The earliest known lion ancestor is a form like Panthera gombaszoegensis from early Pleistocene (about 1.5 million years old) deposits at Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. It had both lion- and tiger-like characters. Primitive lions (Panthera leo fossilis) dispersed in the Old World about 500,000 years ago, in harmony with changing climate and the spread of steppe-like terrain, to which lions were well adapted. "Panthera youngi", with similarities to both cave and American lions, appeared in northeastern China (Choukoutien) some 350,000 years ago or less. Probably it links Panthera leo fossilis and the "spelaea" group (cave lions of Eurasia and America) the other category being the "leo" group including the modern lions of southern Asia and Africa. (Harington, 1996)
Molecular phylogenetic studies suggested that modern lions share a common ancestor in the very recent past, estimated at between 55,000 and 200,000 years ago (O'Brien et al., 1987). Based on genetic distance, the North African-Asiatic lion is estimated to have separated from the African population as recently as 100,000 years ago (O'Brien et al., 1987).
The first humans in the range of the North African or Barbary lion clung to the River Nile for protection against the harshness of the desert. These Egyptians were the first to challenge the Barbary lions with spears and arrows. The Berbers came to found small villages across the mountains of North Africa and eke out a living from small farms, about 3000 years ago. They defended their homes against the lions, but they were no real threat for the Barbary lion population.
It was the Roman Empire that first reduced the Barbary to small numbers. Roman Emperors sought to entertain the people and to reassure them that their civilization had control over nature. The ancient Romans imported lions from North Africa to use in the games of the Coliseum in Rome, and other such arenas. It is known that literally thousands were taken from their homes to other parts of the Roman empire to serve as gladiator's rivals. The Roman carnage ended after six centuries, but the Barbary’s troubles were not over. The Vandals ]and Byzantine Empire briefly held sway over the land until the Arabs came in the 600s. As the Arab presence grew, the lions retreated. They were branded a nuisance and a reward was offered for every lion destroyed.
With the advent of the European hunter in the last century, remaining Barbary lion numbers plummeted. Local guides in the mountains of Tunisia and Morocco would track lions for European hunting for sport, live animals for zoos or museum collections.
Lions were extirpated from Tripolitania (western-Libya) as early as 1700. The last known Barbary lion in Tunisia was killed in 1891 near Babouch, between Tabarka and Ain-Draham. The last known lion in Algeria was killed in 1893 near Batna, 97 km south of Constantine. although the last Algerian lion may have been shot in an unknown location as recently as 1943. In nowadays Tunisia and Algeria the Turks had encouraged the killing of Lions by paying well for the skins. After the French occupation the price went down: the French paid only 50 francs for a skin. On the other hand, many Frenchmen in North Africa became relentless Lion hunters. In Algeria over 200 Lions were killed between 1873 and 1883. Lions disappeared from the Moroccan coast by the mid-l 800s. In Morocco lions survived well into the 20th century, but finally ceased to exist in the 1940s. The last kill was recorded in 1942 on the northern side of the Tizi-n-Tichka pass in the Atlas Mountains, near the road between Marrakesh and Ouarzazat, two major tourist destinations today. (Harper, 1945; Guggisberg, 1961; Nowell and Jackson, 1996; Van den Hoek, Ostende 1999; Yamaguchi and Haddane, 2002)
Meanwhile it was said that sultans and kings of Morocco had been presented lions as the sign of obedience by the nobles, as well as by indigenous Berber people who had shared the Atlas Mountains with the last Barbary lions. Over the coming half-century the royal lions survived war and insurrection. In 1953, when Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Youssef (later King Mohammed V) was forced to abdicate and went into exile, the royal lions ( 21 in total) too lost their home at the palace. Three of them were sent to a zoo in Casablanca and the rest were sent to a zoo in Meknès. After the sultan came back to the palace in 1955, the Meknès lions moved back to Rabat again, but the Casablanca lions never came back. Meanwhile the rest of the world continued to assume the Barbary lion was extinct – a premature belief which nearly became fact when a respiratory disease hit the royal lions hard in the late 1960s. King Hassan II, then the owner, decided to reduce the risk and improve life for the lions. A new enclosure was completed in Temara, near Rabat, to house the royal lions, and in 1973, under the administration of the Ministry of Agriculture, this became Rabat Zoo. (Yamaguchi and Haddane, 2002)
Some lions in Temara Zoo in Rabat were identified in 1974 by Leyhausen and Hemmer (Leyhausen 1975) as having physical characteristics of the Barbary lion: very clear light iris, rather than brown; mane spreading behind the shoulders and covering the belly right to the groin, high occiput (back of the head), short legs and deep chest (W. York quoted in introduction to Leyhausen 1975) but none appeared absolutely flawless (Leyhausen 1975).
The current royal lions in Rabat Zoo have not only the right Barbary looks, but also, very importantly, the right pedigree supported by circumstantial evidence. Although it may not be very solid, the existence of such evidence clearly separates the royal lions from all the other big-maned lions whose pedigrees are untraceable. (Yamaguchi and Haddane, 2002) These lions and their descendents will now be studies to see if they possess both phenotype and genotype of the Barbary lion. These lions will be part of the Atlas Lion Project, a selective breeding
project in order to try to restore the lost Barbary lion. The final phase of the project will see the lions released into a National Park in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.