Lions – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world

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Lions – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world

Power and Prestige

At first, as the workman heard the clang of metal against stone, he must have thought he’d struck his spade against a rock. But as he poked and prodded the surrounding earth, he realised that the object was in fact an animal’s skull. And not just any old animal: the size, together with the huge, pointed teeth, meant that this had to be a big carnivore.

After the remains were taken to the Natural History Museum for experts to examine, it soon became clear from their size and shape – especially the huge canines – that the skulls were both lions. But it wasn’t until 2005, seventy years after the original find, that they were subjected to modern carbon-dating techniques, and the truth was finally revealed: that they were hundreds of years old.

One animal had lived between 1420 and 1480, around the time of the bloody Wars of the Roses. The other was even older: dating back to the turbulent century between 1280 and 1385, from the time of the Crusades to the height of the Hundred Years War. Even more unexpected was the place where the skulls had been found: not some remote location on the African savannah, but far closer to home: the moat that surrounds the Tower of London. This was the oldest lion discovered in Britain since cave lions became extinct here towards the end of the last Ice Age, at least 12,000 years ago.

Today the Tower of London is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the whole of the United Kingdom, with over 3 million visitors a year. Some come to walk in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn, who was executed there in May 1536, and whose ghost reputedly stalks the corridors at night, carrying her severed head under her arm. Others want to see the Crown Jewels, the Beefeaters and the famous ravens, which, should they ever leave the Tower, will reputedly herald the downfall of both Crown and country.

Centuries ago, Londoners flocked there too, but they came to see a very different kind of spectacle: the Royal Menagerie. It is hard to imagine, in these days of books, wildlife television programmes and the Internet, just how exciting a visit to the menagerie must have been for people who would probably never have travelled more than a few miles from their home, let alone seen any animal fiercer than a fox.

The menagerie was first assembled by King John in 1210, just a few years before the hapless monarch was forced to seal the Magna Carta, changing the course of English history. John was following in the tradition of the greatest of all medieval monarchs, the Emperor Charlemagne, who had established no fewer than three menageries in present-day Germany and the Netherlands during his eighth-century reign.

William the Conqueror – King John’s great-great-grandfather – also kept a menagerie at his manor near the Oxfordshire town of Woodstock, while many other European kings enthusiastically adopted the fashion for keeping wild animals. This was partly to entertain their courtiers, but also as a show of strength – especially important for a monarch as weak and helpless as John.

The Tower of London collection would become the biggest and longest lasting of the European royal menageries, and a major tourist attraction. Exotic creatures – including tigers, leopards, elephants and even a polar bear, which would regularly swim in the adjacent River Thames – were kept there for more than 600 years.

But the lions were the most popular exhibit: from the time that Henry III was presented with three animals by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1235, through the reign of King James I, who in 1622 had a stone platform built so that he and his royal guests could watch these mighty beasts fighting each other to the death.

Distinguished visitors who came to see them included Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Pepys and William Blake. From the reign of Queen Elizabeth I onwards the public were also allowed in, for an entrance fee of 1½d (equivalent to about £1 in today’s money). Those who couldn’t stretch to this simply brought along a dead cat or dog to be fed to the lions.

In 1275 King Edward I had the lions moved into a two-storey building that was renamed the Lion Tower, where they had separate cages for sleeping and daytime activities. Richard Sabin, Principal Curator of Vertebrates in the Department of Life Sciences at the Natural History Museum, reflects on what the presence of these mighty beasts would have meant to those coming to the Tower: ‘People visiting the monarch would have had to pass through the Lion Gate. You can imagine how fearsome and terrifying it would have been to walk through an archway with lions above you and on either side. The whole idea was to reduce you to a quivering wreck before you reached the monarch.’

Certainly one distinguished prisoner was impressed: while imprisoned at the Tower in 1360, King John II of France paid a visit to the lions, living up to his nickname ‘John the Good’ by giving 20 shillings (equivalent to between £300 and £450 in today’s money) to the fortunate keeper.

But the presence of these huge, fearsome beasts at the Tower was not without incident. On one visit in 1686, an unfortunate young woman named Mary Jenkinson was stroking one of the lion’s paws when it suddenly grabbed her arm ‘with his claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her flesh from the bone’. Doctors later amputated her arm but she did not recover, and died soon afterwards.

