Behind bars and waiting for science: the power of genetic testing for the Addis Fifteen.
Male and female Addis lions in the Addis Ababa Lion Zoo. Photo courtesy of: Klaus Eulenberger.
They languished behind bars in squalid conditions, their very survival in jeopardy. Outside, an international team of advocates strove to bring worldwide attention to their plight. With modern genetics, the experts sought to prove what they had long believed: that these individuals were special. Like other cases of individuals waiting for rescue from a life of deprivation behind bars, the fate of those held captive might be dramatically altered with the application of genetic science to answer questions of debated identity. Now recent DNA analysis has made it official: this group is special and because of their scientifically confirmed distinctiveness they will soon enjoy greater freedom.
Many long suspected that the fifteen languishing lions kept within the archaic Addis Ababa Lion Zoo in Ethiopia were not your average lions. The lions are descended from the private lion collection of the last Ethiopian ruler, Emperor Haile Selassie (crowned in 1930), who captured their ancestors from the wild and brought them to his palaces in the 1940s. These modern day survivors persist in the same antiquated holding pens as their descendants, lacking proper nutrition or socialization. All lions (Panther leo) are endangered and rare, but these lions seemed special; as scientists would say, they exhibited certain observable and distinguishing (i.e. phenotypic) differences from other, more common subspecies of lion. Visiting biologists took note of several remarkable features of appearance which hinted that the group was distinctive.
“The male lions at Addis Ababa Zoo are characterized by a large, dark brown mane extending down the chest through the front legs, down the back below the shoulders and the length of the belly through the groin…Compared to male lions from eastern and southern Africa [they] are also characterized by lower body mass…and smaller body size,” wrote the authors of a new study in the European Journal of Wildlife Research.
Male Addis lion. Photo courtesy of: Klaus Eulenberger.
Could these be the relatives of an extinct lion subspecies? It had been suggested that the Addis Ababa lions might be the last true relatives of North African Barbary lions or South African Cape lions, both extinct. Or even more special, might they be an entirely genetically distinctive population of lion? If so, proving the lions’ genetic identities was urgent due to breeding biological time constraints and poor zoo conditions.
“The conditions at the Addis zoo are dreadful,” biologist Claudio Sillero of the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit told Africa Geographic, describing it as an old Victorian menagerie, with paint peeling from thinning walls and no soft ground.
“The lions are housed in a 4 x 5 x 2.5-metre den with eight rooms that can accommodate eight pairs of adult lions. The capacity of the cubs’ lair is two. There is no maternity cage. The male and female lions are kept in isolation. They are fed about 10 kilograms each day of non-deboned beef and given water. No other food or supplements are provided,” local veterinarian, Melaku Tefera of Haramaya University, Ethiopia wrote in a 2003 Biodiversity and Conservation article.
Addis Lion zookeepers and city administrators were so overwhelmed from caring for the animals that they reached out to their German ‘sister city’, Leipzig, for help in 2006.
“The mayor of Addis asked the mayor of Leipzig for help as Addis Lion Zoo was under pressure because of the poor keeping conditions. Vets of Leipzig zoo went to Addis and checked the health status of most of the lions in Addis zoo,” Frank Oberwemmer, of the Leipzig Zoo, told mongabay.com.
Granted access to the lions, the team of vets took the opportunity to research the lion identities and so, Oberwemmer adds, “blood samples were taken for genetic investigations as groundwork for an international breeding program in the case of confirmation of an own subspecies or at least an own genetic construction.”
An international effort was mobilized: Susann Bruche of the Imperial College London, Markus Gusset of the University of Oxford, and Carlos Driscoll Chair of Conservation Genetics at the Wildlife Institute of India, and experts from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (which funded the study) and UK’s Durham University, compared Addis zoo lion DNA samples with samples from other African and Asian lions.
Footprint of a young lioness at the campground in the Harenna forest. Photo courtesy of: Klaus Eulenberger.
“Without genetic studies,” the scientists wrote in their paper published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research (October 2012), “cryptic species such as the Addis lions could remain unknown or go extinct without ever being recognized.”
While the lions spent day after day in the dilapidated zoo, the team was hard at work. Like much of today’s scientific work, proving the identities of the lions would be an intensely collaborative effort, drawing on the specialization of many academic disciplines.
