Maintaining the genetic health of putative Barbary lions in captivity: an analysis of Moroccan Royal Lions
The last representatives of the Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo), once numerous in North Africa but exterminated from the wild by the 1940s, are believed to be the captive lions descended from the Moroccan Royal Collection, numbering less than 90 animals in zoos worldwide. The genetic fitness of these captive “Royal Lions” may now be under threat since, although most zoos have avoided hybridisation with animals of other origin, no formal breeding programme currently exists and several institutions have halted breeding activities. This situation has arisen since the distinctiveness of Barbary lions and the representative status of Royal Lions remain inconclusive and definitive molecular studies have yet to be completed. Previously, in the 1970s, morphological and phenotypic traits were used to match Royal Lions and the historic Barbary lion and an ex situ breeding programme was initiated involving a number of selected “founder” animals. This paper outlines the status of the descendent population within zoos in Morocco and Europe, including all known pure-bred descendents from the Royal Palace collection. Founder representation is shown to be greater across European collections than the Moroccan collection. Breeding exchanges are recommended between institutions in order to improve genetic diversity and maintain the genetic health of the population and a studbook for European zoo animals has been developed to support this action. This analysis serves as a benchmark for guiding effective maintenance of the captive population, thereby allowing time to clarify the conservation value of Royal Lions and their relevance to North African ecology.