In the 1830s, after a lion had apparently bitten a soldier, the Duke of Wellington – then Constable of the Tower – finally decided that this was no longer a suitable home for the menagerie. He had the remaining exhibits transferred to London Zoo, which had been opened a few years earlier, and also to Dublin Zoo in Ireland. The Lion Tower was demolished soon afterwards, though the Lion Gate remains standing to this day.

These real and symbolic versions of lions confirm the view that this is the indisputable ‘king of beasts’, with an air of power and authority that we both admire and envy. As a result we have taken the lion into the very heart of our society: into the corridors of power, into our art and literature, our painting and sculpture. Lions appear in myth and legend, and especially in religion. This central role is not confined to a single society or creed, for they are ubiquitous in societies throughout the world, even where they do not naturally occur. Of all our symbols, the lordly lion is one of the most potent, and one that goes back to the very beginnings of human civilisation.

In 1994, while exploring a cave system near the commune of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in the Ardèche in southern France, three scientists stumbled across an extraordinary discovery. On the walls of the cave were hundreds of paintings: clear, confident markings depicting more than a dozen different kinds of animals, including panthers, bears and lions.

The paintings look as if they were painted only recently, and yet they are actually some of the oldest cave art so far discovered – dating back between 30,000 and 32,000 years. They have a dynamic, forceful – almost three-dimensional – quality, the result of techniques rarely found in other examples of prehistoric art: the background has been scraped clear for the artist to work on, and lines have been etched around the outline of each image to make them stand out. The lions are clearly engaged in a hunt, their bodies taut and low as if stalking their prey.

These paintings at the Chauvet Caves are just the earliest of countless examples of depictions of lions in art. We do not know what was in the minds of those prehistoric hunters as they created those vibrant images, but we do know that since the first humans began to write down their thoughts, they have regarded lions as embodying the very human concepts of power, prestige, strength and bravery.

One of the most famous surviving ancient monuments in the world, the Sphinx at Giza, dating back to at least 2500 BC, has the head of a man but the body of a lion. The Greeks named a settlement in the Nile Delta ‘Leontopolis’, meaning ‘city of lions’, while the Egyptians buried lions – which represented wealth as well as power – in their Pharaohs’ tombs. Later, in roughly 1500 BC, accounts of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt noted that they carried banners decorated with images of lions. About the same time, the entrance to the Bronze Age citadel at Mycenae, in southern Greece, which has a sculpture of two lionesses above the arch, was known as the Lion Gate.

Other ancient North African and Middle Eastern cultures, including the Nubians, Mesopotamians and Persians, also featured lions widely in their iconography, as did the Greeks and Romans. Lions are prominent symbols in eastern cultures and religions too, including Hinduism and Buddhism. The legacy of these ancient peoples’ obsession with lions lives on today. In cities throughout the world, carved lions can still be found on gates, bridges, tombs and temples, and there are also many lion statues, such as the famous bronzes beneath Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Lion symbolism has left its mark in less obvious ways. The mainly Sikh surname ‘Singh’ – now one of the commonest and most widespread family names in the world – comes from an ancient Vedic word meaning ‘lion’ (Asiatic lions of the race persica would have been common and widespread); while the nation of Singapore gets its name from the Malay words meaning ‘lion city’, even though lions have never been native to South East Asia.

Lions also feature widely in ancient writings: they appear in Aesop’s Fables, the Talmud of Judaism, Koran of Islam and of course the Christian Bible, most famously in the tale of Daniel in the lions’ den. Old Testament passages, including this verse from Proverbs, frequently extol the lion’s bravery: ‘The lion, which is strongest among beasts and turneth not away for any …’

Throughout history, rulers have frequently appropriated the lion’s power and strength as a symbol of their own supremacy, as King John hoped to do when he created the Royal Menagerie. So it’s hardly surprising that lions feature on the English royal coat of arms. But King John wasn’t the first monarch to employ lions as a patriotic symbol: that honour goes to his older and more celebrated brother, King Richard I – also known, of course, as Richard the Lionheart, or as this French-speaking monarch would have referred to himself, ‘Richard Cœur de Lion’.

Lions had been used in heraldry long before Richard came to the throne in 1189. They appeared in various forms, but always represented the traditional virtues of bravery, courage and strength. But it was a coat of arms featuring three lions given to Richard’s paternal grandfather, Geoffrey of Anjou, when he was knighted in 1128, that changed the way we regard this animal for ever. Dr Paul Fox, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, explains: ‘What’s fascinating about this shield is the way the lions were depicted, opening up a whole new chapter in the history of art. These are “lions rampant”, in other words lions that are rearing up in a menacing, pugilistic pose.’

