Dr Livingstone I presume - Part 1

We humans should ever forget our capacity to connect with the collective spirit of animals. Their energy is essential to our future growth.
- Shirley Maclaine

Henry Stanley in a timeless pose -a reminder of The Great White Hunter Images so commonly seen and written about in early screenplays and novels

"No living man shall stop me. Only death can prevent me; but death, -- not even this. I shall not die; I will not die; I cannot die. Something tells me that I shall find him. And I write it larger, find him, FIND HIM." - Henry Stanley 1870 on the search for David Livingstone.

An early postcard image of the Victoria Falls the source of Nile discovered by the missionary and explorer David Livingstone

 This post has been edited to reflect recent enquiries (November 2012) made into the background of the lions at the former Zion Wildlife Gardens.

We all know about David Livingstone the missionary who discovered the Victoria Falls as being the source of the Nile. Like many explorers of his time Livingstone encountered many of the strange and wonderful wildlife we now enjoy in documentaries and perhaps if we are fortunate, get to see these incredible creatures in their true and natural habitats behaving as nature intended. Perhaps many of those strange and wonderful animals he had seen during his many explorations would have held of moment of wonder for the legendary explorer.In 1840 during a visit to Mabotsa Livingstone had his first encounter with the great African Lion.

"His intense desire that all natives should have an opportunity to embrace Christianity, and his decided preference to labor where no white man had worked, led him to locate at Mabotsa, northward in the interior. This locality was infested by lions; and one day one which the natives had wounded sprang out of the bushes, seized Livingstone at the shoulder, tore his flesh and broke his arm. Ever after he could not raise his gun to shoot without great pain."
- sourced from World Wide Missions

Livingstone's experience was nothing unusual during those early days. The people that lived in the region lived with such things each day of their lives doing what they could to defend themselves and their families from opportunist predators. The Victorian explorer brought with him the one thing that was already changing the future of the lion species in Africa - the gun.

A pride of lionesses killed in 15 minutes as captioned in this circa 1910 image

I thought about Dr Livingstone as I walked with Sara, Megan and Tim towards an enclosure housing a massive male African Lion. I wondered what that great Victorian explorer of Africa would have done, if he had faced a powerful male Barbary Lion (an extinct species) that weighed in excess of 200 kg had he visited North Africa. That mighty lion would have been shot and perhaps the skin kept as a reminder of that encounter.

The Barbary Lion once ranged from Morocco to Egypt. The ancient Romans captured these animals in great numbers for use in the gladiatorial arenas spread across that vast empire. The Barbary lion first became extinct in Tripoli in 1700, then in Tunisia in 1891, Algeria in 1899, and finally, the last 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 2 great lion-hunting tribes were not only exempt from having to pay taxes, but they were paid liberally for their skins. In Morocco, the proliferation of firearms during the civil wars and the rise of banditry resulted in the hunting down the last of the species.

In captivity though the Barbary lion continued to survive. Sultans and Kings kept these big cats in their collections. During the 19th and early 20th centuries Barbary lions were seen in hotel lobbys, menageries, zoological collections and of course the great travelling circuses such as the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Lion Tamer was a big draw card and the Barbary Lion was popular for these spectacles. In truth though, the welfare and preservation of the species had little if any priority. In only the last thirty or so years has the Barbary Lion been recognised as a subspecies, but has been grouped under the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica).However, since the time of writing (2009) this post, now in 2012, I've made further enquiries into the background of the 'Barbary Lions' kept at the former Zion Wildlife Gardens. The two foundation lions the male Samson (formerly owned by Tony Ratcliffe of Whirling Bros. Circus) and Shania the prolific matriarch of the so called 'wild pride' were both bred at Paradise Valley Springs Wildlife Park in Rotorua, and possibly share a common parent. The zoo has confirmed this. They felt Samson at the time had 'possible' Barbary traits because his mane went down the length of his belly. Recent scientific research (2006) though has proven the size, shape and length of a lion's mane is not determined by subspecies, but by climatic factors. The zoo also advised mitochondrial DNA tests would be needed on both lions to determine if they did indeed have any (if at all) Barbary lion descent. The zoo confirmed that both Samson and Shania were both African lions (Panthera leo) rather than Barbary lions. I also made enquiries to the breeders of the lioness Shikira who was bred at the Rhino & Lion Nature Preserve in South Africa. She was confirmed as being also sub-saharan African lion. There are many claims by various zoos through out the world that they possess Barbary lions, the proof though is not in the physical traits but in the m-DNA. The former Zion Wildlife Gardens houses African lions, and not Barbary lions as has been claimed. Does it mean that African lions have any less value species wise? Just the opposite. With a dwindling population (23,000 in the last estimate) in the wild on the African continent - they are just as precious if not more than a subspecies that was declared extinct back in 1923.

