African lion cubs "Mtai" and "Serafina" made their public debut in the lion habitat at the Saint Louis Zoo's Big Cat Country on May 10, 2012. The nearly three-month-old sisters played together and explored their habitat under the watchful eye of their zookeepers. 

The cubs were moved from the Emerson Children’s Zoo nursery to Big Cat Country when they were about two months old. At almost three months old, they now weigh about 30 pounds each, and each eats about two pounds of meat a day. Since shortly after their birth, the cubs have been gradually introduced to their mother Cabara, father Ingozi and sister Imani through a mesh or “howdy” gate behind the scenes.

Play time in the lion habitat is a big step in the introduction process.

“The cubs are doing really great, and introductions are going very well,” says Steve Bircher, curator of mammals/carnivores at the Saint Louis Zoo. “We hope to have the whole lion pride together in the future.”

So Cute, They'll Steal Your Heart!

Female African lion “Cabara” gave birth to four cubs on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2012, at the Saint Louis Zoo. Cabara was unable to produce milk to feed her cubs, so Zoo staff intervened. Unfortunately, two of the cubs born did not survive. The two surviving female cubs are currently being hand-reared by staff behind-the-scenes.

“In the wild, it is not uncommon for lion mothers to rear fewer than fifty percent of the cubs born in a litter,” says Steve Bircher, curator of mammals/carnivores at the Saint Louis Zoo.

The cubs’ names are Mtai (pronounced Muh-TIE), after a village in Tanzania, and Serafina, which means “angel” in African Swahili.

Meeting the Pride

Every day for several weeks, zookeepers would bring the cubs from the Children's Zoo nursery to a den behind the scenes at Big Cat Country for gradual introduction to the other lion family members. For several hours, the new cubs get to know their mother, father and older sister through a mesh or fencing known as a “howdy" gate.

“We are excited about the addition of Mtai and Serafina to the Zoo’s cat family and their eventual inclusion in our lion pride at Big Cat Country,” says Bircher. “Lions are social animals, and the cubs need to grow up in a family group, if at all possible. “Our goal is to raise well-adjusted lions.”

Big Sister Imani

“Imani,” a female born to Cabara in July of 2011, was hand-reared because of similar circumstances. She was successfully reintroduced to her mother and father several months ago and can be seen on display at Big Cat Country with her family in between introductions.

The father of the cubs is Ingozi.

About African Lions

The African lion is a social cat that lives in a pride, or family group, mainly comprised of up to 40 related adult females and their young. Male lions generally live with a pride for two to three years. A female lion normally gives birth to a litter of three to four cubs, after a gestation period of approximately 110 days. The lion pride usually hunts as a group and preys on medium to large antelopes, zebra and buffalo.

In the past 25 years, the wild lion population has halved. Currently, there are fewer than 25,000 lions surviving in Africa. Habitat loss, poaching and human-lion conflict have contributed to this significant decline. The lion has been listed as vulnerable by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is one level below threatened with extinction.

In addition to increasing awareness of the lion's plight in the wild, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has developed the Lion Species Survival Plan, a program that manages a genetically healthy captive population of lions in North American zoos. The 337 lions now living in 100 AZA institutions may serve as a genetic reserve for this species in the future.