April 23, 2011

Lion Cubs Toddle Towards Adulthood

Seven lion cubs, born to sister lionesses Shera and Naba last year at the National Zoo in Washington DC, are about to turn seven and eight months old, and will soon be separated.

"We still call them cubs and we still think of them as toddlers," said lion keeper Rebecca Stites. But if their mother wasn't there for them, "they wouldn't do so well on their own."

Still, their youth is short-lived. Experts will hold a matchmaking meeting in the coming weeks to decide where the lions will spend their adulthood and with whom they would be best suited for mating.

In the coming months, the four female cubs of the seven will be separated from the pride to avoid interbreeding with their father, Luke. By age two, the lion cubs will all have been split up and sent to other zoos to start their own families.

Stites, who has been part of the lion cubs' care since their birth -- four born to Shera in August 2010 and three born to Naba in September -- acknowledged that the animals are not theirs, "but when you work with them so closely it is a huge investment."

"You think about them when you are not at work. You worry about them when you are not here. You plan for things that are upcoming in their future," Stites told AFP.

The cubs, which are the first known double litter born at the National Zoo in recent memory, have had their every movement broadcast online via webcams, and they are among the top attractions for tourists at the capital zoo.

Luke, their father, who arrived at the zoo from a reserve in South Africa, is a prominent figure himself.

"Luke was the most genetically valuable lion in the United States. His genes were not represented anywhere in the captive population in North America," said zoo spokeswoman Lindsay Renick Mayer.

The 10-member pride is monitored closely for a behavioral study by volunteers who take note at four-minute intervals of their position and what they are doing.

The big cats also get empty beer kegs to attack and catnip balls to chase as part of their "enrichment" training which allows them to follow their instincts as they would in the wild.

The cubs get to chase bunny carcasses on Mondays and protect beef bones from would-be scavengers and thieves on Thursdays.

Soon the cubs will be looking for new homes, where they will settle down for their adult lives.

Stites said there are 99 institutions across the country that host more than 330 captive lions, with an average of 26 born each year. "They look at this whole big population and they look at institutions that are wanting or willing or capable of taking in lions," she said.

"They basically sit in a room for hours and hours and hours and try to make appropriate movements because in the future they are going to be part of this bigger breeding plan," she added.

In the wild, females stay with their mothers and males separate from the pride between the age of 2 and 4, forming their own bachelor group until they come across a pride of females they could dominate.

But for lions in zoos, a computer program helps "identify the genetic value of each individual lion in captivity in the United States and match them across the country" said Renick Mayer.

This way, no lions are taken out of nature to go on zoo display, and those bred in captivity can help their brethren abroad, who are listed as "vulnerable" by the IUCN.

"Really, these guys serve as ambassadors," said Sites. "They will draw crowds, get people interested in ecotourism, and hopefully people will want to get involved with saving the species as a whole."


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