Lions of Ethiopia are one of a kind

A large, dark mane, extending from the head all the way down the neck and chest to the belly, is the distinguishing feature of the lions of Ethiopia.
(Image: University of York)

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A large, dark mane, extending from the head all the way down the neck and chest to the belly, is the distinguishing feature of the lions of Ethiopia – and now it has been found that they are genetically different from other lions too.

DNA evidence has found that the Addis Ababa lions are genetically unique when compared with all the lion populations of Africa and Asia. With their findings in mind, researchers from the University of York in the UK and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany have urged that this species of lion be put on the endangered list.

Researchers from Leipzig Zoo in Germany and the universities of Durham and Oxford in the UK were also involved in the study. There are a number of subspecies of lion (Panthera leo), including the East African, Cape, Barbary and Asiatic, while white lions are rare. Lions are the only cats that live in permanent groups.

Dwindling numbers

Trophy hunting has led to a decline in the lion population worldwide. In Ethiopia, apart from a few in the wild, there are just 20 of the unique animals in Addis Ababa Zoo. They once belonged to the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who established the zoo in 1948. The species is prized by hunters for its manes.

Principal investigator Professor Michi Hofreiter, of the department of biology at the University of York, said: “To our knowledge, the males at Addis Ababa Zoo are the last existing lions to possess this distinctive mane. Both microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA data suggest the zoo lions are genetically distinct from all existing lion populations for which comparative data exist.

“We therefore believe the Addis Ababa lions should be treated as a distinct conservation management unit and are urging immediate conservation actions, including a captive breeding programme, to preserve this unique lion population.”

Preserving their legacy

The research team took DNA samples from 15 of the lions in Addis Ababa Zoo, eight of which were males and seven females, and compared them to lion breeds in the wild.

The findings could go a long way to preventing another lion species from becoming extinct; already North African Barbary lions and South African Cape lions are extinct in the wild. Setting up a captive breeding programme to preserve the lions has been suggested by the researchers.

Their study was recently published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.

Lead author Susann Bruche, now with Imperial College London but who conducted the research with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said: “A great amount of genetic diversity in lions has most likely already been lost, largely due to human influences. Every effort should be made to preserve as much of the lion’s genetic heritage as possible.

“We hope field surveys will identify wild relatives of the unique Addis Ababa Zoo lions in the future, but conserving the captive population is a crucial first step. Our results show that these zoo lions harbour sufficient genetic diversity to warrant a captive breeding programme.”

Sightings of similar animals

Bruche added that Ethiopian authorities had said that lions with a similar appearance to those at Addis Ababa Zoo still existed in the east and northeast of the country, notably in the Babille Elephant Sanctuary near Harar and southwards to Hararghe. These regions, she said, should be prioritised for field surveys.

Hofreiter said: “A key question is which wild population did the zoo lions originate from and whether this wild population still exists; this would obviously make it a priority for conservation.

“What is clear is that these lions did not originate in the zoo, but come from somewhere in the wild – but not from any of the populations for which comparative data is available.”