Endangered Species Handbook

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Persecution and Hunting

Roman Slaughters

     The tradition of killing animals for pleasure has a long history in Asia and Europe.  So popular was hunting in ancient Rome that mosaics and paintings often depicted this pastime as a heroic activity.  Slaughtering animals was considered a form of entertainment, and people scoured the countryside for bears, Lions, stags and boars to pursue with spears and dogs (Attenborough 1987).  As the Roman Empire grew to encompass the entire Mediterranean basin, its citizens traveled throughout the region to hunt and bring back animals to be killed in primitive contests in the coliseums of Rome and other cities.  The coliseum games continued for more than 400 years in more than 70 amphitheaters, the largest seating up to 50,000 people on stone benches arranged around a central arena (Attenborough 1987). 
     Roman emperors curried favor with the public by upstaging their predecessors in killing more animals and producing more spectacular displays of slaughter (Morris 1990).  Emperor Titus inaugurated the Roman Coliseum by declaring 100 days of celebration, during which enormous numbers of animals were speared by gladiators.  On the opening day, 5,000 animals were slaughtered, and over the next two days, 3,000 more were killed (Morris 1990).  The caged animals were kept underground in dungeons where they were not fed, and on the day of the festival, they were hauled in their cages onto lifts that brought them into the center of the arena.  As the crowd roared with excitement, drums were beaten, trumpets blown, and the terrified animals were set loose (Attenborough 1987).  Sometimes the animals were goaded to attack one another, and at other times, men armed with spears and tridents pursued them around barriers made from shrubs in imitation of hunts in the wild (Attenborough 1987).  One arena hunt resulted in the killing of 300 Ostriches and 200 Alpine Chamois (Morris 1990). 
     Lions, Tigers, bears, bulls, Leopards, Giraffes and deer died after being tormented, stabbed and gored (Morris 1990).  Big cats that had been starved were released into the ring where a human slave or prisoner of war was lashed to a post; the animals clawed at the person before they themselves were speared and stabbed by gladiators (Attenborough 1987).  In some of the larger slaughters, 500 Lions, more than 400 Leopards, or 100 bears would be killed in a single day (Morris 1990).  Hippos, even rhinoceroses and crocodiles, were brought into these arenas, and sometimes gladiators employed bizarre methods of killing such as decapitating fleeing ostriches with crescent-shaped arrows (Morris 1990).
     The Roman audiences cheered these brutal slaughters enthusiastically as a rule, but when 20 elephants were pitted against heavily armed warriors, the screaming of these gentle animals as they were wounded caused the crowd to boo the emperor for his cruelty (Morris 1990).  This did not stop their use in the games however.  These slaughters virtually eliminated large mammals from the Mediterranean area.  North African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) were exterminated, having been hunted and captured to die in these arenas (Leakey and Lewin 1995).  Elephants were also used by the Romans for transport and even conscripted for battle by Hannibal, a Carthaginian general who used them in a deadly march across the Alps, in which all the elephants died of exposure.  Romans were probably the key element in the disappearances of the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) from West Asia as well (Leakey and Lewin 1995).
     Prior to the expansion of the Roman Empire, Atlas Bears (Ursus arctos crowtheri) lived in the mountains and forests of North Africa, the only bears on the African continent.  Named for their last refuge in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, they were a race of the Brown Bear which is native to Eurasia and North America.  North Africa was the species' most southerly distribution.  When Romans entered North Africa, they cut the forest habitat of this bear and slaughtered thousands for sport.  Others were collected for coliseum combat, where they were attacked by smaller animals, or gladiators wielding axes, spears and other weapons.  Over the centuries, the Atlas Mountain forests were leveled for building materials, and colonial landowners used the cleared land for grazing livestock (Day 1981).  The Atlas Bear became restricted to Mount Atlas, where an 18th century French naturalist discovered a fresh skin, upon which the first scientific description was based (Day 1981).  Even as late as 1830, the bears were common enough to be captured and sent to French zoos.  In 1840, an English scientist concluded that this bear, smaller than the American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), was a distinct subspecies.  It was stocky, with a short face, blackish-brown, shaggy fur on its back, and orange-rufous fur on its belly (Day 1981).  This differentiates it so much from the Brown Bear that modern taxonomists might consider the two distinct species.  Although Atlas Bears became increasingly rare, they received no protection from hunting, and the last of these bears were shot around 1870 (Day 1981).
