Atlas Lions’ Eyes Burn Brightly, but Their Future May Be Dark

The story behind a once-formidable big cat now facing extinction

Atlas Lions’ Eyes Burn Brightly, but Their Future May Be Dark
Atlas lions pictured in their enclosure at the Rabat zoo, in the Moroccan capital (Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images)

There were once lions in North Africa’s woodlands — beautiful, big and strong. Local people reported seeing the animal in the wild for the last time in the 1950s and 1960s, in Algeria’s Aures Mountains, a place of resistance during the Algerian war for independence. Since then, the lion has been declared extinct in the wild, with zoos leading uncertain conservation efforts. Though the lion’s disappearance from its historical natural habitat already represents a loss of wildlife, biodiversity and cultural heritage, the emblematic animals are now at risk of disappearing even in captivity. For good.

In 1925, while traveling from Casablanca to Dakar by plane, the Algerian pied-noir Marcelin Flandrin took the last known photograph of a living Atlas lion — referring to Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, one of the lion’s most iconic original habitats. In the photo, the animal — also known as the Barbary (an alternative designation in English) or, more broadly, the North African lion — walks confidently ahead, alone, in an unspecified desert and rock relief. We perceive the shadow of its footsteps in the sand, which fade like a parting last glimpse.

The Atlas lion is special, insists Brahim Haddane, president of the National Committee of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Morocco and former director of the Rabat Zoo (also known as the Temara Zoo). The animal’s isolation from other lions south of the Sahara has engendered physical distinctions. The Atlas lion is known for its imposing physique, yellow eyes and characteristically long and dark mane that extends to its shoulders and belly. Its mane has adapted to colder winter temperatures. While we are accustomed to thinking of lions in Eastern African savannahs, the Atlas lion lived in temperate and ecologically diverse forests.

One of the largest concentrations of Atlas lions was once found in the menagerie of the Moroccan sultan, where a lion garden thrived inside the palace and political prisoners were occasionally tossed in as food for the animals. Starting in the 17th century, tribes and expeditionary forces contributed to enlarging the sultan’s collection through customary gifts. Lions were diplomatic assets and, as such, often traveled, including outside the continent.

In 1839, Sultan Abd al-Rahman offered lions to U.S. President Martin Van Buren via the American Consulate in Tangiers, an uneasy situation since foreign emoluments were forbidden. The lions stayed inside the consulate until they were sent to Pennsylvania to be auctioned off. By the early 20th century, several zoos — such as the Bronx Zoo — featured lions in their collections.

After Sultan Mohammed V’s exile from Morocco in the 1950s, Moroccan independence and the coronation of King Hassan II, the Moroccan palace lions were moved in the late 1960s from the royal menagerie to what would later become the Rabat Zoo, where a conservation program remains.

Scientific interest in the lion, with support from the Moroccan authorities and conservationists, led to classifying the physical attributes of the Atlas lion starting in the 1970s, with the aim of eventually promoting a reproduction program of near-purebreds to reduce hybridization. A core network of zoos in the U.S. and Europe, which hosted lions from the royal collection, then organized to study, catalog and conserve the animals.

In the 1990s, an “Atlas Lion Project” was developed. This 20-year plan was aimed at reintegrating the lions into the wild. It comprised distinctive phases: first, DNA testing to overlay phenotype (appearance) with genotype (genetics) classification for selective breeding; second, selecting a natural site for possible reintegration in semi-captivity; third, repopulating the site with other species and prey and releasing the lions; and fourth, monitoring the lions and developing ecotourism opportunities for local communities.

The DNA testing phase, led by Dr. Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, then at the University of Oxford, improved understanding of the connections between the lions kept in zoos and ultimately developed a studbook, a family tree of captive lions. A 10,000-hectare site around Azilal in the Atlas Mountains east of Casablanca and Marrakech was selected; it matched the historical habitat of the animal (but also other indigenous big cats, such as leopards) and the place was sparsely populated at the time. Yet when Wildlink International, the project’s Anglo-American financier, pulled out following the outbreak of the Gulf War, the project stalled.

The Atlas Lion Project has effectively been on hold since the 1990s. In the meantime, some zoos have also lost interest in the Atlas lion. Without a clear reintroduction end goal, it remains expensive and ethically debatable for these institutions to maintain their small collections, especially as recent scientific advances now consider the Atlas lion to be a northern subspecies of the African lion, rather than a radically separate species, as was long believed.

Yet the Atlas lion represents much more: a popular, unifying totemic symbol, a character that seeps into everyday life and continues to shape North African culture. The Moroccan national football team is named after the animal and Morocco’s coat of arms includes two lions. In the Moroccan city of Ifrane (“cave” in Tamazight), the Frenchman Henri Jean Moreau built a statue of a lion in 1930.

Names of towns and reliefs in the region honor lions that once populated a strip stretching from Morocco to Libya. For instance, the Algerian city of Oran (possibly derived from Oued Ahran, which means river of lions), the Algerian town of Souk Ahras (“Lion Market”) close to the Tunisian border, where Saint Augustine used to rest under a preserved olive tree, and the ancient site of Tirhet (Lioness), which was once the designated capital of the Emir Abd el-Kader, all recall a time when humans personally knew lions.

And much earlier still, Saharan rock art from the Stone Age in the mountainous region of Hoggar, near Tamanrasset, depicts primitive figurative forms of lions. From pictorial to contemporary street art, lions grace the vibrant facades of Djerbahood in southern Tunisia. In literature, the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf recalled the life of the 16th-century diplomat and explorer Hassan al-Wazzan in his novel “Leo Africanus,” published in 1986. Don Quixote confronts lions sent by the governor of Oran. And lions remain in physical form — for example, incarnated in the magnificent lion staircase entrance to the Bardo Museum in Tunis and the 14th-century Court of the Lions in Alhambra, Spain.

