He may not have a backstory like that of Simba, the hero of the Lion King, but Fota Wildlife Park is hoping that its latest feline recruit will help the Cork nature reserve play its part in saving the endangered Asiatic Lion from extinction.
New Asiatic lion Yali arrived from Paignton Zoo in Devon in the UK earlier this month and has spent the past fortnight undergoing routine acclimatisation to his new habitat in the Asian sanctuary at the park where he is being gradually introduced to the two female lionesses, Gira and Gita.
Lead ranger at Fota Julien Fonteneau said the wildlife park anticipates that six-year-old Yali will form a new pride at the 40-hectare park in east Cork with Gira and Gita as part of the ex-situ European endangered species programme (EEP) for Asiatic lions.
“The Asiatic lion is classified as endangered and inhabits only one remaining site in the world, the Gir forest in India, with an estimated current population in the region of 500 to 600 lions. Which means that wildlife parks and zoos play a crucial role in safeguarding the species,” he said.
“We will gradually introduce Yali to Gira and Gita, who are sisters, are both aged eight, and came from Helsinki Zoo in Finland in the summer of 2016. Gira gave birth to two litters with the previous male lion, Shanto, who sadly died from kidney failure earlier this year,” he added.
Mr Fonteneau explained that the Asiatic Lion is a subspecies of the genus Panthera that split from African lions around 100,000 years ago and it was once widespread from the Mediterranean to India and Iran, covering most of southwest Asia, where it was also known as the Persian lion.
However, since the turn of the 20th century the Asiatic lion’s range has been restricted to the near 1,500 square kilometre Gir forest national park and the surrounding areas in the state of Gujarat on the west coast of India, he explained.
Mr Fonteneau said that, like their somewhat larger African cousins, male Asiatic lions have a mane, although it is much shorter and darker and does not cover their ears, while they also have a distinctive longitudinal fold running under their belly.
Male Asiatic lions reach sexual maturity at about five years old, while female Asiatic lions reach sexual maturity earlier at about four years of age. Mating is not seasonal and takes place all year round, while gestation lasts 112-119 days, after which one to five cubs are born, he said.
Mr Fonteneau said that Fota was delighted to introduce Yali to visitors to the park this week and they were very hopeful that he would soon establish a new pride with Gira and Gita, even though he still has some growing to do.
“Yali has spent the last two weeks slowly getting used to his new surroundings and the lionesses but last night we were thrilled to hear him roaring, which means he’s much more comfortable and feeling territorial in his new habitat here,” he said.
“He is not as big a lion as Shanto was, he still has a bit of girth and muscle to put on and his mane is still growing but we expect it will fill out more as he becomes part of the new pride here in the Asian sanctuary in the park.
“Both Gira and Gita have both been trying to woo him since he arrived, but he’s not paying them much heed so far. We’re hoping that will change as he’s been recommended to breed, so hopefully, he will show interest in them!”