UK’s largest habitat for world’s rarest lions opens at Chester Zoo
Pride of endangered Asiatic lions explores new home for first time
Lionesses, Kumari & Kiburi, and male, Iblis, take first steps into state-of-the-art conservation facility
Conservationists celebrate completion of important breeding habitat for world’s rarest lion species
Major 5,000 square metre zone recreates India’s Gir Forest region – where the last surviving wild Asiatic lions live
Species survives in just 0.1% of its former range in the wild
A pride of Asiatic lions – the world’s rarest lion species – have taken their first steps into a specially-created new home at Chester Zoo.
The zoo’s new conservation area is the UK’s largest habitat for Asiatic lions.
The habitat is designed to recreate the environment of the Gir Forest region of India, where the last few hundred Asiatic lions live in the wild.
The zoo hopes a new visitor zone will raise awareness of the threats faced by Asiatic lions in the wild, including human-wildlife conflict, and the conservation action needed to protect the species.
Lionesses Kumari and Kiburi - along with adult male Iblis (all 12 years old) - have been exploring their sprawling new home, before the space opens to visitors for the first time on Friday (18 October).
Dave Hall, Team Manager of Carnivores at Chester Zoo, said:
“Asiatic lions are impressively built animals, with compact bodies, powerful legs and strong jaws and teeth, making them superb hunters.
“Their retractable claws, which they use for gripping tightly on to prey, can be up to 38mm long and they have rough tongues, like sandpaper, for scraping meat from bones.
“They are truly majestic animals. This brand new habitat at the zoo – the largest in the UK – really is a fitting new home for them.”
The area – which has been specially created by the zoo’s carnivore experts – spans 4,780 square metres in total.
Recreating the scrubland savannahs of India’s Gir Forest region, the dry forest habitat contains raised hilltop viewing points for the pride, as well as heated rocks and a water hole.
The habitat is also complete with heated indoor dens, which zoo experts hope will one day be the perfect environment for cubs. The state-of-the-art facility could be a major boost to the European breeding programme for the species, which is teetering on the brink of extinction in the wild.
As few as 650 lions are thought to remain in the wild. Poaching, human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss and disease have caused a catastrophic decline in Asiatic lion populations in their natural range.
The last Asiatic lions populations survive in Gujarat, India, in the Gir Forest region, but this is just 0.1% of their former territories. The species once roamed across Northern Africa, Greece, Turkey and Asia but are now confined to one small region of India, where natural disaster or an outbreak of disease could wipe out the entire species.
Local community action, supported by international conservationists, has helped to slowly increase numbers in recent years, but the species remains ‘endangered’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) ‘Red List’ of threatened species – meaning it is still faced with a high chance of extinction.
Dr Mark Pilgrim, Chester Zoo’s Chief Executive Officer, said:
“This remarkable species is facing a very uncertain future. The European endangered species breeding programme is critically important. If the worst was to happen in the wild, good zoos would be the only thing standing between Asiatic lions and extinction.
“We’re very proud to be able to give the Asiatic lion pride the world’s best conservation breeding facilities. We also hope the new area will help us raise much needed awareness about the plight of Asiatic lions.
“Lions were among the first carnivores cared for here by Chester Zoo’s founder George Mottershead. He was a pioneering animal welfare advocate, who realised his vision for the first ‘zoo without bars’. Our ongoing habitat creation programme continues to deliver George’s ‘always building’ philosophy, which has pushed the boundaries of world-class animal welfare and conservation in zoos.”
The new habitat – which has been created using environmentally considerate construction techniques – has been created using the latest sustainable construction standards. Climate controlled dens, heated by sustainable “green” energy and supported by fully insulated walls and roof, will minimise power consumption in order to create year-round optimum conditions for the big cats.
