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

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.

Spence said that when he saw the photograph, "every hair on my body stood upright, including [on] my neck and my back and everywhere else!"

New and Warmer Home

After contacting the zoo in Siberia, Spence arranged to take Simon's cubs, Rustislav and Olga (named after the Novosibrisk Zoo curator and his wife) back with him to Africa. They are the first Cape lion look-alikes to inhabit the Cape shores in a century and a half.

The journey home was an adventure in itself. Spence and his wife flew back to Cape Town on Siberia Air, with the cubs in a small traveling crate on the seat beside them. Passengers soon surrounded the couple, curious about the animals, who responded with a few snarls.

The two lions now live in their own pen in the Tygerberg Zoo. They spend their days sleeping in the sun on their own specially made platform.

Spence thinks the warmth of Africa is probably a welcome change for the animals, which were accustomed to Siberian winter temperatures that drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius.

The cubs are already much larger than the full-grown lions in other parts of the zoo. They also bear the unmistakable markings of a juvenile Cape lion. "They've got a large number of spots on them, which will obviously fade as they get older, but they were really spotted when we brought them home…and black behind the ears," Spence explained

Spence hopes to eventually use Rustislav and Olga to replenish the Cape lion stock. He also may build them a larger lion reserve, closer to Table Mountain, where their ancestors once roamed.

With a glint in his eye, Spence said it has occurred to him to release the lions onto the mountain. But, he added, "I should think there'd be some complaints from the neighbors if I turned them loose."

The author is a partner in the South Africa-based media company Atomic Productions. National Geographic Today recently featured the company's documentary special on the Cape lion.

For more information about the Cape lions in this story, contact John Avery , the director and trustee of the Tygerberg Zoo, or write to John Spence, director of the Tygerberg Zoo, P.O. Box 524, Kraaifontein, Cape Town 7569, South Africa.

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