“A study as the one published by us requires input from different sides. There is the administration part to allow sample taking and transport which was coordinated by the Zoo Leipzig (Dr Jörg Junhold, Prof. Klaus Eulenberger) as well as overall project and funding coordination (Prof. Micheal Hofreiter), the veterinary task of taking the blood samples (Prof. Klaus Eulenberger) and the work in the laboratory to process the samples and the analysis of the data (Susann Bruche, Dr. Sebastian Lippold). Afterwards, the results have to be brought in context with other knowledge in the research area in order to draw conclusions and we were lucky to have input from experts in the field of feline research (Dr. Markus Gusset, Dr. Ross Barnett, Dr. Carlos Driscoll),” Bruche explained to mongabay.com.
Importantly, the case of the Addis lions is also a testament to the power of genetic testing to alter lives. To prove that the Addis lions were special enough to deserve better treatment, Susann Bruche told mongabay.com that it was essential to use genetics “as a method to confirm the distinctiveness of populations that had been recognized to be different in some way” adding that “genetic analysis helps to identify the truly distinct populations that warrant conservation.”
Geneticists provide such answers which may result in a change of conservation strategy, such as in the case of the Addis lions, but geneticists’ power is limited. Hofreiter tells mongabay.com, that the scientists have no control over what happens to the actual lions: “the day-to-day well-being of the lions is the domain of the zoo keepers and vets, and genetics researchers have nothing to do with these issues.” Yet there is, he explains, a behind-the-scenes role for scientists to play in affecting change for genetically-contested individuals, such as the lions behind bars in Addis Ababa.
“Genetic research certainly contributes data on how important the conservation of a certain population is.”
Dr. Carlos Driscoll, a geneticist on the project, who also works with the NIH in Maryland and the Wildlife Institute of India, described to mongabay.com the essential role of genetics within conservation.
“Before you can conserve anything, or even know what to conserve, you have to identify it. And, in practical terms, that also usually means that it has to have a name attached to it so that the lawyers (and journalists) have a handle to hold on to when talking about it.”
Today “geneticists are hired guns” says Driscoll, employing widely accepted techniques of genetic testing that have been standardized just over the last twenty years. He tells mongabay.com that these days there is a “fair” amount of certainty to the science itself and that “the genetic techniques and questions you would ask are the same for a lion as for a squirrel.” Driscoll says genetic analysis is now common and cheap enough that most research these days is all application to particular cases, in this and similar instances applying genetics to prove that isolated and suspected-to-be-unique source populations– like the Addis lions– are indeed distinctive.
But confirming genetic distinctiveness hasn’t always been so easy or accurate.
“Before the development of genetic analysis, biologist relied on observations” such as superficial or behavioral differences “for the identification of conservational significant units,” Bruche says.
Dr. Driscoll described in a paper on tiger classification how in the era before molecular genetic taxonomy, subspecies definitions were based on visual criteria; such as geographical origin, size, and superficial variations such as hair length, color, etc. Because the identifications were sometimes based on a single (possibly mutant) individual and not confirmed at the genetic level, classifications of species suffered from a lack of consensus, repeated revision, and endless argument.
Even today, “there is continued debate about the genetic distinctiveness of different lion populations, a discussion delaying the initiation of conservation actions for endangered populations” wrote the Addis Abba lion study authors.
With the science established and results widely accepted by society, genetics has become the essential conservation tool which can trigger real, actual improvement for endangered and rare species. In a 2009 PLoS One paper, associating rarity with “value and need,” Driscoll described how accurate and systematic genetic assessment would “properly allow conservationists to identify those populations of the greatest value and need in order to formulate policy, to disseminate conservation funds, and to manage endangered populations.”
As an example of how genetics can inform wildlife management and land use decisions that affect endangered species, Dr. Driscoll employed genetic science to show that the extinct Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) and the Critically Endangered Amur tiger (P. t. altaica) were closely related enough to warrant new possibilities in conservation strategy. Using biogeography and genetic analysis (phylogeography), Driscoll established that Amur tiger reintroductions into former Caspian tiger habitat in Central Asia were scientifically justified. Here, genetic proof of historic close relation created new possibilities for conservation biologists trying to identify areas of appropriate and safe habitat for endangered species to stage a comeback.
In the case of the fifteen lions descended from Emperor Salassie’s private collection, genetic assessment research has paid off. Results of the study demonstrate that the Addis lions are distinctive, most closely related to lions in Africa, not those in Asia. Dr. Driscoll told Africa Geographic, “Our analysis shows the existence of three African lion clusters: those in Addis Ababa; those in north-eastern Africa, such as Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti; and those in south-western Africa in places like Etosha, Kalahari and Kruger,” adding, “The Addis zoo lions are a breed apart.”
