Northgate is a female Barbary Lioness (Panthera leo leo), born July 17, 2013. She came to us as an 11-day-old cub from a facility that lacked the resources that we provide, needed to care for her. This lioness was born with her kneecap out of place and her knee fused, leaving her leg four inches shorter than the others. She is not in any pain, and with tremendous amounts of physical therapy provided by playing with her sister Ani, proper nutrition, and veterinary care, our goal is to give her the best quality of life we can.

Panthera leo leo is the scientific name for the Barbary lion, also known as the Atlas lion or Nubian lion. Some researchers recognize 6 subspecies of lion, while others recognize only the African and the Asiatic based on genetic analysis. Prior to the 1920’s, the Barbary lion roamed North Africa, but has since been considered extinct in its natural habitat. Nowadays its existence appears to be increasing in captivity throughout the U.S. and Africa. In hopes of settling the controversy over whether the Barbary lion was indeed a unique subspecies, as well as help establish breeding programs, conservationists created a studbook in 2009 detailing every descendant of a group of Barbary lions once owned by the Sultan of Morocco. These captive royal lions were the last known population, and were initially housed near the Atlas Mountains in Morocco before being moved to a lion garden at the Royal Palace in Rabat. Beginning in 1953, these animals and their descendants were slowly separated when people moved them to different zoos. Trying to track these descendants down has proved to be quite a feat, but conservationists are hoping that zoos and other facilities like the Kirshner Wildlife Sanctuary will contribute their knowledge of surviving individuals so that inbreeding can be avoided, genetic diversity can be maintained, and the Barbary lion will not die out in captivity. Ideally, those with proven genetic links to the subspecies via DNA fingerprinting will become part of a selective breeding program to “breed back” the Barbary lions. Eventually, the best lions will be released into a National Park in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Weights for adult lions generally lie between 330–550 lbs. for males and 264–400 lbs. for females, although the Barbary lion is typically around 500 lbs. The African lion and other African subspecies can be found in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, able to tolerate most habitats except for rainforests and the interior of the Sahara desert. While the lion drinks regularly when water is available, it is capable of obtaining its moisture requirements from prey and even plants (such as the tsama melon in the Kalahari desert), and thus can survive in very arid environments.

Lions are the most social of the cats, typically living in social units called prides. The pride usually consists of 5-6 related females, their cubs of both sexes, and 1-4 males known as a coalition who mate with the adult females (although extremely large prides consisting of up to 30 individuals have been observed). Historical evidence states that the Barbary lion tended to live in pairs or small family groups rather than prides. The males are discernible by their unique mane of hair, which makes the lion appear large and intimidating. Indeed, it does provide protection during confrontation with other lions and competitors. Barbary lions can be distinguished from other African lions by its long, dark, extensive mane that extended over the belly to between its hind limbs, a more pointed crown on its head, and a narrow muzzle. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it had different colored eyes as well. The females do all the hunting for the pride in coordinated groups. Prey consists mainly of medium- to large-sized ungulates such as wildebeest, impalas, zebras, buffalo, warthogs, and antelopes. If need be, the lion will scavenge for food as well.

There have been few efforts in the past to estimate the population size of the African lion; unfortunately estimating their numbers accurately is an ambitious undertaking flooded with many uncertainties. Guesstimates are commonplace, and numbers range from 16,500-75,800. Studies show a 42-48.5% population decline mainly due to indiscriminate killing (primarily as a result of retaliatory or pre-emptive killing to protect human life and livestock) and prey base depletion. Habitat loss and conversion has led to a number of populations becoming small and isolated.

Barbary Lion Fast Facts


Type of Animal Mammal
Diet in Wild Cattle, antelope, small game
Diet at Kirshner Wildlife Sanctuary Chicken, rabbit, quail, turkey, beef
Body Length Up to 11 ft
Body Height 4 ft
Body Weight Males 550 lbs; Females 350 lbs
Gestation Period 105-115 days
Number of Offspring 2-3 cubs
Lifespan In Wild 12 yrs; In Captivity 20 yrs
Range North Africa, from Morocco to Nubia (modern-day Sudan)
Habitat Grassy plains & open woodlands
Protection Status Extinct