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Cub May Hold Key to Barbary Lions

October 26, 1999

PORT LYMPNE, England (AP) _ To the uninitiated, the tumbling bundle of claws and rough fur the color of milky coffee resembles any other lion cub.

But scientists believe 3-month-old Saffiya, or Saffi as she is known, may hold the key to breeding the large, dark-maned Barbary lion back into existence.

Descended from the famous lion collection of Moroccan kings, Saffi may have what it takes to be a progenitor of the new line of wild Barbaries.

Thanks to scientific advances, including techniques for extracting ancient DNA, it’s now possible to trace the Barbary’s genetic profile and find out if Saffi matches up.

Devourer of early Christians, inspiration of medieval knights and trophy of kings, the Barbary lion could once be found throughout north Africa from Morocco to Egypt, prowling the woodlands of the Great and Little Atlas mountain ranges.

But hunting, development and destruction of their habitat reduced their numbers over the centuries. And in the 1920s, a hunter claimed the last wild Barbary in Morocco.

``Unfortunately, there are only a handful of genuine Barbary survivors left, and many of them are getting old,″ said Kay Hill of Wildlink International, a British conservation group involved in the campaign to restore the fabled cat.

``Breeding them now is the only way we can ensure the Barbary does not die forever _ and that’s where Saffi comes in,″ Hill said.

Scientists at Oxford University are studying the skeletal remains of Barbaries from museums and universities across Europe in hopes of identifying the lion’s DNA profile by spring.

Then, the DNA profile will be compared with soft tissue or hair samples from living animals, many of which are hybrids, to establish how pure their Barbary lineage is. The lions with the closest match will be used to breed the new Barbary line, which ultimately will be restored to the wild.

``I think we could reach our goal in a couple of generations,″ said Dr. Nobuyuki Yamaguchi of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit, which is coordinating the DNA research.

Morocco is just as eager as the scientists to restore the lion’s lineage. Authorities have earmarked 98,000 acres of land in the ancient Barbary territory of the Atlas Mountains for the new race, which the local Berber people hope will become a tourist attraction.

About 60 specimens in zoos around the world show Barbary characteristics, but only 20 to 25 will be tested.

``It is our ideal to see the Barbary lion back in the wild,″ said Dr. Brahim Haddane, curator of Morocco’s Rabat Zoo, which houses the king’s collection, numbering about two dozen animals. ``I have been working for this for the last 20 years.″

Descended from the Barbaries in Rabat Zoo, Saffi was born in July at entrepreneur John Aspinall’s Port Lympne Wildlife Park, located on the green hills of Kent county in southeast England.

``We know how important she is, and we want to give her every chance,″ said marketing manager Philip Huckin.

The park is home to five Barbary lions, the only ones in Britain. They include Saffi’s father, Kabir, who has the Barbary’s full, dark mane _ with its distinctive golden halo around the face _ and a dark belly fringe that extends along the groin.

Also known as the Nubian, or Atlas, lion, the male Barbary was reported to have weighed more than 500 pounds, compared with the 385 pounds of today’s male African lion. It could measure 10 feet from its ears to the tip of its tail.

Historians believe the Barbary first was brought to Europe for the Roman games at the Coliseum. The animal came to represent courage and nobility _ from the heraldic symbols of medieval knights to the giant statues in today’s Trafalgar Square in central London.

It is believed that Moroccan kings began collecting Barbaries after the Berber tribes, seeking to retain their autonomy, offered the animals in lieu of taxes.

Two German scientists tried to breed Barbaries about 20 years ago, but failed because too many parties were involved and controls were inadequate.

Hill said success this time around was vital. ``If we fail, another part of our untamed past will live only as a symbol, a myth and a memory.″

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