As Paul Fox points out, there are plenty of other examples of lions in art before that time, but they almost always featured the animals either on all fours or sitting down. And until Richard saw the lion’s potential as a national symbol, coats of arms had usually been attached to individuals, not nations. At first, Richard chose a single lion rampant, but in 1198 this was altered to feature three lions passant (walking) to represent the king’s rule over three of his most important realms: as King of England, Duke of Normandy and Duke of Aquitaine.

By adopting the lion as the symbol of English royal power, embodied in his nickname, Richard hoped to create an image of invulnerable strength that would enable him to defend his kingdom against internal treachery and foreign invaders. This was an essential strategy, because during his ten-year reign, until his death in 1199, Richard spent less than twelve months in England, spending the rest of the time away fighting in the Crusades.

Four centuries later, when the two crowns of Scotland and England were united under James VI and I in 1603, the three lions symbol was combined with the Scottish unicorn to create the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, a symbol still widely used today.

In 1996 the original symbol gained a new lease of life when it featured as the title of the most successful football song of all time (admittedly in a field not known for its excellence). The anthem ‘Three Lions’ (also known as ‘Football’s Coming Home’) was written and performed by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds to coincide with England hosting the European Championships. Its title referred to the badge worn by every England footballer, and evoked the famous 1966 World Cup triumph over Germany. But even after ‘thirty years of hurt’, it didn’t work – England lost in the semi-final to Germany (as usual, on penalties).

Yet the three lions symbol continues to inspire national pride, and of course will always be linked with Richard the Lionheart. It seems churlish to point out that although he is generally regarded by posterity as a strong king, most historians of the period now consider that Richard was just as poor a ruler as his younger brother John. Such, perhaps, is the power of the lion’s image.

Nowadays, it’s hard to spend more than an hour or so watching television, reading a newspaper or magazine, or walking down a high street, without seeing at least one example of a lion being used as a symbol. You cannot even eat a shop-bought egg without finding a red lion stamped on its shell (the stamp indicating that it has been laid by a hen vaccinated against salmonella). Lions can also be found on T-shirts, school badges, flags, chocolate bars and countless advertising hoardings. Companies using a lion as their logo include Peugeot cars, Löwenbräu beer (the name translates as ‘lion’s brew’), English football’s Premier League, several football clubs including Chelsea and Aston Villa (and of course England), Cunard cruises, the rock band Queen, Sky Sports and, most famously of all, the Hollywood film giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

MGM can boast what is perhaps the longest continuous use of a lion as a commercial logo, since the roaring male lion first appeared at the beginning of its films back in 1924. Since then there have been seven different lions, the last of which, the aptly named Leo, has been in continuous use since 1957. But the MGM lions weren’t just a symbol: several also appeared in a number of MGM films and TV commercials, including the Tarzan series. One widely circulated story suggests that an early MGM lion actually killed a man on set, but like so many good Hollywood stories, this appears to be an urban myth.

Other cinematic representations of lions include the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (of which more later), Elsa the lioness in Born Free, and the most recent incarnation, Disney’s The Lion King, a cinematic retelling of Hamlet – but with a suitably happy ending. Even happier for Disney, as the film has grossed almost $1 billion since it was first released in 1994 – making it the twentieth highest earning film of all time.

Lions aren’t just used as symbols by companies, but also by individuals, perhaps in a quest to emulate the power and prestige achieved by Richard the Lionheart. Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who reigned from 1930 to 1974, called himself the ‘Lion of Judah’, while Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein named one of his army’s tanks the ‘Lion of Babylon’.

The social media site Instagram, on which users post photographs of themselves and their friends for all to share and see, has given rise to a new trend. Rich young Middle Eastern playboys pose with their latest expensive sports car, alongside a captive male lion. This is presumably designed to advertise their potency and prestige, ironically just as King Richard did more than eight centuries ago, when he wore a lion on his shield while fighting the infidels.

For all these people, lions represent a convenient, symbolic shorthand for the qualities they wish to display, ranging from simple prestige to a more overt (and sometimes sinister) display of power. We may scoff at such obvious symbolism; and yet when the British Lions rugby team take to the field, their sheer animal power is indicated by their very name.

