Legend has it that the Barbary, which has a distinctive black mane on head and shoulders, running down to its belly, was brought to Europe by the Romans for gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum. The Emperor Haile Selassie kept Barbarys at his court in Ethiopia and some say the MGM movie lion was one.
The massive beast, which weighed up to 500lb and measured 10ft long, was also hunted as a menace to livestock with a bounty on its head. The last known Barbary in the wild was shot in Morocco in 1921 and the species was certified extinct.
But in 1996 a British animal welfare group flew out to Mozambique and rescued several animals from a circus, which had been abandoned by its owner. There, they found Giepe (pronounced HEE-pee) and two lionesses, which bore a striking resemblance to the biblical lions. They were taken to Hoedspruit Research and Breeding Centre for Endangered Species, in South Africa, where the owners claimed they had rediscovered the Barbary.
A vet at the centre compared a hair sample belonging to Giepe with a stuffed Barbary at the British Museum and proclaimed that visually the two were similar. But scientists will not officially remove the animal from the extinct list until they have carried out a genetic test, which requires samples from more than one animal.
Without the gene test, some big cat experts remain sceptical. Doug Richardson, of London Zoo, said it was possible Giepe might have Barbary characteristics but that did not make him a Barbary.
"If you crossed a Bengal tiger with a Siberian tiger you would not be able to call it either. These animals may look like Barbarys but the Barbary is extinct and there are no more," he said. "If you put any Kenyan lion in a temperate climate it will grow a black mane and a belly mane."
But Lente Roode, the owner of the Hoedspruit Centre, was not deterred by the sceptics and her excitement at discovering Giepe, and the lionesses Sharon and Madonna, led to a other zoos in Europe announcing they too had similar-looking animals. The hunt to find a mate for Giepe had begun.
Madonna, who died last year, and Sharon were found to be infertile because they had been so badly treated at the circus, but last month Sissi arrived from a zoo in Italy, and the Hoedspruit owners are confident they will breed.
Lente Roode said the two are to meet again next week. "They have already met once," she said. "But the only male Sissi has ever known is her brother Aturo, who we think is also a Barbary, and she was very shy of Giepe. We are going to put them together next week and keep a close eye on them and we see no reason why they should not breed. We need to enlarge the gene pool before scientists will confirm that they are Barbarys but we are hoping that the breeding programme will be successful."
Giepe and the others originally belonged to Elsayed Hussein Akef, who ran a travelling circus, but conservationists suspected the circus was a front for smuggling endangered species and when the authorities started to close in, Akef fled, abandoning all the animals.
Tim Phillips of Animal Defenders, who was in the group that flew out to save them, said they were all in a pitiful condition. "They were starving and stuck in tiny cages with no room to move. Giepe basically had bed sores from having to lie in the same position for so long," he said. "We believe there could be about 50 Barbarys left in the world in zoos and parks and we are hoping to breed from them. If it's successful, then their progeny could go back into the wild."Reuse content