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DNA tests help bring back legendary roar

Barbary lions, extinct in the wild since the 1920s, may make a comeback thanks to scientists in Britain.

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At first glance, the playful bundle of fur with tufted ears and stretching claws could be any other lion cub.

In fact, Saffiya (Saffi for short) who is approaching her first birthday, is very special.

She may hold answers to two questions that continue to nag at the minds of animal researchers:

Is the Barbary lion, believed to have been used by the ancient Romans to kill Christians in the arena, really extinct?

And, if there are lions still carrying its genes, can genetic fingerprinting (or should that be "pawprinting"?) be used to bring these beautiful big cats back from the brink of oblivion?

Kay Hill, founder of the conservation charity Wildlink International, based in Essex, England, says she has "high hopes" that genetic testing currently being carried out on lions and lion tissue in several European countries will "result in a major breakthrough."

"It is a very exciting project," says Ms. Hill. "Barbaries are such wonderful animals.

"Whenever people think of a lion, they think of a Barbary.... But it is important to carry out precise research ahead of a breeding program. Many believe any lion with a black mane and dark chest hair is a Barbary. That isn't true. Only DNA testing can prove the lineage of a Barbary."

New additions to a noble line

Saffi's father is Kabir, known to descend from the Barbary lions owned by the king of Morocco when the last known Barbary in the wild was shot in the 1920s. Her mother is Jade, whose pedigree runs from the same source.

Both lions are held at Port Lympne Zoo, in Kent, where Saffi was born last July. In a further sign of success, two more cubs, as yet unnamed, were born to the pair early this year.

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