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10 Recently Extinct Lions and Tigers

Lions, Tigers and Big Cats that Went Extinct in Historical Times


Few creatures on earth are as threatened by extinction today as the big cats--lions, tigers and cheetahs. In fact, the past 10,000 years have witnessed the demise of no less than ten species and subspecies of big cats, as well as one tiger-like marsupial. Here are the 10 most notable big cats that have gone extinct in historical times. (See also 100 Recently Extinct Animals and Why Do Animals Go Extinct?)

1. The American Lion

american lion
Wikimedia Commons

As with the American Cheetah, the big-cat affiliations of the American Lion (Panthera leo atrox) are in some doubt: this Pleistocene predator may actually have been more closely related to tigers and jaguars. The amazing thing about the American Lion is that it coexisted, and competed, with both Smilodon (aka the Saber-Toothed Tiger; see the #10 entry below) and Canis dirus, the Dire Wolf. If it was in fact a subspecies of lion, the American Lion was by far the biggest example of its breed, some males weighing as much as half a ton. More about the American Lion

2. The American Cheetah

Wikimedia Commons

Despite its name, the American Cheetah (genus name Miracinonyx) was more closely related to pumas and jaguars than to modern cheetahs; its slim, muscular, cheetah-like body can be chalked up to convergent evolution (the tendency for animals that inhabit similar ecosystems--in this case the wide, grassy plains of North America and Africa--to evolve similar body plans). As fast and sleek as it was, the American Cheetah went extinct about 10,000 years ago, possibly as a result of human encroachment on its territory. More about the American Cheetah

3. The Bali Tiger

bali tiger
Eric Bajart

As you might have surmised from its name, the Bali Tiger (Panthera tigris balica) was restricted to the Indonesian island of Bali, where the last scattered individuals went extinct a mere 50 or so years ago. For thousands of years, the Bali Tiger coexisted uneasily with the indigenous human settlers of Indonesia; however, it wasn't truly imperiled until the arrival of the first Europeans, who mercilessly hunted this tiger to extinction, sometimes for sport and sometimes to protect their territory. More about the Bali Tiger

4. The Barbary Lion

barbary lion
Joseph Bassett Holder

One of the more fearsome subspecies of Panthera leo, the Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo) was a prized possession of medieval British lords eager to impress their peasants; a few large, shaggy individuals even made their way from northern Africa to the menagerie of the Tower of London. Barbary Lion males possessed especially large manes, and they were among the largest lions of historical times, weighing as much as 500 pounds apiece. It may yet prove possibly to reintroduce the Barbary Lion into the wild by selective breeding of its scattered descendants. More about the Barbary Lion

5. The Cape Lion

cape lion
A.E. Brehm

The Cape Lion, Panthera leo melanochaitus, holds a tenuous position in the big-cat classification books; some experts maintain it shouldn't count as a Panthera leo subspecies at all, and was in fact a mere geographical offshoot of the still-extant Transvaal Lion of South Africa. Whatever the case, the last individuals of this big-maned breed expired in the late 19th century, and a convincing sighting hasn't been recorded since (though not for lack of trying). More about the Cape Lion

6. The Caspian Tiger

caspian tiger
Public Domain

Of all the big cats that have gone extinct over the last 100 years, the Caspian Tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) occupied the largest swath of territory, ranging from Iran to the Caucasus to the vast, windswept steppes of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. We can thank Russia, which borders these regions, for the extinction of this majestic beast; Tsarist officials set a bounty on the Caspian Tiger during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As with the Barbary Lion, it may yet prove possible to "de-extinct" the Caspian Tiger via selective breeding of its descendants. More about the Caspian Tiger

7. The Cave Lion

cave lion
Heinrich Harder

Probably the most famous of all extinct big cats--if only for its close association with the Cave Bear, on which it regularly lunched--the Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea) was the apex predator of Pleistocene Eurasia. Oddly enough, this lion probably didn't live in dark grottoes; it earned its name because various specimens were unearthed in European caves, which Panthera leo spelaea raided in search of bear-sized snacks (an angry, full-grown Cave Bear would have been an even match for an 800-pound Cave Lion male, a scenario that's depicted in this article). More about the Cave Lion

8. The European Lion

european lion
Public Domain

Confusingly, what paleontologists refer to as the European Lion comprised as many as three, rather than just one, subspecies of Panthera leo: Panthera leo europaea, Panthera leo tartarica and Panthera leo fossilis. What all these big cats shared in common were their relatively large sizes (some males approached 400 pounds) and their susceptibility to encroachment and capture by early European "civilization": for example, European Lions featured in the gruesome arena combats of ancient Rome. More about the European Lion

9. The Javan Tiger

javan tiger
Wikimedia Commons

Like its close relative in oblivion, the Bali Tiger (above), the Javan Tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) was restricted to a single island in the vast Indonesian archipelago. Unlike the Bali Tiger, though, the Javan Tiger succumbed not to relentless hunting by settlers bent on preserving their livestock, but to relentless encroachment, as the human population of Java exploded during the 19th and 20th centuries. The last Javan Tiger was glimpsed a few decades ago; no one holds out much hope for another sighting. More about the Javan Tiger

10. The Saber-Tooth Tiger

saber-tooth tiger

The last big cat on this list is a bit of a ringer: despite its name, the Saber-Tooth Tiger wasn't really a tiger, and it went extinct at the cusp of the historical era, about 10,000 years ago. Still, given its enduring place in the popular imagination, Smilodon at least merits a mention: this was one of the most dangerous predators of the Pleistocene epoch, capable of sinking its canines into even the largest megafauna mammal and cruelly waiting nearby as its victim bled to death. As intimidating as it was, though, Smilodon was no match for early humans, who presumably hunted it to extinction. More about the Saber-Tooth Tiger

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