Lion Taming as it used to be in circuses

Shia and Zion resident African Lions at Zion Wildlife Gardens

 The Barbary Lion's habitat consisted of the woodland areas of the mountainous chains of the Great and Little Atlas. It was separated geographically from other lion populations almost entirely by deserts to the south, south-east and east. Prey species were not abundant in these areas which meant the Barbary lion was solitary rather than in a co-operative pride situation as the modern African Lion is. The Barbary Lion's main natural prey included Barbary Red Deer, Barbary sheep, Cuvier's Gazelle and wild boar, as well domesticated livestock kept by the arab tribes people. Males and females only came together in the breeding season thought to be about the month of January. Gestation period is approximately 110 days, after which 1-6 cubs are born, with 3-4 being most common. The cubs are generally heavily spotted with very dark rosettes and weigh approximately 2 kg at birth. Their eyes open around the 6th day. They begin to walk at 13 days. Females start coming into estrous around 2 years old, but do not generally conceive until 3-4 years. Males show an interest in females between 24-30 months, but do not tend to produce cubs before the age of 3, and more commonly until 4.

The Barbary Lion has a more compact, heavier build than its cousins. Its legs are shorter and its body longer and more robust and muscular in appearance, with a deep chest and well rounded hindquarters. The overall body length is much longer than that of the African Lion. The head has a short broad muzzle with a wide face and large round amber eyes. The eyes have a very clear light iris, rather than brown like the African or Asian. The fur in the inside foreleg of the female is white. The mane that surrounding the face is blonde, while the rest of the mane gives the appearance of being black. The mane is a combination of tawny gray mixed with bright brown and blackish brown hairs. All male Barbary Lions have this color mane - there are no variations. They will have a blonde mane when the animal is immature, or has lost some of its mane and is experiencing re-growth. African and Asian Lions can have many varieties of mane colors, ranging from blonde to red to brown to black. The mane of the Barbary is thick and lush, and extends down the chest through the front legs, down the back below the shoulder, and the length of the belly through to the groin. It gives the appearance of being 50% mane. The ground color of the coat is darker and more grayish than that of the more southern lion populations, and the hair in both sexes is longer.

Debate over whether or not there are in fact genetically pure Barbary Lions still in existence has been raised. Wildlife Link International in association with Oxford University, a UK-based organisation, launched their ambitious Atlas Lion Project. Records suggest around sixty captive lions, although cross-bred with sub-Saharan lions, may have Barbary ancestors. As yet, however, the science does not exist to distinguish true Barbary lions from look-alikes. Barbary expert Dr Yamaguchi is thus attempting to discover the characteristics of the Barbary sub-species using the latest DNA techniques. (information sourced from The Extinction Website). However Wildlink International never went ahead with the project and at this stage nothing further has been forthcoming.

Whatever the debate or the origins the lions of Zion Wildlife Gardens were an experience to see.  Perhaps one day Dr Yamaguchi's ambitious dream to see the Barbary Lion restored to its natural North African habitat will become a reality. I hope that happens in my lifetime that would something amazing to see.

Part 2 next


The Extinction Website - Species information - Barbary Lions

Wikipedia - Barbary Lions
The Preservation Station - Barbary Lion.com

Historical Images Courtesy of Flickr 'The Commons'

Further Reading:

Burger Hemmer - 2006 Urgent call for breeding of relic zoo population of the critically endangered Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo Linnaeus 1758) PDF


  1. Great post Liz - what an experience we had eh up at the wildlife gardens? Truly something to remember!

  2. You certainly seem to have a lovely time there!