Asiatic lion facts:
The Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) is a subspecies of the lion which today survives only in India
Asiatic lions stand at between 1 and 1.2 metres tall
They are the most sociable of the big cats, led by a dominant male who is the only male in the pride who can mate
Their long tails with black tufts at the tip help them to balance, communicate their mood and lead other lions through long grass. The tuft hides a sharp spike at the end of the tall, which is their spine, although nobody knows what it’s for
Only the males have manes, which are to attract females and intimidate other males
Their frontal cortex (part of the brain) is larger than any other cat’s. This part of the brain is used for social behaviour (lions are the only true social cat) as well as decision making and problem solving. Both are key skills for a successful hunt
They communicate in varied ways like grooming each other and rubbing heads
Lions defend their territory by roaring and scent marking. Scents also help a male to discover if a female is in season
Asiatic lions spend between 16 and 20 hours each day resting. They have few sweat glands so they wisely tend to conserve their energy
Asiatic lion conservation facts:
Asiatic lions once ranged from the Mediterranean to India, covering most of Southwest Asia
It is feared that as few as 350 Asiatic lions remain in the wild, in one restricted area, the Gir Forest in the state of Gujarat, India
The species is listed as endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species
Asiatic lions are threatened by poaching, habitat fragmentation and disease from other species.
Conservationists fear that one natural disaster could wipe out the remaining population
Africa’s rarest large mammal born at Chester Zoo
Birth of rare eastern bongo hailed as “incredibly important” by conservationists
Calf is the first eastern bongo antelope to be born at Chester Zoo for 11 years
Also known as the mountain bongo, it is feared that as few as 70 remain in the wild
The eastern bongo population has been decimated by humans hunting them for their meat, horns and hides and destroying their habitat
Zoo supports research in Kenya which is striving to prevent the extinction of the striking animals
Last year, conservationists from Chester Zoo discovered lowland bongo, a subspecies related to the eastern bongo, in Uganda for the first time
Conservationists at Chester Zoo are celebrating the birth of a bongo – the rarest large mammal in Africa.
First-time mum, Safi, gave birth to the critically endangered eastern bongo calf on Wednesday 4 September after a nine-month-long gestation.
It is the first eastern bongo – the world’s largest forest-dwelling antelope - to be born at the zoo for more than 11 years.
Zoo experts have hailed the female calf’s arrival as “incredibly important”, with latest estimates suggesting as few as 70 may now remain in its native East Africa.
The animal, which is now found in just one remote area of Kenya, is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and faces an extremely high risk of becoming extinct in the wild.
Its population has been decimated by humans hunting for its meat and horns, combined with habitat loss caused by agriculture and uncontrolled timber felling.
Chester Zoo is part of an endangered species breeding programme, which is working to boost eastern bongo numbers in zoos around the world and secure a safety net population.
The zoo, in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University, is also supporting vital research on the subspecies in Kenya - investigating the impact that habitat change has on the tiny bongo population that remains. The team is also working with researchers on a potential reintroduction strategy for the highly endangered animals.
Dr Nick Davis, Chester Zoo’s Deputy Curator of Mammals, manages the European breeding programme for the subspecies. He said:
“The eastern bongo is an extremely striking animal. It’s frightening to think that the population size of this magnificent, large mammal is so, so small. We fear that their wild number could be as low as 70 mature individuals.
“We’re working hard to prevent their extinction and the new calf at the zoo is an incredibly important arrival. She’s a significant boost to the international breeding programme for these highly threatened animals.”
The eastern bongo is recognised for its vibrant reddish-brown coat which features thin white vertical stripes. The stripes break up its body shape, helping it to stay camouflaged in the forests where it is found.
Sarah Roffe, Team Manager at the zoo, added:
“Eastern bongo are notoriously shy and elusive animals and new-borns will naturally look to take cover to protect themselves. We have though been able to determine that Safi’s calf is a beautiful girl. She’s ever so well so far, and is starting to explore her habitat here more and more.
“Calves have these incredible large ears which help them to hear approaching predators. At the moment, the new calf’s ears are so big that they almost look out of proportion with her body – but she will grow into them!”
In 2018, scientists from Chester Zoo discovered another subspecies of bongo, the lowland bongo, in Uganda for the first time. The zoo’s motion-sensor camera traps detected the presence of the animals in the lowland rainforests of the Semuliki National Park.
