Table of Contents
International Journal of Evolutionary Biology
Volume 2016, Article ID 6901892, 9 pages
Review Article

The Challenges and Relevance of Exploring the Genetics of North Africa’s “Barbary Lion” and the Conservation of Putative Descendants in Captivity

Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NZ, UK

Received 23 March 2016; Revised 5 June 2016; Accepted 17 July 2016

Academic Editor: F. González-Candelas

Copyright © 2016 Simon A. Black. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


The lions of North Africa were unique in ecological terms as well as from a human cultural perspective and were the definitive lions of Roman and Medieval Europe. Labelled “Barbary” lions, they were once numerous in North Africa but were exterminated by the mid-20th century. Despite subsequent degeneration of the Atlas Mountain ecosystem through human pressures, the feasibility of lion reintroduction has been debated since the 1970s. Research on the long-established captive lion collection traditionally kept by the sultans and kings of Morocco has enabled selective breeding coordinated across Moroccan and European zoos involving a significant number of animals. Molecular genetic research has recently provided insights into lion phylogeny which, despite previous suggestions that all lions share recent common ancestry, now indicates clear distinctions between lions in North, West, and Central Africa, the Middle East, and India versus those in Southern and Eastern Africa. A review of the evolutionary relevance of North African lions highlights the important challenges and opportunities in understanding relationships between Moroccan lions, extinct North African lions, and extant lion populations in India and West and Central Africa and the potential role for lions in ecosystem recovery in those regions.