Jerusalem’s only male lion, who for more than a decade was a popular draw at the city’s Biblical Zoo, died after a sharp decline in his already failing health.

Lider, 16, an Asiatic lion, was put to sleep last Thursday after veterinarians and keepers decided that his difficulties in walking and standing, brought on by chronic back pain, were insufferable. A series of X-rays and CT scans performed at the Beit Dagan animal hospital over the past two weeks showed that his condition was incurable and deteriorating.

The Jerusalem Zoo said in a statement that it has begun looking for a pair of young lions to bring in as replacements; the lion exhibit now has just one lioness left.

However, Zoo spokesperson Sigalit Dvir told the Times of Israel that keepers must also take into consideration the zoo’s last remaining lioness Ileniya. Introducing large cats to each other in zoo exhibits is a delicate business that can take several weeks to complete.

Chief Carnivore Keeper at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo Dennis Smith took care of Lider for the last 14 years and described how well the lion got on with Ileniya. The lioness now seems to be missing her mate, often appearing to search for him, calling for him, sniffing around in the closure, said Smith. “It is very sad,” he said.

Chief Carnivore Keeper at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo Dennis Smith with Lider the lion. (photo credit: Jerusalem Biblical Zoo/Tal Naveh)

Chief Carnivore Keeper at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo Dennis Smith with Lider the lion. (photo credit: Jerusalem Biblical Zoo/Tal Naveh)

Visitors were often treated to the sight of Lider rearing up against the windows of his enclosure but Smith admitted he could never really trust the wild animal.

“Whenever he saw me he would always jump up and never take his eyes off me,” he recalled.

The lion first arrived at the zoo 14 years ago from Poland as a young cub and soon became something of a celebrity as the only male lion in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem municipal emblem

The Jerusalem municipal emblem

Jerusalem’s official city emblem features a lion, echoing the lion symbol of the biblical tribe of Judah and later the Kingdom of Judah, which established its capital in Jerusalem under King David.

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 and save the faltering species from extinction.

However, with the relatively small number of Asian 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.