot in the
Moroccan part of the Atlas Mountains in 1942. Barbary lions were sighted in Morocco and Algeria into the 1950s,
and small remnant populations may have survived into the early 1960s in remote areas.
Historically, Barbary lions were offered in lieu of taxes and as gifts to royal families of Morocco and
Ethiopia. The rulers of Morocco kept these 'royal lions' through war and insurrection, splitting the collection
between zoos when the royal family went briefly into exile. After a respiratory disease nearly wiped out the
royal lions in the late 1960s, the current ruler established enclosures in Temara near Rabat, Morocco, to house
the lions and improve their quality of life. There are currently a small number of 'royal lions' that have the
pedigree and physical characteristics to be considered as mostly pure Barbary descendants. Some were returned
to the palace when the exiled ruler returned to the throne.
In the 19th century and the early 20th century, Barbary lions were often kept in hotels and circus menageries.
The lions in the Tower of London were transferred to more humane conditions at the London Zoo in 1835 on the
orders of the Duke of Wellington. One famous Barbary lion named "Sultan" was kept in the London Zoo in 1896
Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia had a collection of lions kept in the Addis Ababa Zoo. They looked like
Barbary and Cape lions because of their dark brown manes that extended over the chest through the front legs.
In 2011, the Port Lympne Animal Park in Kent received a Barbary lioness as a mate for the resident male.
More recently a number of researchers and zoos have supported the development of a studbook of lions directly
descended from the King of Morocco's collection. This work has been conducted on the precautionary principle
that this subpopulation of animals may hold unique Barbary lion genes as well as demonstrating the morphology
of the ancestral Barbary lion.
As of June 2016, Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue in Rock Springs, Wisconsin, has two female lions born in 2001 that
have been shown by DNA testing to be Atlas lions. The Living Treasures Wild Animal Park in New Castle,
Pennsylvania, claims to keep a pair of Barbary lions in the park's collection. The Zoo des Sables d'Olonne,
Vendee, France, also claims to have a male and female Atlas lion.
In the Middle Ages, the lions kept in the menagerie at the Tower of London were Barbary lions, as shown by DNA
testing on two well-preserved skulls excavated at the Tower in 1936-1937. The skulls were radiocarbon-dated to
1280-1385 AD and 1420-1480 AD. The growth of civilizations along the Nile and in the Sinai Peninsula by the
beginning of the second millennium BC stopped genetic flow by isolating lion populations. Desertification also
prevented the Barbary lions from mixing with lions located further south in the continent.
Five tested samples of lions from the famous collection of the King of Morocco are not maternally Barbary lions.
Nonetheless, genes of the Barbary lion are likely to be present in common European zoo lions, since this was one
of the most frequently introduced subspecies. Therefore, many lions in European and American zoos, which are
managed without subspecies classification, are in fact partly descendants of Barbary lions.
In 2006, mtDNA research revealed that a lion specimen kept in the German Neuwied Zoo originated from the
collection of the King of Morocco and is very likely a descendant of a Barbary lion.
A DNA analysis on the Addis Ababa lions showed that they were genetically unique, with few signs of inbreeding.
The former popularity of the Barbary lion as a zoo animal provides the only hope to ever see it again in the
wild in North Africa. Many zoos provide mating programmes, which will help to increase production of the species.
After years of research into the science of the Barbary lion and stories of surviving examples, WildLink
International, in collaboration with Oxford University, launched its ambitious International Barbary Lion
Project. Oxford used DNA techniques to identify the DNA 'fingerprint' of the Barbary lion subspecies.
Researchers took bone samples from remains of Barbary lions in museums across Europe, like those in Brussels,
Paris, Turin and others. These samples were returned to Oxford University, where the science team extracted the
DNA sequence to identify the Barbary as a separate subspecies.
Although the Barbary lion is extinct, and is certainly extinct in the wild, WildLink International looked to
identify a handful of lions in captivity around the world that may be descended from the original Barbary lion.
These descendants were to be tested against the DNA fingerprint, and the degree of any hybridization
(from crossbreeding) could then be determined. The best candidates were to then enter a selective breeding
programme slated to 'breed back' the Barbary lion. The final phase of the project intended to see the lions
released into a national park in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. In March 2010, two lion cubs were moved to
The Texas Zoo in Victoria, Texas, where efforts were made to preserve the species under the WildLink
International conservation programme. Whether the cubs are of Barbary lion descent is not yet determined.