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Kent research reveals lost lion populations going unnoticed

A lion seen from the air in the Atlas Mountains, during a flight on the Casablanca-Dakar air route (Photo: Flandrin c.1925).: This is the last visual record of the wild ‘Barbary’ lion of North Africa.New research by conservationists from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent has revealed that not only could the now-extinct Barbary Lion have persisted until the 1960s in North Africa, but also that this unique sub-species towards the end of its existence was left unnoticed for over a decade.

Published in open access journal, PLoS ONE, the research found authentic records of lions existing in North Africa as late as 1956; considerably later than the well-quoted accounts of the 1920s and 1940s.

Using information gathered from old hunting records, photographs, museum specimens, published articles and recent interviews, the research by Dr Simon Black and Dr David Roberts also revealed a lion’s behaviour does not change as populations get smaller. Instead lions continue to form prides even up until they become extinct.

Dr Black, Conservation Research Associate, said: ‘Colonial hunters such as Sir Harry Johnston (who famously discovered the Okapi) embarked on trips to Algeria specifically to hunt the last Barbary Lions, but never saw them. Even though Johnston suspected a few lions still existed there in the early 1900s, he would never have guessed that a small population could have clung on for a further 50 years.’

Dr Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Biodiversity Conservation, said: ‘When a species becomes very rare as it heads towards extinction it can go unnoticed for a long period of time. Because of this it is unlikely that the last record of a species was the time it became extinct, it probably existed for years or even decades before finally disappearing.’

Using statistical models developed by Dr Roberts it is thought that the Barbary Lion may have survived into the 1960s. The few remaining lions descended directly from the Moroccan Royal Collection, and still living in a few zoos in Morocco and Europe, may therefore be more closely related to wild Barbary Lions than previously thought.

Dr Black added: ‘The research will not only help us manage lions descended from the Moroccan Royal Collection, possibly the last of the Barbary Lions, but highlights the need for continued conservation of the extremely threatened and rarely observed remnant lion populations in Central and West Africa.’

‘Examining the extinction of Panthera leo in North Africa and its implications for felid conservation’ is published by PLoS ONE and is available online at

The paper is co-authored by Dr Amina Fellous – Agence Nationale pour la Conservation de la Nature, Algeria and Dr Nobuyuki Yamaguchi – Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Qatar.

The Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology is part of the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation.


Story published at 9:07am 4 April 2013

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Last Updated: 23/05/2013