Past and present distribution of the North African–Asian lion subgroup: a review



  • 1The North African–Asian lion subgroup, which is composed of two subspecies, the Barbary lion, Panthera leo leo, and the Asian lion, P. l. persica, was nearly exterminated during the last centuries. The remaining free-ranging population of Asian lions consists of c. 350 animals in India. The Barbary lion subsists as captive animals in zoos or circuses, all of which originate from the Moroccan Royal Collection. There have been multiple genetic hybridizations with sub-Saharan lions.
  • 2Several incomplete distribution maps of the past occupation of lions were proposed in the literature. I examine the distribution of these lions with the help of a larger database, extracted from zoological, archaeological and historical reports. Some records are however not completely reliable. Data were collected over a long period of time (from the Epipaleolithic to the modern times) in Eurasia, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
  • 3Dispersal took place in latitudes as far south as 15°N (Yemen) to 18°N (Mali; Chad) and as far north as 45–48°N (Bulgaria); and to longitudes as far west as 5.57°W (Morocco) and as far east as 84°E (India). Expansion was probably constrained by natural ecological factors northwards (higher seasonality, harsher winters) and southwards (extension of aridity after 3000 BP). At latitudes between 40 and 43°N, lions seem to have become a permanent part of the fauna during 6–8 millennia.
  • 4Lions were brought to extinction by humans through hunting, captures for exhibition in zoos and by the associated natural fragmentation of wild populations. The dates at which extinction took place varied greatly according to the geographical sites: 3000 BC for temperate Europe; 1000 BC in the south of Greece; 12–13th century in the Near East, Arabian Peninsula, Trans-Caucasia or north of Afghanistan; and 19–20th century for North Africa, the Middle East and India.