Has Rare Lion of Africa's Cape Eluded Extinction?

Ron Irwin
for National Geographic News
July 26, 2001

For 30 years, South African John Spence searched for descendants of the Cape lion, which was thought to be extinct in the region since the 1850s. His search ended a year ago when he received pictures of a magnificent black-maned lion at the Novosibrisk Zoo in Central Siberia.

As a young man, Spence had read about such lions roaming the slopes of Table Mountain and Signal Hill in what is now the modern city of Cape Town. His imagination was fired by stories of massive lions attempting to scale the walls of the 17th-century Dutch castle that was built by Commander Jan van Riebeeck, the city's founder.

Spence, now the director and a trustee of Cape Town's Tygerberg Zoo, avidly read van Riebeeck's journals, which described the lions' night attacks on local people and their flocks.

By two centuries later, the ferocious Cape Lion had been wiped out—at least in part a matter of self-defense, Spence noted.

Spence came to believe that some Cape lions might have survived outside of South Africa.

"I [was] sure that some of the cubs of the Cape lion were taken to Europe, where they bred with European lions," he said. "Some of them [might have] carried the original genes, and many of these captive European lions also had the black mane."

Lifelong Search

For three decades, Spence searched the world for the "King of the Cape." He visited zoos and circuses in places as far away as the United States and Singapore to inspect animals that bore a resemblance to the Cape lion.

He met with frustration after frustration. He found many lions that were close matches to the Cape lion, but none that looked exactly like the sturdy, massive animals he had read much about.

But his determination never waned. He knew, he said, that "it had to happen sooner or later…there had to be a lion that had a mess of these genes in them from somewhere or other."

In January of 2000, friends in Europe sent Spence a picture of a unique lion they had seen in the world-renowned Novosibrisk Zoo in Siberia.

With its jet black mane, wide face, sturdy legs, and large size, the lion—called Simon—looked exactly like a living reproduction of the animals that Spence had seen only in paintings, and in his dreams.

Continued on Next Page >>


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