Michael Hofreiter confirmed with mongabay.com that while not everything is known about lion genetics, there is no doubt that the Addis lions are special.
“We do not know how many genetically distinct lion populations exist, as there are not data for all surviving populations,” he says, but “the Addis lions should be considered a genetically distinct population, in conservation terms both an ‘evolutionary significant unit (ESU)’ and a ‘conservation unit.'”
In their paper, the authors argue forcefully for greater and immediate action to protect these lions.
“These lions are genetically distinct from Asian lions as well as all African lion populations for which comparative data were available. We therefore urge immediate conservation action, including the establishment of a captive breeding programme, to preserve this unique lion population. This is an extremely urgent matter because population pressure on wild lions was identified as the major threat to this species in Ethiopia and several of the individuals at Addis Ababa Zoo are reaching the end of their reproductive period.”
Already experts are discussing the next steps to take.
Male Addis lion.
“A new conservation breeding facility is required to sustain these lions as a natural heritage of Ethiopia,” Yeneneh Teka, director of the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, told Africa Geographic. “Hand-in-hand, a detailed study should continue to verify the presence of wild relatives to save these unique lions from extinction.”
To that end, the scientists are widening their search for this genetically distinct lion across Africa and in zoos throughout the world.
Since their distinctiveness has been proven through genetic testing, the Addis lions will soon receive much improved care; including translocation to modern facilities where they can thrive, reproduce, and enjoy better lives. In partnership and consultation with the Leipzig Zoo, a new facility was designed; the construction of this facility was started in 2012 and will be finished in 2013.
“This new facility is planned according to the latest knowledge about modern lion keeping and will improve the keeping conditions of these lions a lot,” Frank Oberwemmer of the Leipzig Zoo told mongabay.com,
Construction of the new, state-of-the art holding facility within an internationally monitored captive breeding program is certainly a victory for the Addis lions and the scientists who work to conserve them. But genetic testing that results in better treatment and captive breeding isn’t the end of the lion conservation story. Such expensive and dramatic conservation strategies are only necessary because of the deteriorating conditions for lions in the wild. Lions are today classified as Vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“The geographical range and population size of lions have both decreased dramatically due to Anthropogenic [human] causes, and this decline has accelerated in modern times. Once present in most parts of Africa, lions are now extinct in many regions of their former geographical range and threatened with extinction in others” wrote the authors in their paper. A recent study in Biodiversity Conservation has found that the world’s lion population dropped from around 100,000 animals fifty years ago to as few as 32,000 today, a 69 percent decline. Other estimates have been even bleaker.
“As for most large species, habitat loss due to increasing human population pressure and direct persecution by humans are the greatest threats” to lions often because “large predators usually…are seen as a threat to livestock and humans directly,” Hofreiter said.
Given the worsening conditions of lion habitat, one might ask what are the long-term goals of a proposed captive breeding program for the Addis lions? Will the Addis lions ever be released? If it’s too late for them, what about their descendants? When might such a release happen, under what conditions? How will we know when it’s safe for lions in the wild and who is to decide? It seems for now that many of these of questions are too far down the road.
“The immediate goal of a breeding program would be to conserve the Addis population and its genetic diversity… other questions are not relevant until this is achieved and one will deal with them once (if) they become relevant,” Hofreiter notes.
What is clear for now is that genetic testing has facilitated a positive life change for these Addis Ababa Zoo lions and has preserved the hopes of conservationists that perhaps the distant relatives of the Addis Fifteen might someday roam free across Africa, thriving and safe from harm.
The Harenna forest near the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of: Klaus Eulenberger.
Citation: Susann Bruche & Markus Gusset & Sebastian Lippold & Ross Barnett & Klaus Eulenberger & Jörg Junhold & Carlos A. Driscoll & Michael Hofreiter. A genetically distinct lion (Panthera leo) population from Ethiopia. European Journal of Wildlife Research. ISSN 1612-4642, DOI 10.1007/s10344-012-0668-5. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012.
Driscoll, Carlos A., Yamaguchi N, Bar-Gal GK, Roca AL, Luo S, et al. (2009) Mitochondrial Phylogeography Illuminates the Origin of the Extinct Caspian Tiger and Its Relationship to the Amur Tiger. PLoS ONE 4(1): e4125. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004125
Dybas, Cheryl Lyn. The Last of the Dark Ones. Africa Geographic. January 2013: p. 53-57.
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