The Future of Lions



I recently met with Hollie Colahan, VP of Animal Care, at the Denver Zoo to learn about the African Lion Species Survival Plan (African Lion SSP).  There are SSP programs for over 500 species, but the one I learned about was specifically the African Lion SSP. The African Lion SSP is a plan to keep lions from going extinct, and she leads the volunteer program.  The program was initially started in 1993 due to a declining number of lions in AZA Zoos (the Association of Zoos and Aquariums). It is a database that tracks the history, location, parents, and ID number of each individual lion in the registered zoos.  There are over 100 registered zoos and over 370 registered lions. If one zoo requests a lion, then they will be put on a list of zoos that wants lions. Then the zoos that have too many lions will give a lion to the zoo in need.

If one of the lions is what they call a ‘founder lion’, which means he has no registered siblings, then he is considered to be genetically valuable because unlike dog breeders (where dogs are bred for traits), the lion breeders breed for variety.  The founder lions can breed with almost any lion of the opposite gender since they don’t have any siblings or lions related to them in the system. The more relatives a lion has, the less genetically valuable it becomes. They breed the lions for variety so that the lions are more genetically similar to what they would be if found in the wild.  

There are updated records for each year of which lions are sick, died, have given birth, and are newborn.  This is important so that they don’t transfer a mother that has recently had a baby to a different pride. The mother needs to stay with the baby.  

It is difficult to breed lions because if there are two males or females together that did not grow up together, there will be problems because they may fight.  

Moving lions between zoos takes between one and two years.  The costs, the transportation needs, and the health of the lions need to be aligned.  

The AZA recently gave this program a 2018 Sustainability Award, and I can see why.  It is a great program that leads to better lives for the lions.

Predator Ridge at the Denver Zoo was built in 2004 and has three parts. There is a primary enclosure, a secondary enclosure, and a maternity enclosure.  It is unique because it contains three species of similar animals – African lions, spotted hyenas, and African wild dogs. All of these species are carnivores/predators, but they are never in the same part of the enclosure at the same time. I hope that you have a good time checking out Predator Ridge the next time you are at the zoo.