Barbary Lion Information

I am a Barbary lion. Panthera leo leo, also known as the Atlas lion and the Nubian lion. Few folks know the difference between Barbaries and the popular African lion, so this page is meant to educate the unfamiliar.

I am extinct in the wild; less than a hundred descendents of the original wild Barbaries still exist, scattered with diluted bloodlines, in the zoos of the world.

I do not live on the savanna. I don't interact with hyenas and cheetahs and wild dogs. I don't hunt zebras and wildebeest and elephants. I don't live in a pride - I am not a social cat.

I live in the forested mountains of northern Africa, where there are rocks and seasons with greenery and snow. I interact with the occasional Barbary leopard and Atlas bear; they were alive when I was. I hunt Barbary red deer, wild boar, Barbary sheep, and Cuvier's gazelles. I live alone or with only one other lion as my huntmate.

I am bigger than other lions - half again their size. I am longer-bodied, low-slung, shaggy-furred, shorter-muzzled. My eyes are amber, not brown.

I am a Barbary lion. I am not the African lions you know.

Physical Characteristics

Barbary lions are the largest of the lion sub-species, with males ranging 400-600 lbs and females ranging 250-400 lbs. (To compare, an African lion averages 400 lbs, with the female averaging 275.) Barbaries were approximately 9-11 feet in length. Despite being heavier and longer than African lions, Barbaries only stood between 2'7" and 3'3" at the withers, anywhere from 3-11 inches shorter than African lions. Barbary limbs are shorter, the torso more robust and muscular with a deeper chest and well-rounded hindquarters. Barbaries have wide faces and rounded cheeks; their muzzles, which are shorter than those of African lions, are also proportionally narrower. More specifically, Barbaries have a higher occiput (back of the head) with a more pointed crown, creating a straighter line between the tip of the nose and the back of the head. Also, Barbaries have a narrow postorbital bar, which Asiatic lions share; Barbaries are more closely related to Asiatic lions than African lions, and it's commonly believed that Barbaries possessed the same bellyfold that Asiatic lions have.

The most well-known characteristic is the thick, dark, full mane of the males that extends over the shoulders and along the belly; while all Barbaries have this mane, this mane does not necessarily indicate that a lion is a Barbary or Barbary descendent. The color and fullness of the leonine mane is determined by many things, including ambient temperature, so many non-Barbary lions in cooler areas (such as North American or European zoos) have developed a Barbary-like mane. The mane itself is blonde around the face, with the rest of it being a mixture of tawny grey, bright brown, and blackish brown hairs; it becomes darker towards the lion's rear. Barbaries also have slightly darker, more greyish fur and a noticeably shaggier pelt; females and young males have extra-long hairs around the neck and throat, along the back of the forelegs, and along the belly. They have a thick, full tail-tuft. Their eyes have very light, clear irises and appear to be golden or amber, rather than the brown of African lions.


Unlike African and Asiatic lions, Barbaries actively preferred forested, mountainous terrain. They lived in northern Africa, though the population was likely less dense in the eastern stretch (modern Libya and Egypt) because of the aridity of the region. By the early 18th century, lions had disappeared from that region, leaving an isolated population in the Atlas Mountains (modern Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia). Due to the relative scarcity of food (compared to the herds roaming the savanna), Barbary lions were loners, though they would occasionally live in same-sex pairs. Barbaries hunted wild boar, Barbary sheep, Cuvier's gazelles, and Barbary red deer, though they'd also take advantage of Arab-domesticated cows, sheep, and even horses. Though their hunting methods were never documented, it's presumed that they used death by strangulation, like other big cats.

Males and females came together only to breed; their breeding season is thought to have been in January. Records from captivity show that their gestation was approximately 110 days, after which 1-6 cubs were born, with 3-4 being most common. The cubs were heavily spotted with very dark rosettes and weighed around 3.5 pounds at birth, gaining an average of 3.5 ounces every day. Their eyes opened around the sixth day, and they began walking at thirteen days. Cubs stayed with their mother until they reached maturity - about two years - at which point they separated. Females start coming into estrous when they're two years old, but don't generally conceive until they're 3-4 years old. Males start being interested in breeding between 24-30 months, but don't normally sire cubs before the age of three, often not until they're four.

History and Extinction

The Egyptians were the first humans to encounter the Barbary lions; Berbers soon followed, forming small villages and farms across the mountains of North Africa some three thousand years ago. Neither people offered a true threat to the Barbaries who roamed the Atlas Mountains. The Roman Empire, on the other hand, proved lethal to the lion population. They captured and imported thousands of Barbaries to entertain people in Coliseum games over the course of six centuries. As the Arab presence in northern African grew, Barbaries were branded a nuisance and hunted down; rewards were offered for every lion killed. When more modern European hunters came with firearms, led by local guides, the remaining Barbary population was destroyed.

During this time, Barbary lions had been offered in lieu of taxes and as gifts to royal families of Morocco and Ethiopia. The rulers of Morocco kept these 'royal lions' through war and insurrection, splitting the collection between zoos when the royal family went into exile briefly; some were returned to the palace when the exiled ruler returned to the throne. After a respiratory disease nearly wiped out the royal lions, the current ruler established the Temara Zoo in Rabat, Morocco to house the lions and improve their quality of life. There remains a handful of 'royal lions' to this day that have the right pedigree and physical characteristics to be considered mostly-pure Barbary descendents.

The Barbary lion first became extinct in Tripoli in 1700, then in Tunisia in 1891, Algeria in 1899, and finally, the last known Barbary lion in the wild was killed in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco in 1922. In Tunisia, extinction was partly due to the hunting by French and Arab sportsmen, as well as widespread deforestation and human settlement. In Algeria, it became extinct primarily due to hunting, as the hunting of these lions was so encouraged that the two great lion-hunting tribes were not only exempt from having to pay taxes, but they were paid liberally for the skins they collected. In Morocco, the proliferation of firearms during the civil wars and the rise of banditry resulted in the hunting down the last of the Barbary lions.

The Atlas Lion Project

Wildlink International, a UK-based organization, teamed up with Dr. Noboyuki Yamaguchi from the University of Oxford to launch the ambitious Atlas Lion Project, an effort to identify existing Barbary descendents and set up a selective breeding program with the intention to eventually re-introduce the sub-species to the wild. Wildlink International would raise the necessary funds for the project (approx. $150k), and Oxford would perform the research. At the time, records suggested that around sixty different lions in captivity might have Barbary ancestry. Since physical appearance alone cannot ascertain a lion's heritage, the search began for a genetic marker to identify the Barbary lion, using the skeletal remains of Barbaries found in museums around the world. In 2006, results of mitochondrial DNA research showed a mtDNA haplotype that is unique to the Barbary lion.

Currently, Wildlink International has disappeared and left many completely unaware as to what may have happened. With no money raised, Dr. Yamaguchi performed as much research as he could on his own limited funding. However, as his own money ran out, the Atlas Lion Project was halted, due in entirety to lack of funds. I have no news on any progress being made on a new fund-raising organization; those zoos with potential Barbary descendents are breeding as carefully as they can, with limited knowledge on which lions genetically are Barbary in heritage.

Content © Being Lion, 2005-2014. Header photo © Jonathan Danker. Design courtesy of Selfwright Designs.