HOEDSPRUIT, South Africa

International Herald Tribune, June 29, 1999

When Elsayed Hussein Akef fled Mozambique in 1996, abandoning his bankrupt Akef Egyptian Circus and leaving its lions, tigers, horses, dogs and last sick python to starve to death, he must not have realized what he had left behind. Nor did the Mozambicans and Britons who saved the animals. It was only when three of the lions were safe in pens here at the Hoedspruit Research and Breeding Center for Endangered Species that someone realized that Giepie, the huge male with the rich black mane running the length of his underbody, did not look much like other lions. Veterinarians now say he is one of the few Barbary lions left in the world. The last one in the wild was shot in 1921 in Morocco, and for a few months, there were claims that Giepie was the only Barbary left. But the excitement over finding him led small European zoos and circuses to pipe up, "Hey – we've got a lion that looks like that." One of them even agreed to ship its lioness to South Africa, and now the possibility exists that the subspecies can be bred back into viability.

Barbary lions are the stuff of legend. It was Barbaries, captured in Rome's North African colonies, that ate Christians in the Colosseum. Haile Selassie had several in his court when he ruled Ethiopia. The MGM movie lion, some assert, was one. But now the subspecies exists mostly as genetic bits and pieces in other lions, because many were captured for circuses and interbred. Scientists say that the whole idea of a lion "species" is rather tricky. Species are usually separated by ability to mate, but a lion and a tiger can produce a cub, just as a donkey and a horse can produce a mule. In Africa, lions are thought of as one species, but there are several types that seem not to interbreed in the wild. Barbaries may be one, but they were wiped out of the wild before they could be studied. "A Barbary is based on its look, the big thick mane going from its belly to its groin," said Peter Rogers, the Hoedspruit center's veterinarian. "It's sort of like some humans having extra thick beards."

How Giepie (pronounced HEE-pee, and renamed after a Hoedspruit employee with a wild haircut) got here is a roustabout romance in itself. Between 1993 and 1996, the Akef circus wandered slowly down Africa, from Djibouti to Zimbabwe, stopping to put on its dog-and-pony acts, contortionists and snake charmers for audiences paying pennies. But it often camped for months without performing, and conservationists believe it was really a front for smuggling endangered species. Six chimpanzees, several pythons and some rare gray parrots were seized from it, and documents showed that it was buying chimps from Zairian smugglers. When officials tried to make arrests, Mr. Akef claimed diplomatic immunity and got Egyptian officials to intervene. In Zimbabwe, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals finally cracked down in late 1995, confiscating three dying pythons in a raid. The circus, ordered deported, slipped into Mozambique and camped in a park in the capital, Maputo. In June 1996, Elena Son, manager of a tour business, visited and found Mr. Akef long gone and his workers struggling to feed the animals and themselves. One tiger was dying and the lions and horses were so thin their ribs stuck out. The big cats lay in their own excrement in the small cages where they had spent their lives. Miss Son paid to buy them meat and brought in Animal Defenders, a British animal rights group. It found homes in South African game parks, pushed through the complex paperwork, fended off a Mozambican nightclub owner trying to seize them for bad debts and trucked them to Hoedspruit. Here, released into 11-hectare (28-acre) enclosures, the lions were scared even of rustling leaves. "They didn't know how to walk in the bush," said Lente Roode, the center's owner. "They didn't know how to drink from the pond." News of the rescue reached the ears of other zoos. A bankrupt safari park in Bologna, Italy, offered its two Barbary-looking lions, Arturo and his sister, Sissi, if the center would pay the fare. The price, $16,000, broke Mrs. Roode's budget, but she managed it. Arturo is sterile, but Sissi may be bred with Giepie. Their meeting has been delayed while they get to know each other through the fence. Between lions, a failure in sex appeal means a first date may end in a fatal fight.

Comments upon the above article by Robert Frenz:

First, one should note the TNB towards our planet's varied lifeforms. Secondly, the existence of another variety of lion (Panthera leo) should reveal the tenuous nature of zoological labels. All biological classifications are based upon the theory of evolution whereby similarities are defined as indicators of some biological relationship. LABELS ARE NOT FACTS! If you cannot detach yourself from the belief that labels ARE the object, then you will understand very little of anything.

Bill Cosby and Clint Eastwood are classified as belonging to the species Homo sapiens but anyone with an unbiased eye will note greater physical differences between them than they will between other similar looking critters which are classified as belonging to different species. This great folly called classification follows from the tautological naming system currently in vogue, and admitted compromises with the church when it comes to categorizing the talking apes. In other than the human category, the difference between a Black's hair (actually a type of wool) and that of a White would be sufficient reason to have them named as a different species – which for practical purposes, they are.

There are nearly 20 species of "crows". They are interfertile and, for the most part, are identical to the lay eye. The most common are Corvus brachyrhynchos and Corvus corone. The latter consists of two "races", Corcus corone corone and Corvus corone cornix, which many label as distinct species. The fact that they can produce hybrid offspring doesn't make them "brothers", or even related, for that matter. The "relation" is purely an abstract concept following the need of man to understand the world on his terms. To say that a watch and a clock are somehow related, or to believe that one "evolved" from the other, is a ludicrous notion no matter how similar their physical structures and functions might be. Canis latrans (coyote) and Canis aureus (jackal) instantly recognize that they are not "brothers" but Homo sapiens (White) and Homo niggerus (Black) love to believe that they are. While the coyote will not stick his salami into the orifice of a jackal (or a chicken), Homo will stick his into virtually anything available. This is the source of most of our problems.