Lion at Melbourne Zoo
The lion is a vulnerable species, having seen a possibly irreversible population decline of 30 to 50 percent over the past two decades in its African range; populations are untenable outside designated reserves and national parks. Although the cause of the decline is not well understood, habitat loss and conflicts with humans are currently the greatest causes of concern. Lions have been kept in menageries since Roman times and have been a key species sought after and exhibited in zoos the world over since the late eighteenth century. Zoos are cooperating worldwide in breeding programs for the endangered Asiatic subspecies.
Traditionally, twelve recent subspecies of lion were recognised, the largest of which has been recognised as the Barbary Lion. The major differences between these subspecies are location, mane appearance, size, and distribution. Because these characteristics are very insignificant and show a high individual variability, most of these forms were debatable and probably invalid; additionally, they were often based upon zoo material of unknown origin that may have had “striking, but abnormal” morphological characteristics. Today only eight subspecies usually are accepted, but one of these (the Cape Lion formerly described as Panthera leo melanochaita) probably is invalid. Even the remaining seven subspecies might be too many; mitochondrial variation in recent African lions is modest, which suggests that all sub-Saharan lions could be considered a single subspecies, possibly divided in two main clades: one to the west of the Great Rift Valley and the other to the east. Lions from Tsavo in Eastern Kenya are much closer genetically to lions in Transvaal (South Africa), than to those in the Aberdare Range in Western Kenya.