12 October 2012

Ethiopia: DNA Confirms Lions Are Genetically Distinct Group

A study has found that captive lions in Ethiopia are genetically distinct from all other lions of Africa.

The Ethiopian lions have distinctive dark mane and are slightly smaller and more compact than other African lions, and DNA analysis has revealed that Ethiopian lions are of distinct breed.

A Scientist from the University of York, Michael Hofreiter, said of the 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. He said that 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.

According to him, 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. Dr Hofreiter also said the study team believes that "the Addis Ababa lions should be treated as a distinct conservation management unit and are urging immediate conservation actions, including a captive breeding program, to preserve this unique lion population [not are expected to be more than a few hundred]".

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. She 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".

Reports indicate that 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 largely due to human influences. This necessitates the need to make every effort to preserve as much of the lion's genetic heritage as possible. The Ethiopian Culture and Tourism Ministry has a plan to improve the preservation of these distinct lions as part of its effort to increase tourist flows.

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