Lions are not simply used to sell products or for personal self-aggrandisement. More subtle depictions of the power of lions feature prominently in literature, such as the character Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. At first, Aslan (named from the Turkish word for lion) appears to be the classic representation of the symbolic animal: the all-powerful lord and guardian of Narnia. Yet as the story develops, we realise that Aslan has other qualities: as well as being powerful he can also be gentle. For Lewis himself, Aslan was the representation of the figure of Christ, combining the virtues of strength and mercy in a single, complex figure. The parallels are obvious: Aslan rules at a distance and sacrifices himself for his kingdom. But Ralph Pite, Professor of English at the University of Bristol, believes there is more to the character than this – Aslan represents both the authority and the wildness of lions, disappearing at the end of the story: ‘I think there’s the sense that the spirit that rules Creation – as C.S. Lewis would have seen it – is kingly, yet also inscrutable, unpredictable and untameable.’

For perhaps the most baffling image of a lion, we must turn to another symbolic representation, this time on a tin of Tate & Lyle’s golden syrup. Look closely and you will notice a picture of a rotting lion carcass surrounded by a swarm of bees, together with the slogan: ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’. This refers to the Old Testament story of Samson, who killed a lion and then noticed that a swarm of bees had taken over the carcass, making honey there. This in turn gave rise to the bizarre – and mistaken – ancient belief that bees can be spontaneously generated from the carcass of an animal (usually a cow), a process known as ‘bugonia.’

The eponymous co-founder of Tate & Lyle, the nineteenth-century entrepreneur Abram Lyle, was known to be a religious man, but he may also have seen the chance to link his sugar-derived product with the more natural image of honey. But whatever the origin of the logo, it certainly worked: the design of the golden syrup tin has barely changed since it was first launched in 1885, and it recently entered the Guinness Book of World Records as Britain’s oldest brand.

Amid all this symbolism, what of the animal at the centre – the lion itself? It is easy to forget that this is a real, living, breathing wild creature; and like all wild creatures it exists entirely independently of however we may choose to regard it.

One important aspect of the lives of lions is that, uniquely among the world’s thirty-seven species of cats, they are social animals, living together in groups of up to half a dozen related females and their cubs. Male lions are often solitary, but may also live in pairs or small groups of up to six related individuals – either bands of brothers, cousins of a similar age, or simply cohorts that have ganged up together. Prides are usually headed by one or two dominant males.

Lions are not the largest of the big cats: that honour goes to the Amur (or Siberian) tiger. Tigers are both larger and heavier than lions, the biggest individuals being almost 4 metres from nose to tail, and weighing up to 325 kilos. In comparison, a male lion can reach a total length of about 3.5 metres and weighs up to 225 kilos. And yet a fully-grown male lion does appear to be very large indeed: perhaps because of its huge, bushy mane, or maybe simply because a male looks so huge compared with the females, which are typically about one-third smaller and lighter than their mates.

This may help to explain why we continue to regard the lion as uniquely magnificent, but does it match the reality of lions themselves? Powerful they may be, yet they can also appear – at least to the untrained human eye – lazy, sleepy and slow. But as lion expert Lizzie Bewick points out:

In whose eyes are they lazy? They appear to be layabouts because we are diurnal, so we usually get to see lions in daylight, legs stretched out, comatose under a tree where they are shaded from the searing heat. They could have been active all night hunting, killing, fighting with hyenas, patrolling, or feasting – after which any sensible lion is going to be conked out come dawn!

Despite the impression often given by wildlife films, lions are not particularly efficient hunters. The vast majority of chases end with them pulling up short of their target, which escapes at speed. Only one in three hunts are successful – and that is when several animals hunt co-operatively; when a single lion is involved their success rate falls to less than one in five.

It is often assumed that most of the hunting is done by the lionesses rather than the males. In part this is true: it makes sense in a pride to have a division of labour, with the males defending their turf, meals, pride and offspring, while the lionesses bring home the bacon. But it may also be because almost all lion hunts ever filmed take place during the day, when a hunting male would stand out like a sore thumb because of his huge mane, which might show above even the longest grass. At night, when this is no longer an issue, males hunt more frequently; and they will also join forces with the females when they are pursuing a particularly large animal such as a buffalo, which may weigh more than a tonne.

Lions can and do hunt large grazing animals including wildebeest, giraffes and even, on occasion, baby elephants that have become separated from their herd. Yet they are also opportunists, taking prey as diverse as brown fur seals on the coast of Namibia, ostriches on the African plains, and a wide range of smaller items including mice, fish and even insects.

