Look Who’s New at the Zoo! Welcome Amari

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Adorable African Lion cub Amari, son of proud parents Misty and Milo, is the newest arrival at Billabong Zoo. Chrissy Jones had the absolute pleasure to meet him and chatted with zoo custodian and owner/director Mark Stone.

Mark, Amari is pretty special. When was he born, and what were his first few weeks like? 

Yes, Chrissy, he is pretty special! Amari was born on the 27th August at 7pm to Milo and Misty. His name means “miracle” and “strong”, which he is – that’s for sure. Two cubs were born, but unfortunately soon after, tragedy struck when the second cub, Zuberi, also meaning “strong”, passed away. After losing one of her babies, Misty started to lose her milk, and we had to offer Amari a bottle. He was ravenously hungry and scoffed the milk in under a minute!

Amari and Misty were kept together as much as possible, but keepers made sure the cub was bottle fed six times a day around the clock. Amari was growing into quite a strong boy and was starting to get quite mobile; it was at this point we noticed a change in Misty’s behaviour. Keepers began to see Misty treating Amari as if he were a toy, which could have been fatal to the tiny little cub. The keepers kept Amari and Misty together as much as possible, so that he would grow up like a regular lion cub with his family. Amari now has his very own den (bedroom filled with toys) and outdoor yard, and a keeper sleeps beside him every night. Lions are such highly social creatures that without company overnight, it was quite likely that Amari would become stressed and unwell.  

As you can see, Chrissy, Amari is doing extremely well! He is full of energy and wants to play. He is a beautiful young lion, and we are all feeling very excited about his role in highlighting the threats to the wild lion population and helping to raise vital awareness and support for wild lion conservation.  

He has made his mark in the local history books, being the first lion to be bred in Port Macquarie. How is this supporting animal conservation?

All the animals within Billabong Zoo are ambassadors for their species, which means they are here to showcase these beautiful creatures and to teach people about them and the plight of the animals in the wild.  On the lion side of things, Amari has made local history by being the first cub born in Port Macquarie. Port Macquarie has never had lions here in their wildlife parks or zoos before, so he is the first. 

He is also and most importantly extremely important to the lion progeny within Australasia and quite possibly the world. As wild lions are now classified as “vulnerable”, which is one step from being classed as “endangered”, the importation of parents Milo and Misty (from a conservation centre in South Africa) to genetically bolster Australia’s lion population we saw as critical – expensive, but critical. Billabong is now in a position to genetically help any zoo in Australia and New Zealand with new African lion bloodlines.

Amari’s birth is a massive achievement for Billabong Zoo. What is the significance and importance of this milestone?

His parents, Milo and Misty settled in really quickly to life in their new country. Misty is a young mum and has bred in her first year of being physically capable to breed. That is also very special. Amari is a surprise, really, and we were fortunate enough to have him.  Gestation for a lion cub is around 105 days, very short, so we were thinking that 2019 would be the start of our breeding program.  He is definitely a miracle, as his name suggests.

We went to the trouble and massive expense of importing lion cubs from overseas to increase the genetic diversity of the lion population in Australia. So as much as we would love to keep Amari here at Billabong Zoo, the big picture for him will be to find a zoo where he will be best suited, and there are plenty that will put their hands up. It is very important that we share the lion genetics in Australia to strengthen them, as they face so many challenges in the wild.  

How have Amari’s keepers cared for him since his birth?  

Amari is one of two cubs that were born. Very sadly in the first couple of days, we lost one of the cubs. We were then on tenterhooks with Amari, whether mum Misty’s capability to look after him would remain, which it didn’t unfortunately. She lost her milk, which meant we had to supplement his feeding. He was on six bottles a day at first. He went forward in leaps and bounds from there. 

Given the situation, Misty lost interest in him as a mum; she lost that maternal instinct, and she started to treat him like a toy or play item, rather than her baby. We were concerned for the safety of little Amari, so the tough decision was made to separate them.  

