A pride of captive lions descended from the private menagerie of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia is genetically distinct from all other lions of Africa, a study has found.
The Ethiopian lion has a distinctive dark mane and is slightly smaller and more compact than other African lions. Now an analysis of its DNA has revealed the Ethiopian lion is also a distinct breed.
It is thought that there may be less than a few hundred Ethiopian lions living in the wild and scientists are urging that their unique genetic makeup should be preserved by a captive-breeding programme.
DNA tests on 15 of the 20 Ethiopian lions kept in Addis Ababa Zoo have revealed that they form a separate genetic group from the lions of east Africa and southern Africa, said Michael Hofreiter of the University of York.
The male lions are the last lions in the world to possess the distinctive dark brown mane. They are the direct descendants of a group of seven males and two females taken from the wild in 1948 for Haile Sellassie's own zoo, Dr Hofreiter said.
A comparison with other populations of wild lions living in the Serengeti of Tanzania in east Africa and the lions of the Kalahari desert of south-west Africa found that the Addis Ababa lions are quite separate genetically, he said.
“We therefore believe the Addis Ababa lions should be treated as a distinct conservation management unit and are urging immediate conservation actions, including a captive breeding programme, to preserve this unique lion population,” Dr Hofreiter said.
As a species, lions are under threat and their numbers have dwindled over the decades, with the biggest populations centred on east Africa and southern Africa, with a tiny population of Asiatic lions existing in the Gir Forest of India.
Two lion populations that shared the dark brown mane of the Ethiopian lion - the North African Barbary lions and the South African Cape lions - have already gone extinct in the wild.
Susann Bruche of Imperial College London, the lead author of the study published in European Journal of Wildlife Research, said that it is important to preserve the genetic diversity of the Ethiopian lions to help the species as a whole.
“A great amount of genetic diversity in lions has most likely already been lost, largely due to human influences. Every effort should be made to preserve as much of the lion's genetic heritage as possible,” Dr Bruche said.
“We hope field surveys will identify wild relatives of the unique Addis Ababa Zoo lions in the future, but conserving the captive population is a crucial first step,” she said.