Eastern bongo facts
Scientific name: Tragelaphus eurycerus isaaci
The eastern bongo is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) meaning they face an extremely high risk of becoming extinction in the wild
They are threatened by habitat loss to agriculture and hunting for their meat, horns and hides
Standing around 1.1 to 1.4m tall at the shoulder, adult male bongo can weigh over 300kgs
Their thin vertical stripes help them to camouflage by breaking up their body shape
They have a long flexible tongue, which helps them to reach food, and strong long horns help them to find food by uprooting plants. Their horns are also used by males for sparing over females
They walk with their heads tilted back when moving through forests so they don’t get stuck in branches
Eastern bongo boast large sensitive ears help them to sense and escape from ambush predators such as leopards and hyenas
Welcoming 1.9 million visitors a year, it is the most visited zoo in the UK; home to over 27,000 animals and more than 500 different species, many of which are endangered in the wild.Through its wildlife conservation campaign, Act for Wildlife, the zoo is helping to save highly threatened species around the world from extinction.
Council backs Chester Zoo’s major Grasslands habitat
New zone designed to ‘connect visitors with nature’ like never before
Expansive savannah habitat set to transport visitors to African landscape
New restaurant to offer spectacular balcony views of giraffes, zebras and ostrich
Grasslands habitats will be a further boost the zoo’s conservation breeding work for an array of rare species
Project will boost zoo’s charitable efforts to prevent extinction of species around the world
An artist’s impression of the view across an African-themed savannah from a new restaurant which will feature as part Chester Zoo’s ambitious new Grasslands development
A huge African savannah is set to be recreated at Chester Zoo after council planners backed an ambitious new development.
The project, named Grasslands, will bring together a range of different African habitats from bush land to wildlife rich plains.
The development was approved by councillors at a planning meeting, subject to final confirmation that a drainage issue has been fully resolved.
The Grasslands centrepiece - a large, open savannah - will be home to multiple rare and endangered species including Rothschild’s giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, ostrich and antelope, all living alongside one another.
Visitors will also come face-to-face with some of the world’s smallest grassland creatures, such as naked mole rats, in a specially designed indoor habitat, celebrating the contribution of all species to the ecosystem.
Conservationists at the zoo – a globally important wildlife charity – hope the new zone will ‘inspire a nation of conservationists’ by connecting people with nature like never before through close-up experiences with species including cranes, vultures, aardvarks and warthogs.
A new restaurant will offer spectacular balcony views across the savannah.
The plans also include the option for the zoo to develop discreet, overnight accommodation, comprising of 42 rooms including traditional African-themed lodges, which will enable guests to wake up to a sunrise over Grasslands.
Jamie Christon, the zoo’s Chief Operating Officer, said:
“Grasslands will be a phenomenal experience and will cement Chester Zoo’s standing as one the world’s very best attractions.
“Featuring state-of-the art conservation breeding facilities for a range of threatened African species, Grasslands will yet again see the zoo push the boundaries of world-class animal care.
“Crucially, it will bring our vital, global conservation work to life for visitors, while boosting the zoo’s charitable income to further help achieve our mission to prevent extinction, here in the UK and around the world.”
The new habitat will be bordered by the zoo’s existing African Tsavo reserve area for critically endangered Eastern back rhino and rare African painted dogs.
It is the latest phase in the zoo’s strategic development plan - a vision for the future of the zoo, creating ever more natural habitats for threatened species, divided into themed geographic regions. The existing Islands zone, which opened in 2015, was the first stage in this process, bringing the zoo’s South East Asian conservation work to life for visitors to Chester.
Zoo teams will now take time to formulate the schedules associated with the creation of Grasslands, included when the building work will begin.
Welcoming 1.9 million visitors a year, it is the most visited zoo in the UK; home to over 27,000 animals and more than 500 different species, many of which are endangered in the wild. www.chesterzoo.org
Chester Zoo is a registered conservation and education charity that supports projects around the world and closer to home in Cheshire.