The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo was preparing on Thursday to receive a new male lion, due to arrive in Israel on an evening cargo plane flight from Sweden.
Zoo authorities said that the rare Asiatic lion, named Gir, is just 2 years of age and has not yet grown a full mane. Nonetheless, Chief Carnivore Keeper Dennis Smith is taking no chances with introducing the big cat to his new home at the zoo, where he will join Ileniya, an elderly lioness who is 16 years old.
The lions will be kept apart at first to prevent any super-size cat fights, although a window between their rooms will allow them to see each other, giving keepers an idea of whether or not they can be let out to roam together. However, even that is not always a clear indication of what will happen once they get their paws on each other.
“It is still a bit risky,” Smith said.
Last summer the zoo’s veteran male Asiatic lion Lider, 16, was put to sleep after veterinarians and keepers decided that his difficulties in walking and standing, brought on by chronic back pain, were insufferable.
Gir, who weighs over 150 kilograms, may soon have a playmate nearer his age. Asiatic lions are an endangered species, with only around 300 left in the Gir Forest Sanctuary in India and another 330 in captivity. Zoos around the world are engaged in a breeding program to try to save the faltering species from extinction.
The Jerusalem zoo has already begun searching for a possible mate to join him in the summer in the hope that they will breed.
However, with the relatively small number of Asiatic lions available — by comparison there are over 1,600 African lions in captivity — inbreeding is common and as a result many of the animals have genetic disorders affecting their health.
Lider himself was born sterile as a result and an illness that afflicted his nervous system was likely brought on by genetic problems.
Due to their small numbers, Asiatic lions in Europe and the region are coordinated by the European Association of Veterinary Anatomists, which tries to pair up breeding lions.
Gir’s new environment will include an outside area to explore, and a heated room to keep off the winter chill.