RABAT - Morocco is taking steps to save the legendary Atlas lion which has completely disappeared from its natural home in the Atlas mountains.
The Moroccan Water and Forests Ministry is working with Oxford University scientists to create a 10,000-hectare natural reserve for this endangered species. Twenty-five lions live in the Rabat zoo, about half the number living in captivity around the world.
The government hopes the project will draw tourists and have a healthy economic impact on the Atlas mountain region of Azilal where the reserve will be located.
The lions used to live in the Atlas mountains which stretch from Morocco to Tunisia. The last of these wild animals disappeared from Tunisia in 1891, and from Algeria in 1899, while the last lion was shot dead in Morocco's wilderness in 1922, said Dr. Brahim Haddane, a veterinarian and director of the Rabat zoo.
Dr. Haddan cited the introduction of guns, excessive poaching, and the lion's reputation as dangerous predator as reasons behind its extinction.
The only remaining Atlas lions were those living in the royal palace's zoos. Morocco's King Hassan II, who died in July 1999, decided the royal lions should be saved and the herd was moved to the Rabat zoo.
The Oxford scientists conducted genetic studies on the Rabat lions, comparing their DNA with that of tissues belonging to the Atlas species preserved in wildlife museums.
Two pairs of pure Atlas lions will be moved to the Azilal reserve, which offers a suitable environment for their reproduction.
"The project has to succeed," said. Dr. Haddane. "If the undertaking fails, the Atlas lion will be lost once and forever."
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