5 Amazing Facts About the Barbary Lion

It is without a doubt that the Barbary lion was unique from its cousins. Learn about 5 cool facts about this extinct big cat.

Oct 1, 2023By Michael C., BA Fisheries and Wildlife
facts barbary lion

Widely regarded as a symbol of royalty, the Barbary lion stood out from all other lions. Once found throughout the mountainous deserts of Northern Africa, this big cat tragically went extinct from human factors. Read on to learn more about this majestic beast!

1. It Was Distinct From Other Lions

lion resting in zoo
Image credit: Public Domain

Usually, the Barbary lion is classified as the subspecies Panthera leo leo. A recent taxonomic study has suggested that the Barbary lion is the same subspecies as the Asiatic and West African populations, though not all experts agree with this classification.

The Barbary lion is most notably known for its dark, thick manes not seen in other lion subspecies. The mane often covered its forebody and even spread towards its belly. Some believe that the larger-sized manes are from climate-related causes, as winters are cold in their range.

Barbary lions were believed to be less social than other lions, either living alone or in male-female pairs, along with their offspring. This is probably due to having less prey availability within their habitats, unlike the higher prey densities that exist in their pride-living savanna cousins.

The Barbary lion was believed to be the largest group of all lions, not counting the long-extinct American lion from the Ice Age; however, the accuracy of such measurements is debatable.

2. It Lived in Northern Africa

lion on rock
Image credit: Public Domain

The Barbary lion was the northernmost subspecies of the African lion. Its range spanned along the Atlas Mountains in the Maghreb region of Northern Africa. Historically, it was recorded in Egypt, especially along the Nile River. Barbary lions lived in Mediterranean forests, grasslands, and shrublands throughout their geographic range. It lived with other animals that are now also considered extinct, such as theaurochs, Atlas bear, the Bubal hartebeest, and the Atlas wild ass. Elephants are now considered extirpated from their range. Wild boar, Barbary stag, Barbary sheep, and gazelles were all considered prey species for the Barbary lion. Barbary macaques and leopards were also known within this big cat’s range and are both endangered species.

3. They Were Prized Since Ancient Times

painting of colosseum
Image credit: Public Domain

The Barbary lion has been famed since antiquity. This lion was used by the Ancient Romans for their Colosseum games, and zoos have sought after these felines. Lions were even depicted in Ancient Egyptian artworks.

As the Barbary lion’s geographic range was right across the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Empire sourced many animals from this region, including big cats. They were used in the Roman Colosseum for much of their violent and bloody battles, and hundreds were believed to have been displayed and killed under the reign of Julius Caesar alone.

The Tower of London’s menagerie held a plethora of exotic animals, including lions. Since the Middle Ages, DNA studies have shown that the lions held captive were of the Barbary subspecies. Cubs were even traded as gifts to royal families from Morocco to Ethiopia, and they were even displayed in hotels and circus menageries over in Europe.

4. They Were Mostly Persecuted to Extinction

engraving of lion and lioness
Image credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The Barbary lion was once widespread throughout the Maghreb but drastically dwindled as human settlements pushed them out of their habitats. As natural prey species such as Barbary stag and gazelles became scarce from human activity, the lions resorted to livestock to survive, causing conflict with farmers. As a result, the Barbary lion was subject to a large colonial pest control program, and bounties were even placed on the big cats, which caused them to be heavily persecuted. The Barbary lion was also prized by hunters, and the lack of regulations further contributed to its demise.

Due to overhunting and habitat loss, the Barbary lion population plummeted. The last wild individual was commonly believed to be killed in 1922 by a French hunter in Morocco, but sightings were recorded afterward through the late 1950s. The last Barbary lions disappeared in Algeria around the early 1960s after military conflicts destroyed their habitats.

5. Barbary Lookalikes Exist

lion in front of rocky background
Image credit: R. Kurmann/Flickr

Despite what some may say, no pure Barbary lion is living today. However, some look-alikes exist in captivity. In Morocco, the Rabat Zoo has historically held Barbary lions in its collection. Zoos weren’t careful enough to not prevent various lion subspecies (or populations, depending on who you may ask) from interbreeding with one another. That being said, however, the animals still look very similar to their counterparts.

Some of the animals from the Rabat Zoo were transported to zoos in Europe, and a program known as the Atlas Lion Project (the Atlas lion is another name for them) was established in the 1990s. The program was created in hopes of reducing the hybridization impact of the Barbary-like lions being held, and there were hopes to eventually reintroduce the cats back into the wild.

As there wasn’t a straightforward plan for reintroducing the lions back into the wild due to political instability in the Barbary lion’s former range, the project was put on hold. Some participating zoos even lost interest. However, animals from this project are still living today and shadow their majestic ancestors that once called North Africa home.

Michael C.
By Michael C.BA Fisheries and Wildlife

Michael holds a BS degree in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State University. He formerly worked at a pet store as an animal care associate and is the former president of the MSU Herpetological Society. Michael currently owns three snakes (a corn snake, a Kenyan sand boa, and a checkered garter snake) and a leopard gecko. Interests include almost anything animal-related. Michael enjoys drawing, gaming, and having fun in his free time.