But lions do not always bother to kill to eat. Indeed in one of their main strongholds, the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania, more than half their food items are obtained by scavenging. Lions are often joined at a kill by hyenas, which like them also both scavenge and kill for themselves, and may even use their superior numbers to snatch food away from their larger relative. But there are no prizes for knowing that hyenas are rarely, if ever, linked with the leonine virtues of strength and bravery.

Having eaten, lions spend much of their time asleep, sometimes for hours at a time, as carloads of frustrated tourists visiting Kenya’s Masai Mara can bear witness. But even when resting, male lions must always be on the lookout for rivals. Intruding males may fight and drive away the incumbent ones, following which they will dispose of the deposed leader’s offspring – killing the tiny cubs with a single bite while their mothers look on helplessly.

Life as a male lion is nasty, brutish and short. Most will not survive more than two or three years as one of the dominant males in a pride, especially if their buddy is killed, leaving them defenceless against a couple of younger, fitter rivals. So they cannot afford to waste any time and energy bringing up another male’s cubs, but must impregnate the females and produce their own as soon as they can.

Not that lions are especially successful at mating. The male follows the female around for several days, mating quickly and often – roughly once every fifteen minutes or so, and up to seventy times in a single twenty-four-hour period. His persistence is essential: fewer than one in three matings result in the female becoming pregnant.

It is clear from looking at the lion’s behaviour and lifestyle that the way we choose to represent the lion has very little to do with the animal itself. When a lion does stand up to a charging buffalo to protect its cubs, it is not being brave or virtuous, but simply reacting instinctively to defend its genetic heritage from attack. And yet, as wildlife filmmaker Adam Chapman observes, even as an experienced naturalist he cannot help associating what he sees when he watches lions hunting with the image of power and majesty:

When you see a lioness moving through the tall grass, she just looks spectacularly lithe, athletic, and absolutely perfect for what she is about to do. Then when you see a big male following on behind, his mane blowing in the breeze, with that arrogant swagger, you really get a sense of why the male lion is such a symbol of power, of ruling over areas – because that is what they do when they hold their territories; they rule that area.

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Not all symbolic uses of the lion go along with the widely held view that lions are brave, fierce and proud. Some turn the imagery on its head, as when in Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote the eponymous hero declares that he will slay two lions to display his manliness, but when they are released they simply lie down in front of him and lick their paws. But the best known, and in many ways the most powerful, of these subversions is the portrayal of the Cowardly Lion in the movie The Wizard of Oz.

Based on an original 1900 novel by L. Frank Baum, which two years later was turned into a Broadway musical, the 1939 film is arguably the best-loved children’s movie of all time, and indeed widely considered one of the greatest of all Hollywood films. Acres of print have been devoted to analysing the hidden meanings behind the characters and plot of The Wizard of Oz, but the consensus of most critics is that the Cowardly Lion is a classic satirical inversion of the cultural icon of the lion as the ‘king of beasts’. Ralph Pite sums up this paradox:

The Cowardly Lion is just a contradiction in terms, because the lion is the epitome of courage. But by acknowledging that he is afraid, the Cowardly Lion is actually braver than people who pretend to be brave. This is consistent with lots of people’s thinking about courage: that it often consists of admitting your fearfulness. It’s a contradiction that reveals the underlying truth: that courage depends on an acknowledgement of fear.

So this lion knows he is meant to be brave, but struggles to find a way to be so. Ultimately, however, he does find his courage, by confronting his deepest fears, and is presented with a medal to mark his achievements. So like Dorothy’s other companions, the Scarecrow (seeking a brain) and the Tin Man (searching for a heart), he does eventually find what he is looking for.

Although the Cowardly Lion remains a powerful antidote to the image of the lion as invulnerable, and although several other creatures – such as the eagle, tiger, leopard and elephant – are also used to represent strength and courage, the fact remains that when it comes to being a symbol of power and prestige, the lion still occupies the pole position. In the words of Dr Samuel Johnson, the lion remains ‘the fiercest and most magnanimous of the four-footed beasts’.

Yet ironically, despite this admiration, this hasn’t stopped us from persecuting lions relentlessly – in some cases to the edge of oblivion. And that leads us back to those lion skulls found in the moat at the Tower of London, and to the animal they came from. For these were not any ordinary lions, but animals from the distinctive race known as the Barbary lion. Also known as the Nubian, North African or Atlas lion, as these names suggest, the Barbary lion comes from the Mediterranean coast of North Africa.

