Visitors to the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens can say hello to four new members of the lion pride after lioness Dunia gave birth to cubs this past fall. The birth marks the first litter of African lion cubs at the zoo in 15 years, giving a new generation a chance to see cubs grow into adult lions.
Photo credit: Jennifer D
Lion conservation efforts
Dunia’s cubs were part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan for African lions. This plan helps to oversee the population management of select species within AZA member zoos and aquariums and recommended that Dunia, age 7, voluntarily breed with the OKC Zoo’s male lion, Hubert, age 11.
With less than 40,000 mature lions in Africa, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified African lions as a vulnerable species. The population decrease is attributed to illegal hunting, habitat loss, loss of food sources and conflict with humans.
“Almost every mega predator (such as the lion) is seeing declines in its population,” Tyler Boyd, OKC Zoo’s curator of carnivores said. “That’s where we have to make sure we are establishing enough protected areas and supporting conservation organizations that are out there doing the work to protect these species.”
One way that the OKC Zoo is supporting conservation programs is through the Round Up for Conservation Fund. Guests who visit the zoo are asked if they’d like to round up their purchase to support three conservation organizations in Africa. Since the program’s inception, the OKC Zoo has raised over $1 million.
The conservation organizations provide local farmers with livestock guard dogs and predator-deterrent enclosures in exchange for commitments from the farmers not to harm predators, including lions, on their land. This keeps both livestock and predators, including lions, cheetahs and African painted dogs safe.
Introducing lion cubs to the pride
A few months after giving birth, Dunia and her cubs Neema, Zahara, Makena and Mshango, are enjoying life in the OKC Zoo. The zoo’s team worked to make sure Dunia’s slow reintroduction and the cubs’ introduction to the rest of the pride were smooth sailing.
“Everything went really, really smooth. There were positive interactions, good vocalizations and behavior … it went as well as we could’ve hoped for,” said Candice Rennels, OKC Zoo director of public relations.
In the wild, a mother lion will often leave her pride for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, to go bond with her cubs. The OKC Zoo gave Dunia the choice to leave the lion’s den to be with her cubs, while still having visual access to the other adult lions.
“She got to choose and dictate, ‘How much do I want to interact with the rest of the pride versus how much do I want to stay here?’” Boyd said.
Photo credit: Emma W.
The cubs’ introduction to the rest of the pride went slowly. First, Dunia had to be reintroduced to her sister without any of the cubs to make sure the two female lions were ok. Next, the cubs met the other female lion. Finally, the cubs met their dad. Today, all seven lions live together.
Each morning, lions in the wild and at the zoo make a territorial call letting everyone know, “this is our space.” Dunia taught her cubs the call with small chirps and squeaks.
“It’s very neat watching Dunia go from a pride member to being a matriarchal part of the pride,” Boyd said.
A lion’s happy life in the zoo
Photo credit: Jennifer J
With the new cubs on display, a new generation can experience the joy of watching them grow while learning the lion’s important role in their ecosystem.
“Lions and predators in general get this misnomer that people view them as killers. But lions aren’t that way. They hunt what they need to hunt and only get enough for their group,” Boyd said. “They’re out here surviving every day because the places they live in are disappearing.”
Boyd notes that many of the lion’s struggles in the wild are due to dwindling food sources.
“There’s not as many protected places in the wild, and therefore all the predators start to suffer as well,” Boyd said. “We talk about giving animals the best lives that we can. We can’t provide Dunia anything that’s going to be more enriching for her life than breeding and reproducing these offspring.”
Dunia’s litter of four cubs is large, especially for a first-time mother. But the OKC Zoo is well-equipped to provide behavior-based enrichment for both mom and cubs such as foraging for their food.
Zoo staff plans out a month’s worth of enrichment activities giving the animals wild experiences and allowing visitors to enjoy seeing what lions are like in nature. Daily activities are focused on evoking the lions’ natural instincts of foraging, hunting, investigative play and rest.
Each day, expert caretakers at the zoo educate guests about the pride in front of the lion overlook.
“We talk about the role everybody plays in the lion prides and what they’re struggling with out in the wild,” Boyd said.
Conversations like this help inform the public of the importance of conservation and struggles for wild species such as poaching and diminishing protected spaces.
By working to safely raise and observe lion cubs in the zoo, and helping conservation organizations in Africa, places like the OKC Zoo are ensuring that generations now and in the future can enjoy the magic of the wild kingdom.
Big Cats on Wild Kingdom
Lions aren’t the only big cats in the wild kingdom. Watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild’s “Crossing Cougar Country,” to learn how experts are helping big cats native to the United States.