King of the beasts, the lion was once widespread across Africa and Europe. The UK even once had its own native population of this fearsome predator! Sadly, as with many lion subspecies, the Barbary or Atlas Lion is now extinct in the wild, although ancestors of these formerly wild populations still exist in captivity.
Throughout most of Africa, lions are becoming increasingly rare outside of protected areas. The original habitat of the Barbary lion was in North Africa – including mountainous regions – extending from Egypt to Morocco. Its names originate from geographical features; the Atlas Mountains and the Barbary region (in turn named after the Berber people), which indicate the areas where this lion was most commonly found.
Most modern subspecies of lions are very similar in appearance, though there are some distinctive variations across the different populations. Male Barbary lions were noted for their heavier and longer mane, although recent evidence suggests this had more to do with the cooler mountain climate and is not a characteristic that is exclusive to this subspecies. Hunting in open and barren territory, any markings would make them stand out to their prey, so lions do not have any spots or stripes. However, the cubs do have spots to help to conceal them from predators. Unlike other cats, lions have an obvious tuft at the end of their tails and male lions are the only cat to have a shaggy mane. A typical adult male weighs between 150 – 200kg, while adult females weigh between 120 – 180kg. Lions range from 2.6 to- 3.3m in length (including the tail), and are about 1.2m high at the shoulder.
This large carnivore eats a wide range of herbivorous prey including cattle, antelope and small game. Some are even known to hunt and kill elephants! Hunts are usually done by teams of lionesses, but they will also scavenge prey or steal kills from other predators. Lions are a highly social species, an unusual characteristic amongst big cats. Their groups, called prides, may number from 2-15 animals. Communal living is beneficial when defending and looking after offspring. Females often give birth at the same time – another feature unique to lions – so that young can be reared together, with the cubs suckling from any one of the group’s mothers.
Male cubs leave their pride when they are sexually mature and will roam together in bachelor gangs, seeking to take over another pride’s females. If successful, they will often kill their predecessors’ cubs.