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Lion cub at Buffalo Zoo is the lone survivor of litter

The Buffalo Zoo’s new lion cub made a quick debut Wednesday. But don’t expect to see a lot of the yet-to-be named male cub in person over the next few months. Zoo officials are being cautious about exposing the cub to the public, which may not happen until the end of the summer, if even then.

Indeed, the zoo delayed announcing the cub’s birth because of the unsure prospects of survival.

The cub was born on March 5, the only one of four in the litter to survive the first two days. For the media Wednesday, the zoo unveiled the small cat, weighing 10 pounds, lying on a blanket behind a protective glass window, zoo attendants on either side.

“We are cautiously optimistic concerning our new lion cub, and we are thrilled with his progress so far, but he is not out of the woods yet,” said Donna Fernandes, the zoo’s president. “In fact, it is common not to have any surviving offspring of a first-time litter by a lioness, in the wild or in human care. That is why for first-time species we delay any public announcement until several weeks later.”

The cub will need to first meet several health milestones before being put on public display in the lion exhibit. But the zoo will post pictures and video snippets of the cub to its social media pages on a regular basis over the coming few months.

The cub’s birth brings to six the number of lions at the zoo. The lion cub is the first at the zoo since triplets were born in 1991.

The first record of an African lion at the Buffalo Zoo was in 1902, and a lion has been on exhibit at the zoo continuously since the late 1950s.

Fernandes said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the cub’s survival.

“We are following every best practice to ensure bonding with his mother, who is also adjusting to her new role,” Fernandes said. “We are monitoring his nutrition, growth and overall health.”

Some challenges remain. For one, the cub’s mother, Lelie, 6, hasn’t been able to produce a lot of milk. So the cub has needed supplemental feeding.

Next will be the careful introduction of the cub with the others.

“Ultimately, we hope for full integration with his father, his aunt, and full integration to the pride,” Fernandes said. “But all this, including introduction to the outdoor exhibit, is still to be determined.”

Both of the cub’s parents were intentionally paired because they are the offspring of native African lions.

The cub’s birth is important because lions are increasingly threatened in the wild by shrinking habitat, poaching and loss of prey. Maintaining the genetic diversity of lions and other species in captivity classified as threatened and endangered is a priority of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan.

Recent “threatened” or “endangered” animals born at the Buffalo Zoo under the same plan include Luna the polar bear, Monica the Indian rhino, two baby snow monkeys, a baby lowland gorilla and two reticulated giraffe calves. Lions are considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and “endangered” by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. African and Asian lion populations have decreased by an estimated 43 percent in the last 20 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“Today marks another important step in our continued commitment to conservation,” Fernandes said. “Participation in these efforts ensures a number of threatened and endangered species will be successfully maintained in captivity for generations to come. The African lion is one such species.”

There could be another cub on the horizon. Tiberius, the cub’s father, may have also fathered a cub with Lelie’s half-sister Lusaka. Fernandes said it appears Lusaka is pregnant, but it’s too soon to know for sure. Another litter – even with the long odds of survival – would continue the zoo’s work of helping to preserve a genetically viable stock of lions in captivity.

“I look at the loss of wildlife over the course of my life. Lions used to be so common that you thought they would never, ever be at risk,” Fernandes said. “But their populations have declined significantly.”

The cub is not expected to remain more than a couple of years at the Buffalo Zoo, Fernandes said.

Male lions usually kick out their sons from the pride at a fairly young age. Plus the cub, as it grows older, will be sought for breeding.

If the cub has a half-brother in the next litter, the two could potentially be sent together to another zoo, since it’s not unusual for brothers or half-brothers to form the core of a new pride.