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'Genetically unique' lions discovered at Ethiopian zoo

The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. is home to a male lion named Luke who has a thick, dark mane similar to the lions in Ethiopia. (Photo: Peggy Mihelich/AAAS)

It has long been known to locals and naturalists that some Ethiopian lions look different from other African lions. These lions have thick, dark manes that extend from their heads and necks down to their bellies, and they tend to be smaller and more compact. Now, an international team of researchers has provided the first comprehensive evidence that these lions are, in fact, genetically distinct from other lions — and extremely rare.

The researchers compared DNA from 15 lions at the Addis Ababa zoo (eight males and seven females) to samples collected from different populations of wild lions. Analysis of both the microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA showed the Addis Ababa lions are genetically distinct from the wild lions.

Unfortunately, the Addis Ababa lions are the only known examples of this population. The researchers urge immediate conservation action, including establishing a captive breeding program as a first step toward preserving these unique lions. The genetic analyses revealed the 15 captive lions possess enough genetic diversity to make breeding among them safe and healthy.

The question of whether a wild population of such lions still exists remains open. The researchers note that according to Ethiopian authorities, lions that look like the Addis Ababa lions still live in the east and north-east of the country. These regions, including the Babille Elephant Sanctuary near Harar, should be prioritized for field surveys and conservation efforts.

On the heels of this finding was another study, highlighting the plight of lions across Africa. Lion numbers are in serious decline, dropping from around 100,000 animals fifty years ago to an estimated 32,000 today. Part of the problem is their habitat — African savannah — has decreased by 75% in that time. In addition to a massively growing human population squeezing lions out of their historical range, hunting and conflict over livestock are taking a toll on the iconic cats. Two significant populations of lion — the North African Barbary lions and the South African Cape lions — have already become extinct in the wild.

Lions are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN red list. These great cats, especially rare species like the Ethiopian lion and other subspecies, need immediate conservation actions if they are to continue to survive and reign as king of the beasts.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story wrongly indicated the lions were a "genetically unique species."