Brahim El Guabli, an assistant professor of Arabic studies and comparative literature at Williams College, who is of Amazigh ancestry himself, recalls that Amazigh families are still named after the animal in some parts of Morocco, with the lions contributing to a personal history, too.

“My clearest memories of the word ‘izm’ [lion in Tamazight] happened in the 1980s,” El Guabli said. “One night, there was a creature that scared our dogs, and my parents were talking about ‘izm.’ I remember how my father talked about bright eyes in the dark. Since then, I have associated ‘izm’ with darkness and bright eyes.”

Traditional patterns from Amazigh textiles also depict the animal, such as the “lion’s paw” weaving motif (also sometimes called “dawa”). Beyond the Atlas or Rif Mountains of Morocco, the lions are North African.

Ammar, 22, is from Souk Ahras. He likes to walk and photograph nature outside his town. Though his immediate ancestors did not see lions in their lifetime, he has heard about them and about a famous 19th-century lion hunter. “I know that the area is famous for lions, and there were many of them,” he said. There are two lion statues in Souk Ahras. “I’d like to see the lions in nature,” he added.

Today’s demographic expansion and climate change may counteract ambitions to prevent a second extinction of the Atlas lion, but it is political will that is lacking above all. The status quo will precipitate a tragic ending for an animal that has already suffered from centuries of foreign-led violence and colonial interests. The lion’s main predator has historically come from north of the Mediterranean Sea.

The lions featured in ancient Rome’s big games called “venatio,” or slaughters. They were then known as Barbary lions, an Ancient Greek term that means “non-Greek speaking” and perpetuates a notion of foreignness and subjugation. In 55 BCE, the Roman general Pompey brought 600 North African lions for the inauguration of a theater. The animals were feared and praised and they entertained. Gladiators called “bestiarii” fought against wild animals, including lions. In a similar vein, offenders against Roman law could be sentenced to a punishment called “damnatio ad bestias” and literally thrown to the lions. Archaeologists have found gladiator skulls in a graveyard in York, U.K., that were punctured by lion bites.

Oppian, a second-century Greek poet, wrote about lion hunting games in North Africa, giving us an insight into the operations of early lion traffickers. “A great throng of mighty lions roar in the godly land of thirsty Libya,” he recalls in “Cynegetica.” Its strength is “limitless,” and the Libyan lion rules over all other lions, Oppian adds. He describes how traffickers would lure lions into a camouflaged pit, then into a cage. The captured animal would then be shipped off.

The disappearance of the lion rapidly accelerated during the 19th century, as French colonial advances extended to Algeria, with the landing of troops in 1830 and the subsequent proclamation of protectorates in Tunisia (1881) and Morocco (1912).

Western stories of North African lion hunters became a trope, shaping a historically convenient image of a “fierce savage.” The anarchist journalist Benjamin Gastineau and traveler Charles Plemeur wrote about similar tales, while the Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix produced a “Lion Hunt” series (1849-1861), largely inspired by his travels to Morocco in 1832.

Lion hunting was a popular pastime for travelers and administrators during colonial times, but it also enabled a more determined plan: the takeover of land for colonial settlers and agricultural production, particularly in Algeria, where it amounted to another form of natural resource extraction and power assertion.

“People also talk about how the lion and gazelles would roam into villages prior to the arrival of the automobile in the area, around 1930,” says El Guabli, adding that “the introduction of firearms and lethal technologies have forever changed geography and wildlife in the region.” So-called civilization wiped out the remaining lions.

Imperial and colonial legacies are still felt in today’s culture. Unsurprisingly, given its record of dubious retellings and appropriation, Disney chose to portray Scar, Simba’s nemesis and evil uncle in “The Lion King,” as a North African lion. Scar is physically different from the good Simba; he is the “other,” dark and evil. He roams in elephant graveyards and brings gloom. Unlike the lions, then, Orientalist narratives continue to thrive and impose their violence on indigenous species and local identities.

Simon Black, a lecturer in conservation science at the University of Kent and a leading expert on the North African lion, believes not only in the reintroduction of the lions in the wild but also in the wider benefit such an initiative could offer society and the environment. Big cat reintroduction has been successful elsewhere, for instance, in Russia. In Morocco, gazelles, deers and wild boars have been reintroduced to their natural habitat.

A holistic approach, such as the one initially conceived by the Atlas Lion Project, adjusted to 21st-century realities, could repopulate fauna and stimulate biodiversity. It could even bring water management solutions to drought-affected Morocco, since protected forests have the potential to reduce soil erosion and restore natural water catchment areas.

What would it take for these rewilding efforts to bear fruit for the North African lion? It would need political leadership to elevate this cause to a national priority in support of natural heritage, climate action and biodiversity. Even beyond national borders, a lion reintroduction project could encourage warmer diplomatic ties and cooperation between countries in North Africa.

Politicians could build upon existing support. Netizen petitions and social media groups devoted to mobilizing for a reintroduction exist and could be expanded with other education and communication campaigns. Yet backing a reintroduction would mean acknowledging possible animal-human conflict over rapidly shrinking resources, such as water, land and livelihoods for farmer and herder communities, and redefining priorities to drive local, sustainable and decolonial economic solutions and models. Governments and local communities would need to craft a positive narrative on balancing ecological heritage with cultural transmission and wealth.

Overall, around 100 captive Atlas lions with a genetic connection to the Moroccan royal collection remain around the world. Can we emulate the lion’s courage and bravery to save it from complete extinction? Instead of being a mere memory, the animal belongs to a living, breathing world. It can still be saved with timely action.

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