Lion (Panthera leo) numbers are in serious decline and two of only a handful of evolutionary significant units have already become extinct in the wild. However, there is continued debate about the genetic distinctiveness of different lion populations, a discussion delaying the initiation of conservation actions for endangered populations. Some lions from Ethiopia are phenotypically distinct from other extant lions in that the males possess an extensive dark mane. In this study, we investigated the microsatellite variation over ten loci in 15 lions from Addis Ababa Zoo in Ethiopia. A comparison with six wild lion populations identifies the Addis Ababa lions as being not only phenotypically but also genetically distinct from other lions. In addition, a comparison of the mitochondrial cytochrome b (CytB) gene sequence of these lions to sequences of wild lions of different origins supports the notion of their genetic uniqueness. Our examination of the genetic diversity of this captive lion population shows little effect of inbreeding. Immediate conservation actions, including a captive breeding programme designed to conserve genetic diversity and maintain the lineage, are urgently needed to preserve this unique lion population.
From the Press:
............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".