Monday, April 15, 2013

Examining the Extinction of the Barbary Lion and Its Implications for Felid Conservation

Great research article on the Barbary or Atlas lion:
Citation: Black SA, Fellous A, Yamaguchi N, Roberts DL (2013) Examining the Extinction of the Barbary Lion and Its Implications for Felid Conservation. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60174. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060174
Editor: Alfred L. Roca, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States of America

See an abstract below:
The North African ‘Barbary lion’ or ‘Atlas lion’ occupied the Maghreb, the region isolated from the rest of non-arid Africa by the Sahara. Until the 18th century, Barbary lions ranged from the Atlas Mountains to the Mediterranean. Extensive persecution in the 19th century reduced populations to remnants in Morocco in the west, and Algeria and Tunisia further east, all of which were extirpated during the 20th century.
In the 16–18th centuries many accounts reported lions in the western Maghreb (northern Morocco) near the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Up to the 1830s lions were still seen in these coastal areas, the Rif mountains and the Marmora forest, however records remain sparse throughout the 19th century. By 1880 lions had retreated south of the Bou Regreg and Taza passes into the Atlas Mountains and areas bordering the Sahara, where human populations were largely nomadic. Previous commentators suggested Barbary lions were extirpated sometime between 1920 and 1930. Later sightings, however, have since been documented with the last in the High Atlas in 1942.
...Several menageries in Europe held Barbary lions in medieval times and they were popular exhibits in public zoological gardens in the 1800s. By the early 1900s zoos and circuses in Europe and North America often promoted their lions as “Barbary”, although true representatives were said to be only found in the collection of the Sultan of Morocco, derived from animals caught by local tribes. The significance of this collection was not recognized until the 1970s after the lions were moved from the Royal Palace, Rabat, to a new zoo at Temara when a study identified animals with physical characteristics of the Barbary lion.
  ...Up to the late 1800s, hunters reported lions traversing from northwest Algeria, westwards into Morocco and from northeastern Algeria eastwards into Tunisia. After the 1880s, the pattern of sightings suggest that lion populations retreated broadly in two directions; in Morocco southwards away from coastal regions through the Rif, Middle and High Atlas Mountains and the Saharan fringes; and in Algeria eastwards into the Tell Atlas and the Aurès Mountains bordering Tunisia. In both regions small populations survived at low densities in remote areas for several generations. Literature and oral accounts suggest that lions persisted through certain behavioral adaptations (hunting domestic livestock, engaging in nocturnal activity, living in small groups or pairs) and shifts in range (leaving deforested localities, moving to outlying areas and higher altitudes, and following water points in arid regions). Many of these particular behavioral adaptations have since been observed in contemporary populations of lions in human-dominated landscapes in sub-Saharan Africa as well as in restricted available habitat in India.
...Insights from historical sightings are relevant to current lion conservation. We suggest that wild lions persisted in the Maghreb into the 1950s, much later than previously recognized. The lion is a well-known, visible and potentially threatening species, yet small populations survived in North Africa decades after being generally considered extinct. This persistence reflects the recent rediscovery of a small population of Barbary leopard nearly 20 years after the last previous sighting and a decade since being declared extinct. Careful consideration should be given to mammalian carnivores currently presumed extinct or near-extinct in other regions, coupled with a greater understanding of extinction patterns and the conservation potential in relict populations.

Finally, we suggest caution when considering the current conservation status of lions. Although lions in the Maghreb adapted to reduced population density, prey availability and habitat encroachment, our analysis reveals that lion group-living behavior did not change significantly as human pressures increased. As a pride-forming species, P. leo populations are prone to collapse, whereas other felids may survive at lower local population densities by not living in social groups. Lions in today’s small populations in Central and West Africa persist, even if rarely seen, in fragmented remnants, yet clearly exist at the edge of a precipitous drop into extinction. Continued, carefully considered conservation effort remains vitally important.


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