Barbary lions were once found from Morocco in the west, through Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, to Egypt in the east. Isolated from other lion populations in Africa by the barrier of the Sahara Desert, and from those in Asia by the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea, by the Middle Ages these animals had grown bigger than their sub-Saharan and Asiatic cousins, and become one of the largest and heaviest of all lion races.

We can only imagine what they must have been like in their prime. That vast, flowing mane, surrounding the noble face with its staring eyes. The huge, muscular body, ready to spring into action at any time. And most of all, that ear-splitting roar, that even from a distance goes through your whole body like an earthquake.

The Tower of London wasn’t the only place where Barbary lions were held in captivity. Many of the lions used to fight gladiators in the Colosseum of ancient Rome would have been Barbary lions – simply because they were easier to obtain than animals from sub-Saharan Africa. Tens of thousands of animals must have died during the carnage of that era, and were buried alongside their unfortunate human victims.

Special military units were sent abroad to capture these fierce and dangerous beasts, to provide a constant supply for the amphitheatres, using a huge and complex infrastructure to transport them back to Rome. According to one Greek eyewitness writing in the second century AD, the captors had to risk their lives to snare the lions – being unable to use spears, as this might wound their precious quarry. One way of catching the beasts was to dig a pit and place a lamb inside, to lure the lion in. They also used nets, while some men even dressed up in sheepskins to attract lions, leading the impressed observer to write: ‘O greatly daring men. What a feat they achieve, what a deed they do – they bear off that great monster like a tame sheep.’

But this was only the beginning of the Barbary lion’s long, steady and irreversible decline over the next two millennia. As Richard Sabin notes, their very separation from other lions would have made them vulnerable:

The spread of human civilisations through the Nile Delta fragmented the lion populations in North Africa, and certainly would have led to the isolation of Barbary lions from other populations of lions in Africa. This would have reduced their ability to pass on their genes by breeding with other groups and made them much more vulnerable. They really didn’t stand a chance.

Living in such a populated region also made the Barbary lion very exposed to hunting and caused a reduction in available prey animals. By the early nineteenth century they had already vanished from coastal areas of North Africa. They clung on in the forested hills and mountains of Algeria until the 1880s, and survived in Tunisia for a decade or so longer.

In his 1914 work The Book of the Lion, explorer and politician Sir Alfred Edward Pease wrote of the Barbary lion’s demise: ‘During the nineties [1890s] I myself hunted almost the whole range of the Atlas [Mountains] … and never came across a single lion track.’

Pease also suggested one reason the lions might have become extinct here: ‘The Algerian lions preyed on flocks and herds, and it was no uncommon thing for them to become man-eaters of the boldest and most accomplished kind; Gérard, who himself slew some thirty lions between 1848 and 1856, relates how one lion exterminated the population of a douar (a tribal assembly of tents), killing forty Arabs …’

During the first decades of the twentieth century a few solitary animals, pairs and small families were seen, with the last reliable sighting being of an animal shot by a French colonial hunter in 1922. However, there were several unconfirmed sightings during the period from the 1940s to the 1960s. Yet even if they did survive until then, we can now be certain that the Barbary lion is extinct in the wild. But does that mean it has gone for ever? That, of course, depends on whether there are any Barbary lions remaining alive in captivity; and if so, whether or not they are truly pure-bred individuals of this unique race.

Today, around thirty-five ‘royal lions’ are still kept in the zoo at Rabat in northern Morocco, which the authorities there have claimed are Barbary lions. So far DNA testing of some of these specimens, making comparisons with genetic material obtained from museum skins and bones, has not managed to confirm this claim: indeed, an initial test of five individuals concluded that they had not descended from Barbary lions, at least down the female, maternal line.

Nevertheless, even if these – and others held in various European zoos – are not pure-bred Barbary lions, this may not necessarily mean that the race is beyond recovery. If we can get an accurate genetic reading of captive lions, we may then be able to breed them with one another to select artificially for the Barbary genes.

That’s the hope of Dr Simon Black from the Durrell Institute for Conservation Biology at the University of Kent, who has helped to create a studbook of captive animals in several European zoos that may have Barbary lion genes, a population he estimates to be about eighty animals. He believes that over several generations a captive breeding programme could, in theory at least, provide us with an animal that would look like – and to all intents and purposes be – a Barbary lion.

