Whenever people are asked to name animals that are in a zoo, lions are usually at the very top of the list. They have certainly been an important part of the San Diego Zoo’s history! There was no San Diego Zoo in 1915, when a handsome male lion named Rex and two females, Rena and Cleopatra, arrived in town as part of the Panama-California International Exposition. It was soon after the Exposition ended that Harry Wegeforth, M.D., decided to create a zoo in San Diego after hearing Rex roar! Rex, Rena, and Cleopatra became some of the new Zoo’s earliest residents.
In 1923, an open-air lion grotto opened along what is now the Zoo’s Center Street. Although there is no record of what happened to Rex and Rena, Cleopatra moved into the then state-of-the-art enclosure along with another female named Queen and a new male named Prince. The trio enjoyed the sun and fresh breezes blowing through the canyon. Lots of lion cubs were born in those early years—Cleopatra had 33 babies over an 8-year period! In our nearly 100-year-history, 119 lions have been born at the Zoo.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has had lions on exhibit since it opened in 1972. In 2004, the Safari Park’s Lion Camp opened with six adorable six-month-old Transvaal lion cubs newly arrived from a facility in Africa. Lion Camp looks like a bit of African habitat, so guests get to see lots of natural lion behaviors, watching the cats as they romp in the grass, explore the logs and rocks, or sit and watch the antelope, giraffes, and rhinos in the nearby African Plains field enclosure. Guests can come right up to the large glass panels for some eye-to-eye moments with the beasts. There is even a safari vehicle, a favorite resting spot for our pride. You may see a lion perched on its roof and observing life from the driver’s seat!
Lion Camp is currently home to three of those original six cubs, who are all adults now: male Izu and his two adoring females, Oshana and Mina. Their 12 surviving cubs from over the years are now residing in other zoos. We are so proud of them!
Two of those original six Lion Camp residents, M’bari and Etosha, now hold court in the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, an area of the Zoo where we spotlight the animals that lived here in Southern California over 10,000 years ago with their modern-day counterparts. Here you’ll find a life-size statue of the American lion, which lived here 12,000 years ago. Our lions survey territory that includes a foothill environment with rocky slopes, trees, grasses, and a stream. Specially heated rocks make the perfect lounging spot for the king of beasts. At this new “kingdom,” guests get close enough to count the cats’ whisker spots and bask in the lions’ golden gaze. M’bari awes visitors with his majestic bearing and late-afternoon bouts of roaring.
The lions at both the Zoo and the Safari Park have learned behaviors that help our keepers take care of them. The lions know their names, so when keepers need to look at a particular lion, they can call that cat. This also comes in handy when it’s time fort the lions to go to their bedrooms at night. Special clickers and meat treats let the cats know when they have done what was asked, like stand up against the glass so the keeper can see their paws and belly. If a lion has an injury, the keepers can spot it right away.
Life for our lions is filled with new and unexpected experiences, just like it would be for them in the wild; however, it's up to their keepers to provide the big cats with those experiences by offering them a variety of things to sniff, taste, or play with. We call this enrichment. Keepers often place interesting scents in their exhibit, found in such items as wood shavings from our barns, herbs like cloves or cinnamon rubbed on a rock, or fox urine sprayed on a wall. Food enrichment can include large, blocks of ice, like a huge popsicle, filled with chunks of meat, called “meat-sicles,” or whole fish—a “fish-sicle”! Cardboard boxes, palm fronds, and feed sacks make great toys, too. And the lions love to play with large, heavy-duty plastic balls, rolling, tossing, and even pouncing on them, all in good fun. Thanks to their keepers and trainers, there is never a dull day.
A sculpture of Prince on the Zoo’s entrance plaza honors the iconic status of lions in San Diego Zoo history and makes for a memorable photo opportunity. To San Diegans, lions are symbolic of “their” zoo. Long may they reign!
Are lions in trouble? Due to many issues such as disease, hunting by humans, and loss of habitat, the population of lions in the wild is becoming very concerning to conservationists. Natural habitat for lions is now found only in protected reserves, and lion movement between prides is becoming more limited. While lion hunting is banned in many African countries, trophy hunting is still allowed in some places. In other areas, there are so many lions for so little space that rangers often put the females on birth control to reduce the number of cubs born. Ranchers sometimes poison lions that prey on livestock.
It is estimated that there are between 6,000 and 10,000 African lions in Africa. The Asian lion used to be found from the Middle East across to India. There are now only about 400 to 460 of this lion subspecies left, with more than half living in a reserve that used to be royal hunting grounds in an area of dry teak forest called the Gir Forest, now under national protection by the Indian government. The remainder of this particular subspecies lives in zoos.
San Diego Zoo Global supports lion conservation. We provide funds to two organizations in Africa that work to help lions and other wildlife: the Northern Rangelands Trust and the Grevy’s Zebra Trust. The conservation of lions has to be reconciled with the needs of humans. Some conflict may be unavoidable in areas where agriculture or livestock farming compete with cat habitats, but it can be minimized, and local people must feel that efforts are being made to protect their interests. Education is a key component of conservation, providing information to all levels of the community about the role of cats in their habitat and ways to conserve them.