Changing Planet

A New, Genetically Distinct Lion Population is Found

In a twist on the Lion King’s “Circle of Life,” a group of researchers identified a population of genetically distinct lions—in a zoo. The finding came after an Addis Ababa zoo asked researchers in its sister city of Leipzig to help prove that their lions not only looked unusual, but were genetically unique. The finding would help the struggling zoo to obtain funding to continue breeding the lions and to improve their living conditions.

The Addis Ababa zoo lions have dark manes and small bodies, unlike other African lions. But life in captivity can sometimes influence appearance. A team of researchers, led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and the University of York in the UK, checked to see if the lions really are different by comparing DNA samples of 15 lions from the zoo to six populations of wild lions.

Their genetic analysis revealed that the gene sequence of all fifteen lions were unique and showed little sign of inbreeding. The study was recently published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.

The zoo’s lions belonged to Ethiopia’s deceased emperor, Haile Selassie, who established the zoo in 1948. But their origins are unknown. One theory is that the seven founder lions—five males and two females—came from southwestern Ethiopia. Wild lions that look like this may no longer live there because their strikingly dark mane proved too alluring to hunters.

“Since the wild source population is unknown, we cannot be sure whether it still exists,” says lead author Susann Bruche. “Lions with similar appearance have been largely diminished mainly due to hunting for their mane.”

Bruche says that according to the Ethiopian authorities, lions that resemble the zoo lions still exist in the east and northeast of the country, in the Babille Elephant Sanctuary and in a wildlife rescue facility in Ensessakotteh.

This isn’t the first lion population to survive only in zoos. Two significant lion populations, the North African Barbary lions and the South African Cape lions, have already become extinct in the wild. As Ethiopia’s population of lions declines, “Every effort should be made to maintain this population to keep the genetic heritage alive,” says Bruche.

Construction work is currently underway in the Addis Ababa zoo to create a facility modeled on the lions’ natural environment. The zoo will continue to breed the lions to keep the population alive.

Sasha writes for National Geographic. Her articles have also appeared in national and international publications including The Atlantic, The Washington Post Magazine, The American Scholar, and The Jerusalem Post. Follow her on twitter @SashaIngber.
  • Alison Carter

    There are only a few Barbary lions left in the world in zoos, and they are extinct in the wild. They were the original middle eastern lions that the Romans used in the Colosseum. This is a perfect description of their subspecies: dark mane, smaller body. It would definitely be good to genetically check this population vs the few Barbary lions left in zoos, and there are several of them here in Belfast zoo. This could actually save them from full extinction if a few more individuals have been found.

  • meforever122


  • meforever122

    wonderful wonderful wonderful wonderful wonderful

  • victor masawi

    Long Live!, The Lions of Juda!Madzimbahwee!

  • Debra Zygadlo Reis

    Please do what ever it takes to save these lions!!

  • sheri hathaway

    Could this genetic strain be an evolutionary change that has occured in a short timeframe in a micro climate, such as in th Galapagos?

  • arvin

    But in which way its distinct..!!!

  • hakeem

    hmmmm good

  • Joanne Wells

    What is disheartening about this photo is that you can see the Intelligence and presence in his eyes, but he is imprisosoned behind bars.

  • Betsy van der Merwe

    We have definitely on occasion, seen lions with bigger, dark manes in the Kruger National Park who appear different in size too. They stand out completely. They might not be exactly the same as these lions but perhaps the gene comes from the Ethiopan lions?

  • sudheer

    new species of lions should be saved
    keep the geneticheritage alive

  • ikooo ch

    Great ! Steps should b taken to keep this population alive

  • Luke

    It’s time to free zoo animals 🙁
    if people want to view animals, they should to on a safari instead gaping at animals behind jail…

  • Alexa

    Thats really cool!!

  • boydb

    Rastafari lives. King of kings Lord of Lords conquering Lion of the Tribe of Juda

  • Sonia

    The lion is the best animal in the worldwide. I love cats .

  • Melaku Tefera

    Is n’t this plagarism. Who discoverd the lions. It is shame
    Tefera, M. 2003. Phenotypic and Reproductive characteristics of lions (Panthera leo) at the Addis Ababa zoo. Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation. 12:1629-1639.

