ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOX) — Two African lion cubs born on Valentine’s Day have already surpassed many odds and are doing well according to Zoo officials. Their 6 year-old mother, Cabara, gave birth to four cubs but unfortunately was unable to produce enough mile to feed them. The staff at the St. Louis zoo intervened, but two cubs died. The two surviving female cubs are currently being hand-reared by staff in a behind-the-scenes nursery at the Children’s Zoo.
“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 are growing rapidly and appear to be healthy.”
The cubs’ names are “Mtai”, after a village in Tanzania, and “Serafina,” which means “angel” in African Swahili. At six weeks, they are eating some meat and drinking formula from bottles.
Every day, zookeepers bring the cubs 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.”
“Imani,” an 8-month-old female cub born to Cabara in 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 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-sized 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. Currently there are 337 lions living in 100 AZA institutions, which may serve as a genetic reserve for this species in the future.