If this sounds like science fiction, consider the quagga. This distinctively dark-coated subspecies of the plains (or Burchell’s) zebra could be found roaming the plains of southern Africa until the late nineteenth century, when it was finally driven to extinction by hunting.

In 1987 the South African biologist Reinhold Rau started the Quagga Project, attempting to recreate the extinct race by selectively breeding from plains zebras – those that already had the distinctive quagga-like striping on their rear body and hind legs. In early 2005 the first foal to resemble a quagga was born. Rau died the following year, secure in the knowledge that his dream to bring back the species had been at least partly accomplished. However it must be acknowledged that although the animals bear a remarkable resemblance to quaggas, genetically they remain different.

Until full-scale cloning can be developed, we will not be able to bring back any extinct race or species. And perhaps, even if at some time in the future we can, we should not be tempted to do so. The Natural History Museum’s Richard Sabin is certainly not convinced of the benefits of bringing back recently extinct species or subspecies:

I think you have to examine the reasons why they went extinct in the first place – was it just over-exploitation or have we completely destroyed their natural environment? The technology may exist in the future, but if we bring them back, can we maintain a stable environment for the animals to live in, or will they just be sideshow oddities in a zoo that people pay to go and see? We just don’t know.

But just because it may not be technically possible – or morally acceptable – to bring back the Barbary lion, those ancient skulls found in the moat at the Tower of London are still important, as Sabin explains:

The fact that we hold the remains of these animals in our museum collections means that researchers have the opportunity to extract genetic data and compare it with that from closely related species which are facing extinction. This could help conservationists make decisions that might possibly slow or halt that process. So even though it has disappeared from the wild, the Barbary lion still has a very useful role to play.

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In the meantime, what of the lion species as a whole? How is Panthera leo doing in the wild? The answer is, sadly, not very well at all. In 1950, when George and Joy Adamson were befriending Elsa the lion in what would become the book and film Born Free, there were an estimated 400,000 individual lions living in Africa. Even as recently as the early 1990s there may have been as many as 100,000 lions on the African continent.

Today there are thought to be fewer than 30,000, with numbers down by at least half in just thirty years. Few other large mammals have undergone such a rapid decline in such a short time. Several factors are to blame: habitat destruction, loss of prey to the growing trade in ‘bushmeat’, conflict with humans in an already crowded continent, and inbreeding caused by the genetic isolation of populations from one another.

The situation away from the main strongholds in eastern and southern Africa is even more serious: the remnant population living in West Africa is now down to between 860 and 1,160 individuals.

In Asia, the situation is slightly more positive, in that there the population is at least growing rather than declining. But only about 400 Asiatic lions – a separate race, Panthera leo persica, also known as the Persian or Indian lion – still exist, all living in the Gir Forest in Gujarat, north-west India. This race was once found across much of temperate and tropical Asia, but like the Barbary lion it simply could not coexist with such a high human population.

Back in the lion’s main stronghold, Africa, the situation has become so serious that the lion has now been officially listed as threatened – one level below endangered. The Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which helped to achieve this increased status of protection, has publicly stated that if the declines continue, the African lion could be extinct in the wild by the year 2050.

So, ironically, as the number of lion symbols – and their uses – continues to increase at a dramatic rate, the number of actual living, breathing lions is falling almost as fast. Of course, even if the lion does become extinct it might still remain as a symbol of power and prestige: think of mythical creatures such as the unicorn and dragon, which are no less potent for never having existed.

Can we really imagine a world without lions; or at least a world where lions no longer exist in the wild, but are confined to cages in zoos, pacing up and down in front of crowds of visitors as bored as they are?

At the same time as revering the lion, we have chipped away at its existence until the whole edifice is in danger of imminent collapse. A metaphor, you might think, for the often paradoxical – and sometimes farcical – nature of our whole relationship with the natural world. Richard Sabin reflects on the long and complex relationship between lions and us:

These specimens [the Barbary lion skulls] say an awful lot about the human attitude towards big, dangerous animals. We have spread across the face of the planet, we’ve become the dominant species, but there are things that we envy in other animals – their power, their speed, their agility – and we try to control that. And I think that the fact that we’ve taken these big, dangerous animals into captivity speaks volumes about our own species.

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Ugliest fish I’ve ever caught, slimiest too, but tastes just as good, if not better, than most fish!

Anonymous angler

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