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Little cats join who’s who of lion in the zoo

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Nine months old Bia at her new home at the Pretoria Zoo after she was realised from the National Zoo's Animal Hospital. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Pretoria - It is not easy moving into a new home if you are a young lion cub – first there is quarantine, then extensive medical tests and only then can you set paw in your new enclosure.

On Thursday, lionesses Bia and Emma bid farewell to the Pretoria zoo’s animal hospital and moved into their new home in a camp in the zoo’s north-eastern section.

Their arrival brings to five the number of lions at the zoo.

Bia, that is about 10-months old, was confiscated from an individual who was keeping her illegally in Natal, and Emma is on loan to the zoo from Horseback Africa, a wildlife conservation facility.

Emma is about 11 months old, and although the two are not related and had never met before, they are now firm friends.

The lionesses will be housed at the zoo for now but may ultimately be moved to the zoo’s Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre in Limpopo.

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Eleven months old Ema at her new home at the Pretoria Zoo after she was realised from the National Zoo's Animal Hospital. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

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African lions are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN’s Red Data List of Threatened Species.

The world’s lion population has decreased by 30 percent over the course of three generations which equals two decades in human terms.

A recent study, partially funded by the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative (December 2012) and published online, estimates that only about 32 000 lions now roam the plains of Africa compared with about 100 000 recorded in the 1960s.

The study also found that the Kruger National Park, with its population of about 1 600 lions, is one of only 10 remaining strongholds for lions in Africa.

About 24 000 of Africa’s remaining lions are primarily found in 10 strongholds – four in East Africa and six in southern Africa.

Lion populations in west and central Africa are the most acutely threatened, even in nominally protected areas, and African lions have already become extinct in 12 countries in the continent.

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Marilise Meyer and Angela Bruns attending to the months old lionesses Bia and Ema (11) before taking them to their new home at the Pretoria Zoo. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

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Historic causes for the decline are primarily indiscriminate killing of lions in defence of human life and livestock, coupled with the depletion of their prey animals.

Habitat loss has also led to several populations becoming smaller and more isolated.

Lions’ scavenging behaviour also makes them particularly vulnerable to poisoned carcasses put out by farmers to eliminate predators.

And now there is a new threat to African lion populations – the growing trade in lion bones for traditional Asian medicine with exports from Africa growing annually.

l This month a group of students from the Pretoria zoo, its veterinarians, staff scientists and research associates, including those from the US and Germany, will join forces in Wolmaransstad, in the North West, to collect tissue samples from local lion populations.

The aim of this research excursion is to focus on the molecular genetics and reproduction of lions, and forms part of an initiative in collaboration with the South African Predators’ Association.

Professor Antoinette Kotze, the manager of research and scientific services at the zoo, says that molecular sampling on African lions is ideal at present because of their abundance in the wild.

“Their genetic diversity is still high and these studies will help us identify pairs that are not closely related to prevent inbreeding.

“This in turn will assist us with the establishment of a genetic database of animals in an ex situ (outside the natural habitat) environment,” she explained.

Different methods of semen col(lection and cryopreservation (freezing) will also be investigated and identified as a means of safeguarding the genetic material for the worst-case scenario of African lion populations becoming threatened or endangered.

The zoo’s Biobank, which is currently building capacity in cryo-preservation techniques of biological material, is looking to the future and will store these collected samples for any possible eventuality; either in an in situ or ex situ situation regarding African lions. - Pretoria News

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