He now has protected contact with his Mum and Dad; he is still with them a lot of time, but there is a division between the two via a mesh fence. He can still see them, smell them and hear them, but is protected. The only big hurdle we had then was at night time. Amari would normally curl up and sleep with his mother and unfortunately because we didn’t have that opportunity, we have supplemented that with a Keeper. So, every single night one of his two Keepers that both the lions trust, Cristy or Brooke, sleeps up with the lions in the den and Amari sleeps with them.  

To start with, they slept on a doona on the hay on the floor, so it was easy for Amari; now they have a stretcher bed, and Amari sleeps up on that with them. It is a pretty special thing for the Keepers.

Does he sleep through the night, or does he wake up for a feed?

No, he gets a late feed and sleeps all night.  For example, last night he didn’t go to bed until midnight and woke up before 5am and wanted to play, just like any human baby. He’s 16 weeks old, a typical little baby.  

What’s he eat at the moment?

He’s on solid foods, as well as three bottles of milk. All sorts of things, a lot of protein, chicken and those sorts of things. He has a special diet; we have liaised with other zoos that house lions to help us through this process; for example, Sally at Mogo Zoo has been a huge help and support. 

It is very, very common for this to happen with first-time mums. In the wild, tragically the survival rate of the cubs to first time young mums is very slim. We have done extremely well, really. Statistically there’s less than a 40% survival rate for the cub in the wild for a young mum like Misty. I have spoken to a lot of zoos and most lose their first litter with a young mum, but then second time around they become a very good mother.  So, we are anticipating Misty to be a great mum next time around. 

Does Amari get any special treatment?

Over and above. Like most children, he has a bedroom full of toys. His favourite is a little dinosaur, and he has just got a little Tigger stuffed toy that he loves too. Like all children, quite often you will buy a nice expensive toy, and they are happier with the box it came in than the toy itself. He loves his blanket on a stick – he likes to chase that round – but he is definitely in love with his dinosaur plush toy; he carries that around with him everywhere.  

Three times a day, after the lion presentations Amari will have his own little presentation, where he will come out and meet and greet visitors to the zoo. He will enjoy a play, chase around and hide. He is as cute as a button.  

Will the proud parents, Milo and Misty have more litters?

We hope so. Obviously, when we brought them from Africa, we were unsure if they would even be compatible, let alone be able to breed. They could have a couple of litters a year if there were no problems, so fingers crossed. We also work under the breeding recommendations of ZAA, who will recommend suitable pairings and zoos for their offspring.

What does this mean personally to you to have this happen, the birth of Amari?

Personally, as the owner/director of Billabong Zoo, this is a huge milestone and a huge bucket list item to be ticked off, being in such an amazing situation and able to help some of the big zoos in Australia with the progeny of our lions. Ten years ago, we talked about this; at that point in time I had no idea if we would be able to import our own cubs – it was just a dream. Now, it’s a dream that has become a reality.

I am so wonderfully proud of what we have achieved over the years and so grateful to our wonderful staff, who are so dedicated and committed to our animals and conservation … from humble beginnings, two keepers and one café staff and a small wildlife park to a nationally recognised regional zoo employing more than 26 staff that assists many zoos and wildlife parks throughout Australia. The last 12 months has seen the first stage of our two-million-dollar upgrade to our café and main entry building, specialist animal and bird enrichment training for our keepers, the breeding of many of our endangered species and our continual commitment to our ongoing conservation projects. 

We are very close to completing our new monkey mayhem precinct, which will be home to three new primate species: the Pygmy Marmoset, the world’s smallest monkey; the cute little Cotton Top Marmosets; and the ever favourite and cheeky Common Marmosets, so stay tuned for their arrival in 2019.

At this point I would like to say a HUGE thank you from the entire Billabong Zoo crew and all the critters at the zoo, to you, Chrissy and to Jay and all his amazing team at FOCUS for their constant and ongoing support in what we do and what we have achieved at Billabong to date. 

Merry Christmas and a safe, happy and prosperous New Year to all.

Thanks Mark.

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