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What Is a Barbary Lion?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 21, 2024
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Also called the Atlas lion, the Barbary lion is a now extinct species native to North Africa. This lion was shorter, but more muscular than the other lion species still living today. It was also distinguished by the dark, full mane that extended farther down its back and under its belly that modern lions. The last known Barbary lion was seen in 1921. Its scientific name is Panthera leo leo.

The Barbary lion is considered was one the largest lion subspecies to have existed even though it stood nearly a foot shorter, at 3 feet (0.9 m), than most lion species. Its extremely well developed muscles and overall length, however, made up for what it lacked in height. Barbary lions averaged about 11 feet (3.35 m) long, and the males weighed around 550 pounds (249.5 kg). Like other lion species, the females were smaller, only weighing about 350 pounds (158.8 kg).

Size was not the only distinguishing characteristic of the Barbary lion. The males' manes, although golden around their face, became darker as they moved away from the faces. The manes also extended to or past the shoulders along the back and covered the lions' bellies completely. Additionally, the tail tufts were thicker and more pronounced. Even females had thicker and longer fur in the mane area, though like all known lionesses, they did not have manes.

The Barbary lion lived in the arid mountain regions of North Africa known as the Atlas mountains. Unlike other African lion species, they were solitary cats, spending most of their lives alone or with a single companion. Food was not plentiful in their region. They ate large animals, such as gazelle, deer, sheep, and wild boar.

The cause of the Barbary lion's extinction began with Ancient Rome. Barbary lions were the primary lions captured by the Romans to use in Coliseum games and slaughtered on a whim on orders of the Emperor. The wild population might have recovered if not for the colonization of French and Arabian settlers. Many lions were shot, considered threats by settlers, and the lions' territories shrank. Their already limited food source became scarce, and the lions simply could not survive.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, studies have been conducted at zoos around the world hoping to find pure samples of the Barbary lion in order reintroduce this species to the wild. There have been some promising prospects, and using genetics, groups of zoo-bound lions have been positively determined to be descendants of the Barbary. The chance of finding a living pure-blooded Barbary lion remains unclear, however.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Barbary Lion?

The Barbary lion, also known as the Atlas lion, was a subspecies of lion that once roamed North Africa, including the Atlas Mountains. It was distinguished by its large size and a dark, full mane extending over the shoulders and belly. The last recorded sighting of a wild Barbary lion was in Morocco in the 1950s, leading to the belief that it is now extinct in the wild.

How did the Barbary Lion differ from other lion subspecies?

Barbary lions were among the largest lion subspecies, with males weighing up to 250 kilograms. They had a distinctive physical appearance, characterized by a darker and fuller mane than other African lions. This mane often extended over the shoulder and around the belly, providing better insulation in the cooler Atlas Mountains climate.

Are there any Barbary Lions left in the world?

While the Barbary lion is extinct in the wild, there have been efforts to identify and breed individuals in captivity that possess Barbary lion ancestry. Zoos and private collections, particularly in Morocco, claim to have Barbary lions, but their genetic purity is uncertain. Conservation programs are attempting to preserve and increase the numbers of these majestic animals.

What led to the extinction of the Barbary Lion in the wild?

Overhunting by humans, habitat destruction, and the persecution of lions due to livestock predation were the primary causes of the Barbary lion's extinction in the wild. European hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries prized these lions as trophies, which led to a rapid decline in their population.

What efforts are being made to conserve the Barbary Lion?

Conservation efforts for the Barbary lion include identifying lions with potential Barbary ancestry in captivity and breeding programs aimed at preserving these genetic traits. The Moroccan government has established the Rabat Zoo, which houses and breeds lions that are believed to be descendants of the Barbary lion, in hopes of someday reintroducing them into a protected area in the wild.

Could the Barbary Lion ever be reintroduced into the wild?

Reintroduction of the Barbary lion into the wild is a complex and challenging endeavor. It would require a suitable habitat, a stable and genetically diverse population, and significant efforts to mitigate human-lion conflicts. While there are no immediate plans for reintroduction, conservationists continue to explore the possibility as part of the species' long-term recovery strategy.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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