Wildlife Watch, Barbary Lions: Lost and Found

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The discovery that a presumably ordinary lion rescued from a bankrupt traveling circus is in fact a rare, black-maned Barbary lion has caught scientists at South Africa's Hoedspruit Research and Breeding Center for Endangered Species by surprise, according to a report in the newspaper East African.

The Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) was once common across the whole of North Africa. The male differs from its cousin, the African lion, by the unusually long, full black mane that runs the length of the body.

The ancient Romans put the first dent in the Barbary lions' numbers by capturing the animals to slaughter Christians in the Colosseum. Arabs north of the Sahara killed them for their skins and to protect their livestock. Gradually they disappeared from Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. The last Barbary seen in the wild was killed in Morocco in 1920.

The lion rescued from the circus is not the only Barbary to turn up lately. Veterinarians have confirmed that 11 lions in an Ethiopian Zoo are Barbaries. The conservation organization Animal Defenders reports that more than 40 Barbary lions have been found in captivity in Morocco, in zoos around the world--and in the possession of a couple in Missouri. Why Barbaries are now "reappearing" remains a mystery.

In the meantime, scientists at the Hoedspruit Center hope to breed the Barbary lion they rescued.