     Herodotus and Aristotle, philosophers of ancient Greece, wrote that Lions once lived in that country (Attenborough 1987).  Two thousand years ago, the range of these big cats extended eastward in a continuous band to India and Pakistan and throughout the African continent.  The Lion disappeared at an early time from Italy and Greece after being hunted and captured by the thousands for gladiator spectacles.  When European Lions had been killed off, Romans turned to North Africa.  The Barbary or Atlas Lion (Panthera leo leo), once distributed through much of the region north of the Sahara, fell victim to hunting and Roman Coliseum games.  Known for its enormous mane, which covered virtually half its body, the male Barbary Lion was one of the largest of all races of Lions (Day 1981).  It was also the nominate, or first subspecies named.  This massive animal weighed as much as 500 pounds and measured up to 10 feet long from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail (Day 1981).  After centuries of hunting, persecution and habitat loss, these Lions withdrew to remote forests, where the last of them were systematically hunted down.  Arabian tribesmen in Tunisia and Algeria chased them for sport, and later, French colonial governments paid bounties for their skins; by the 19th century, hunters had exterminated the last of the lions in Algeria (Day 1981).  Government lists recorded the bounty fees paid, with fewer each year; only one skin was submitted for payment in Algeria in 1884 (Day 1981).  Their final refuge, like the Atlas Bear's, was the wilderness forest of Morocco's Atlas Mountains, where hunters killed the last one around 1922 (Day 1981).  Although officially extinct, some of these Lions may still survive in captivity. Certain circus and zoo Lions resembling the original Barbary Lion have been identified, and an effort is being made to gather a breeding colony of these animals.  Whether they are, in fact, direct blood lines from the original North African Lions remains to be seen.
     By the 13th century, Lions had been eliminated in the eastern Mediterranean; they disappeared from Iraq, Iran and Pakistan by the 1800s (McClung 1976).  The last Lion in the Saudi Arabian peninsula was killed in 1923.  For most ancient cultures of the Middle East and West Asia, killing one of these great cats, especially a large male, was considered a heroic deed worthy of being recorded in paintings and mosaics.  Many such art works remain from Assyrian and other West Asian cultures.  By the mid-19th century, Asiatic Lions (Panthera leo persica) had become confined to India, but were still widespread in that country (McClung 1976).  During the last half of the 19th century, however, Indian Lions came under siege by British Colonial officers, who traditionally proudly took a Lion pelt back to England; a single hunter boasted of shooting 300 Indian Lions in 1860 (IUCN 1978).  Under such pressure, Lions disappeared from all of India, save the Gir Forest in the southwest, by 1884 (IUCN 1978).  In 1900, protection was finally accorded the last of these Lions, when their populations had been reduced to fewer than 100 animals (McClung 1976).  Today, the Gir Forest Lions number a few hundred animals, all that remain of these proud cats on the Eurasian continent.  Confined to a habitat that was rapidly being whittled away by villagers cutting firewood, and overgrazed by livestock, the Gir Lions are now protected in the Sasan Gir National Park of western India where, in recent years their population has increased.
     Hunting by Romans and later peoples, combined with capture for the colosseum games, devastated the wildlife of North Africa and the entire Mediterranean region.  Large predators, as well as deer and other ungulates, disappeared altogether or become endangered.  Few conservation programs exist to protect remaining populations from hunting and persecution.

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