The Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo), also known as the Atlas lion is a subspecies of lion that became extinct in the wild in the 20th century. Its former habitat range was in North Africa encompassing the region from Morocco to Egypt. And over the last few years there have been growing calls for the reintroduction of the Babrary lion to the wild in Morocco.
What makes this extraordinary is that there are many scientists who believe the lion is extinct. Yet others claim there are 90 lions alive in zoos including 35 in Rabat.
The Moroccan Ministry of Water and Forests had raised the matter in 2000, with the growing awareness of the danger threatening this species.
The reintroduction of the Atlas lions in their natural sphere is deemed a long-term project that would necessitate both significant human and financial efforts to achieve it.
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 the population 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 their ambitious International Barbary Lion Project.
Oxford used the very latest 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. These samples were returned to Oxford University where the science team extracted the DNA sequence which identified the Barbary as a separate subspecies.
Although the Barbary may be 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) can 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.
As of March 2010, two alleged barbary lion cubs have been moved to 'The Texas Zoo' in Victoria, Texas where efforts are being made to preserve the endangered species under the WildLink International conservation programme
In Morocco a protected area of 10,000 hectares has allegedly been defined in a sparsely populated area in order to build this ambitious project.
As recently as last week La Vie Eco was writing that "Moroccan civil society has been mobilized recently in support of the kingdom’s mountain lions". There is reportedly an internet a petition circulating calling for the reintroduction of the atlas lions to their natural environment, which proponents say is Morocco’s Atlas mountains.
The main sources of natural prey for the predators of the Atlas Mountains were Barbary Stag and gazelle. Another particular favorite, and somewhat easier target, were the herds of cows and sheep kept by man. The method of hunting was never documented, but it is believed that they used the same death by strangulation method as do the other big cats of the world.