March 02, 2016

By Steve Bircher
Curators of Mammals/Carnivores

Impossible, you say. About 10,000 years ago, the lion was the most widespread large land mammal after humans. They were found in most of Africa, across Eurasia from western Europe to India, and in the Americas from the Yukon to Peru.

Now, the second-largest living cat after the tiger has disappeared from Southwest Asia and 22 countries in Africa. The total African lion population, estimated at about half a million at the beginning of the 20th Century, now numbers around 20,000.

Recognizing this, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that the African lion will be formally protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act—a move that was several years in the making. The law offers numerous benefits to foreign species, primarily by prohibiting certain activities, including import, export, commercial activity, interstate commerce and foreign commerce. By regulating these activities, the United States ensures that people under the jurisdiction of the United States do not contribute to the further decline of listed species.

Why are lions disappearing? Habitat loss and prey depletion, poaching and illegal trafficking of lion parts all play a part. But the most pressing and pervasive threat to lions is the illegal bushmeat industry that empties African savannahs of wildlife and the widespread killing of lions by people in defense of their livestock.

Working to get communities to protect rather than kill lions has been a focus for the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Conservation of Carnivores in Africa. I direct that center and for more than a decade, have worked with a number of organizations to save big cats. While our earlier focus was on saving cheetah, we have expanded our work to include all carnivores in Africa. We are actively supporting conservationist and partner Amy Dickman who focuses on Ruaha National Park in south central Tanzania – an area that is home to around 10 percent of all the lions left in Africa.

Ruaha is also the habitat for globally important populations of African painted dogs, cheetahs, leopards and spotted hyenas. Dr. Dickman's carnivore project staff gathers baseline data on carnivore numbers and ecology and develops strategies that help reduce human-carnivore conflict. The organization promotes community education programs that stress the benefits of the presence of wildlife on village lands.

In addition, at the Saint Louis Zoo, we work hard to maintain a sustainable population of lions in the care of zoos. We have a long history of loving lions here. Building the Lion House was the catalyst for establishing tax support for our Zoo in 1915. It opened in 1916 and was home to the first cubs born at the Zoo in 1924. For years, the Zoo was the place to go to see a range of animals, including and especially African lions.

However, about eight years ago, the lion population living in accredited zoos like the Saint Louis Zoo simply was not reproducing enough offspring to sustain itself. Scientists feared that, unless something was done, the number of lions in zoos would drop dramatically. To find a solution, zoos worked together through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Lion Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program, which is focused on cooperatively managing populations in zoological institutions.

Zoo professionals began the sustainability project by monitoring the reproductive hormone cycles of male and female lions to determine why lions were no longer breeding as many offspring. The team also tested the fertility of a select number of lions; performing semen evaluations on males and ultrasound exams on females.

This research gave scientists a better understanding of the fundamental reproductive biology of this charismatic species. The results have been extremely valuable in caring for lions at accredited zoos across the nation. Specifically, insights into female reproductive cycles have enabled animal care staff to identify the best time to begin breeding introductions and predict when cubs would be born.

Thanks to this research, the current African Lion SSP population is nearing its target population size.

Over the years, at the Saint Louis Zoo, dozens of lions have been born—most recently African lion cubs "Mtai" and "Serafina," who were born in the spring of 2012. Mtai and Serafina grew up and moved to Wildlife Safari outside Winston in southern Oregon to begin families of their own. On February 13, 2015, Mtai, successfully gave birth to four healthy cubs — three males and one female. They were the first lion births at the Wildlife Safari in 23 years. On June 8, 2015, four lion cubs were born to Serafina.

Together these two St. Louis-born lionesses will help ensure that lions are in our future and in the lives or our grandchildren and their children.

Category: Conservation
Tag: lion