ARTICLE

ZOO INTRODUCES NEW GENERATION TO LION CUBS

Updated on April 19, 2024

There’s nothing quite like watching kids grow up — especially when they’re cute African lion cubs! Visitors to the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens enjoy watching the growth and development of four lion cubs, born to lioness Dunia. 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.

Learn how cubs, Neema, Zahara, Makena and Mshango, have changed since their birth in 2022, and see photos of them along their journey.

four lion cubs sitting in straw

The cubs shortly after birth. Credit | Jennifer D., Oklahoma City Zoo

 

Growing up in the OKC Zoo

When you think of a big cat with spots, a cheetah or leopard probably comes to mind. But did you know that lion cubs also have spots? The OKC Zoo cubs have spot patterns on their lower legs, but these spots are fading with time and will likely be nearly gone before their second birthday. However, some adult lions retain light spot patterns into adulthood, including the cub’s mom, Dunia, and aunt, Moto.

 

four lion cubs on branch

 

Another sign of adulthood is seen on male cub, Mshango, who is proudly growing out his mane. Though today he may sport more of a mohawk than a mane, his caretakers say his hair is growing in nicely, with a full mane expected between age 3-5.

Perhaps the most obvious change for the cubs is their size. Weighing just 2 to 2 1/2 pounds at birth, these lions have grown in a big way. Female cubs, Neema, Zahara and Makena, range in weight from 198 to 216 pounds — a bit larger than your average toddler! Meanwhile, Mshango weighs 253 pounds.

 

Four lion cubs sitting on some rock together. Three are sitting up, looking outward, while one is laying on its side sleeping.

The cubs are growing by the day! Credit | Dr. Jennifer D.

 

The cubs participate in voluntary weigh ins each month, made possible by their early introduction to the zoo’s operant conditioning training program. This program uses positive reinforcement to help establish good relationships between caretakers and animals. The cubs soon learn to expect rewards, such as treats, when receiving medical care. This allows for the cubs to voluntarily participate in their own health care and receive injections such as preventive vaccinations.

Caretakers continue to work with the cubs to learn new behaviors, allowing them to monitor cub growth, development and health for years to come. The training also provides mental stimulation for the cubs as they learn complex behaviors. All four lion cubs were trained for voluntary blood draws before their first birthdays — a “roaring” success for the OKC Zoo’s veterinary and carnivore care teams.

Mental stimulation doesn’t stop with medical care training. These cubs know how to have fun! OKC Zoo caretakers provide enrichment activities, such as carcass feedings, which encourage natural behaviors. These feedings mimic how a pride gathers in the wild to feast as a family group and benefits the cubs’ health and well-being.

lion cub enrichment with christmas treet

Enrichment activities included interacting with donated trees after the holiday season.

Introducing lion cubs to the pride

The cubs’ fun at the OKC Zoo wouldn’t be possible without carefully planned introductions. The zoo team ensured that Dunia’s gradual reintroduction and the cubs’ introduction to the rest of the pride went smoothly.

“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.

 

four lion cubs with two female lions

Credit | Emma W., Oklahoma City Zoo

 

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?’” Tyler Boyd, OKC Zoo’s curator of carnivores said.

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.

 

A lion pride sleeping in the grass on a hill. There are 4 younger lions, two older female lions and one adult male lion with a mane.

The whole pride resting together. Credit | Dr. Jennifer D.

 

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

With the 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 aren’t 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.”

 

four lion cubs sitting on rock with dad

Credit | Jennifer J., Oklahoma City Zoo

 

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.

Male young lion looking at the camera.

Male lion cub, Mshango. Credit | Andrea J.

 

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 voluntarily breed with the OKC Zoo’s male lion, Hubert.

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,” Boyd 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.”

 

Three young lions sitting next to each other on a rock.

Credit | Andrea J.

 

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.

OKC Zoo is one of many AZA accredited facilities helping to conserve African lions. Learn about another zoo’s efforts to save the king of the jungle with Zoo Boise.

 

For more big cat stories, watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild episodes, “Urban Wildlife,” which tells the story Los Angeles mountain lion, P-22, and “Pathway to Protection,” chronicling protected animal migration for cougars and other species in Florida.

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