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Sultan: A King Among Lions

Newly released photos from the Bronx Zoo Archives include an intriguing portrait of Sultan, a Barbary lion.

By Vicki Croke

Wildlife Conservation Society_00951_Barbary Lion Sultan

Even in desolate surroundings, Barbary lion Sultan is the picture of dignity. Bronx Zoo’s Lion House, April 1903. Courtesy: WCS.

His name was Sultan. And he was a Barbary lion on exhibit at the Bronx Zoo at the turn of the last century.

Days ago, we found him among a batch of archival images that the Wildlife Conservation Society sent us. Despite the bleakness of his surroundings and circumstance, Sultan exudes a kind of grace that travels across boundaries of time, place, and even species.

A 1906 New York Zoological Society postcard featuring Sultan. Courtesy: Wildlife Conservation Society Archives.

A 1906 New York Zoological Society postcard featuring Sultan. Courtesy: WCS.

His photo is among many from the Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium that WCS will be able to preserve with a $16,674 grant from the New York State Program for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials.

The organization plans to clean and rehouse glass plate and film negatives dating back to the founding of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium. The project will focus on the first 12,000 negatives in a collection of more than 70,000, and will cover images from 1899 through about 1930.

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There’s a lot of history in these archives. And Sultan’s portrait makes that clear. He’s a massive cat with an extraordinarily plush mane—two of the features said to distinguish the now extinct subspecies he belonged to.

Barbary, or Atlas, lions once ranged over North Africa, but were deprived of good habitat and hunted into oblivion. It is believed that the last wild Barbary lion was shot in Morocco in 1942. These members of largest of the lion subspecies were those enlisted to fight gladiators in the Roman Coliseum. And they were often displayed in European Zoos.

Wildlife Conservation Society_01034_Barbary Lion Cleopatras Cubs

Sultan’s offspring: Bronx Zoo, May 1903. The offspring of Sultan and Bedouin Maid, these cubs were the first to be born at the Bronx Zoo. Courtesy: WCS.

Two medieval lion skulls excavated in the 1930s from the Tower of London, a place that once held a menagerie, were analyzed by scientists in the last decade. They proved to be those of Barbary lions one from the 13th or 14th century, the other from the 15th century.

DNA analysis is at the heart not only of identifying old specimens like this, but of understanding whether some lions in captivity today really are “pure” Barbary lions. If so, it might just be possible, some say, to resurrect this subspecies and reintroduce them in the wild. Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, have worked in the past to puzzle this out.

Sultan-Rainey Gates-KimioHonda-WCS

Sultan was the model for this lion, which sits atop the Rainey Gates at the Bronx Zoo. Courtesy: Kimio Honda/WCS.

But the question of whether there really are Barbary lions in captivity was addressed in Scientific American by John R. Platt:

“Several zoos around the world claim to have Barbary lions in their collections. In all likelihood most if not all of these big cats are not real Barbary lions but rather hybrids with lions from sub-Saharan Africa.”

The loss to conservation is obvious. But looking into the face of Sultan in old black-and-white images makes it even more poignant.

He is an individual. Like Elsa from the Joy Adamson book “Born Free,” or Cecil, the lion shot by an American hunter in Zimbabwe last summer, and whose death angered people around the world. It’s natural to want to know more about Sultan.

Charles R Knight paints Sultan

Famed natural history artists Charles R. Knight paints a portrait of Sultan. From The Literary Digest, Volume 31. October 7, 1905.

According to an article from the Feb. 1, 1903 issue of the New York Times, Sultan and a female named Bedouin Maid were gifts to the zoo from Nelson Robinson. “Sultan,” the article states, “is four years old and is considered to be as handsome and perfect a specimen as ever trod a cage floor. He is also unusually good tempered.”

Sultan postcard 1909

A colored postcard of Sultan postmarked 1909. Inscription: “Dear Ma: We saw this fellow having his dinner today. We are coming home Friday night. We were in Bronx Park over four hours. Cait.” Courtesy WCS.

That perception was seconded by the animal artist Anna Hyatt Huntington who, in a New York Times article two years later, said that unlike other cats she had studied and distrusted, Sultan was “very friendly.”

He’s a lion worthy of nostalgia. If only preserving his species were as straightforward and assured as saving these archival images.


4 Responses to “Sultan: A King Among Lions”

  1. Anonymous

    Sultan was the most beautiful Lion I have ever seen. The Atlanta Zoo was one of the most horrible places I have ever been. It was 1958. I remember the gorilla drinking from a bottle, he looked so unhappy. The Zoo was later remodeled.

    Our NC Zoo is making our animals more comfortable. Wish we could see them all free.


  2. Santiago Nunez

    Heartbreaking to see such a work of God laying there alone a King Inprisoned..All that comes to mind is The Evil that Men do to one another thier animals and our Planet


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