  • Nabil Saba

    i like lion

  • hema


  • Anne Holt

    I am currently reading the biography of Wilfred Thesiger, an Englishman who explored much of the Sudan, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia in the 1940s. Though it is a very interesting read, it just is heartbreaking the number of animals he hunted for sport –many, many lions —and probably the same type described….Thesiger and his parents were friends of Haile Selassie.

  • Christian Rene Friborg

    It’s good to know that these people are exerting a lot of effort to preserve these zoo lions so that they may live longer.

  • mohit singh

    i like

  • Alexandra Li

    I really like lions and all animals, but it breaks my heart to see how many endangered animals are still being hunted for medicine, furs, or even just for fun! It’s so hard to protect animals if there are so many people that like killing animals!
    It’s so mean.

  • Wolfshadow567

    I compared this photo to a picture of a regular lion and i saw many differences in the body structure and size.

  • eisha

    that lion look poor why have it locked up…:(

  • Sav

    That lion does not only look poor…it is poor 🙁 I have been to Ethiopia and went to this zoo. The living condition of these lions is terrible. They barely have space to move around, locked up in very small cages 🙁

  • Jonathan McMahon

    Alison, I think you may be on to something. They do look remarkably like Barbary Lions. I agree it would be interesting to learn whether the similarity is more than just superficial.

  • Sydney

    All of you who complain about them being in a zoo, just shut up. Seriously. That zoo is probably the only thing keeping them alive. Be thankful, at least for once.

  • saonli banerjee

    its really a good news to be seen.. they should be taken care and this new species should be saved…

  • Animal lover

    I wish that I could help all of the animals that have been mistreated.

  • Dominique

    Another example of how a Zoological park may be able to save species and/or diversity with in an animal group. This is actually exciting to me from a preservation perspective.

  • Tim Upham

    Are they still planning to reintroduce Barbary lions back into the wild? I heard they are planning to reintroduce them back into Morocco. That would be great! Morocco is suppose to be getting some addax, when they do they will be second North African nation to get them after Tunisia. Unfortunately, striped hyenas have just been declared extinct in Morocco.

  • sarah seeley

    I hope that the lions will be able to survive. They are really beautiful! I would think that if lion hunters were to read this page they would stop hunting them!!!!!

  • hasan

    I have a question regarding the scientific studies reviewed is stronger lion or tiger, and I’m grateful to answer my questions can email me

  • Nancy

    This lion is beautiful. We should guard this species from extinction.

    I think we have it the opposite of what it is here. We take the wild animal’s land and life. We move in on them and push them back from their migration territories, kill them for ‘sport’, and then complain about their violence…or that they must be relocated because ‘we’ want to live where their natural habitant is.

    Our lands and animals where here way before we were. If we let that sink in we will have the respect and love towards animals and land that they deserve to live in. What is wrong with us that we don’t see who the real ‘King’ is?

  • Rob

    I was fortunate to make a trip to Ethiopia five years ago and went to this zoo in Addis Ababa.
    The lions were the central feature then. The zoo was in a tough position trying to keep it going.
    Great story by National Geo. Hope the best for the lions and the zoo along with the great people of the country.

    This deer touched our hearts too.
    Bucky’s Journey part 1

    Bucky’s Journey part 2

    Bucky’s Journey Photo-essay

    Boxing deer and dog

  • Debbie J

    They look like the Barbary lions. Black manes. Are they? I hope someone takes the challenge and helps a movement to protect them from going extinct!!!!

  • Gildardo Villarruel

    Truly a landmark for the Great Big Cat… THE MORE SUB-SPECIES.. The greater the chance for their re-introduction into a Africa Free of relentless hunting for priceless, probably even the greatest evolutionary big cat trait…the beautiful Mane. Great article/ News. Thank You… Keep us updated

  • yonatan kemal

    people we should wake up this is a sign of barbary lion existance in Ethiopia, I can assure you that there are thousands of barbary lions in southwestern highlands of Ethiopia in the gibe river valley, chebera churchura national park, kaffa zone, gambella, wollega,hadeya and mago and omo national parks please do some sampling and you will get the result. Eye witnesss

  • jo671

    Still curious how once belonged to Haile Selassie and left this way?
    ::The zoo’s lions belonged to Ethiopia’s deceased emperor, Haile Selassie, who established the zoo in 1948. But their origins are unknown.

  • parsa

    who is the stronger lion or tiger

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