The newest additions to the Billabong Zoo family – two very cute African lion cubs – have arrived. Chrissy Jones chatted with Zoo owner Mark Stone.
Mark, can you tell me about your new arrivals?
Finally, our two African lion cubs are here. We started planning for their arrival around three years ago and built a brand new enclosure over two years ago. In the meantime, we have been doing our research, background checks and filling out forms, forms and more forms. Now that they are finally here at Billabong Zoo, it all seems worthwhile.
How old are they, and are they related?
We have a male and a female; both were born in Africa in April 2016. We haven’t named them yet. They are not related, so we are hopeful they can breed. It certainly is a goal for the keepers at the zoo to be able to breed genetically strong lions for the future. After much research by our Head Keeper, Christy Brown, we approached the Ukutula Sanctuary in South Africa and in May this year, Chris Simmonds, our experienced vet, visited Ukutula to check out the facility and was full of praise, which gave me peace of mind.
Tell us about Ukutula Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary is about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg and is known as the “place of quiet”. The Sanctuary supports and applies the IUCN’s One Plan Approach (OPA) to Species Conservation and Animal Breeding Principles. Since their inception in 2006, Ukutula has taken a stand against the hunting of predators. They do not make the distinction between so called “ethical” and “unethical” hunting. The killing of animals for sport or pleasure is totally against their belief as caretakers of wildlife. Captive animals in particular are deserving of special care and consideration, as they are the ambassadors for animals in the wild. We are the first zoo in Australia that Ukutula have ever released cubs to – something we are all proud of.
Why did you want lion cubs at Billabong Zoo?
Getting young animals means our Keepers are able to bond with them quicker. Then, as we care for them and watch them grow, everyone – staff at the Zoo and visitors – share in their life’s journey. But they won’t stay cute cubs for long. They grow very quickly. At the moment (five months old) they are the size of a small cattle dog. They will be fully grown by the age of three or four. So if you want to see them as cubs, you’d better visit sooner rather than later.
What do the cubs eat?
They were bottle-fed in Africa, but one of the conditions of exportation is that animals have to be on solid food before they can leave the country. At Billabong Zoo they will be fed a variety of meats, including beef, chicken and pork, which we prepare and feed two or three times a day.
Where will they live at the zoo?
Introducing big cats to the zoo has been a long held ambition. When we decided to invest in new infrastructure, we built three enclosures – an enclosure for cheetahs, snow leopards and lions. The arrival of the lion cubs completes our big cat exhibits. All the big cat enclosures are different. For instance, cheetahs aren’t big climbing cats, so their fence is under 3 metres high with an inhang; whereas, the lion enclosure is 5 metres high with a strengthened inhang, as they love to climb. The snow leopard enclosure had to be fully enclosed with a roof, as they are extremely agile.
Are all big cats similar in temperament?
No. They are totally different animals. For example, the snow leopard isn’t a cat that is motivated by food. It will do what it wants, when it wants, which includes what we call “statuing” – they just stand and stare, and we can’t entice them to do anything, even with food. Cheetahs are very placid and are a lot easier to work with than snow leopards or lions. But all big cats can be dangerous, and our Keepers have had special big cat training. We are especially grateful for the support and advice from our friends at Mogo Zoo, who specialise in big cats. As for lions – they are highly motivated by food, so that will be a feature of the lion cubs’ initial training.
So when can we see the cubs?
Soon. But we won’t rush them, as their journey from South Africa was, understandably, a huge event in their lives, and we do not want to put any stress on their introduction to their new home and Australian environment. When they touched down in Sydney, they had to pass through Bio Security, and we have had them in strict quarantine for 30 days here at Billabong Zoo.
Our Keepers are bonding with them and making them feel secure. Out plan is for the public to be able to witness the Keeper interactions probably three times a days during the first weeks of October. But that depends on the cubs. We will be posting updates to our website and Facebook and of course, on our daily bulletin board at the zoo. We are sure the public will enjoy these beautiful Ambassadors for Lions as much as we are.