Lionesses - Population and Conservation Status - in Captivity

In Captivity

Lions are part of a group of exotic animals that are the core of zoo exhibits since the late eighteenth century; members of this group are invariably large vertebrates and include elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, large primates, and other big cats; zoos sought to gather as many of these species as possible. Although many modern zoos are more selective about their exhibits, there are over 1,000 African and 100 Asiatic lions in zoos and wildlife parks around the world. They are considered an ambassador species and are kept for tourism, education and conservation purposes. Lions can reach an age of over 20 years in captivity; Apollo, a resident lion of Honolulu Zoo in Honolulu, Hawaii, died at age 22 in August 2007. His two sisters, born in 1986, were still alive in August 2007. Breeding programs need to note origins to avoid breeding different subspecies and thus reducing conservation value.

Lions were kept and bred by Assyrian kings as early as 850 BC, and Alexander the Great was said to have been presented with tame lions by the Malhi of northern India. Later in Roman times, lions were kept by emperors to take part in the gladiator arenas or for executions (see bestiarii, damnatio ad bestias and venatio). Roman notables, including Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar, often ordered the mass slaughter of hundreds of lions at a time. In the East, lions were tamed by Indian princes, and Marco Polo reported that Kublai Khan kept lions inside. The first European "zoos" spread amongst noble and royal families in the thirteenth century, and until the seventeenth century were called seraglios; at that time, they came to be called menageries, an extension of the cabinet of curiosities. They spread from France and Italy during the Renaissance to the rest of Europe. In England, although the seraglio tradition was less developed, Lions were kept at the Tower of London in a seraglio established by King John in the thirteenth century, probably stocked with animals from an earlier menagerie started in 1125 by Henry I at his palace in Woodstock, near Oxford; where lions had been reported stocked by William of Malmesbury.

Seraglios served as expressions of the nobility's power and wealth. Animals such as big cats and elephants, in particular, symbolised power, and would be pitted in fights against each other or domesticated animals. By extension, menageries and seraglios served as demonstrations of the dominance of humanity over nature. Consequently, the defeat of such natural "lords" by a cow in 1682 astonished the spectators, and the flight of an elephant before a rhinoceros drew jeers. Such fights would slowly fade out in the seventeenth century with the spread of the menagerie and their appropriation by the commoners. The tradition of keeping big cats as pets would last into the nineteenth century, at which time it was seen as highly eccentric.

The presence of lions at the Tower of London was intermittent, being restocked when a monarch or his consort, such as Margaret of Anjou the wife of Henry VI, either sought or were given animals. Records indicate they were kept in poor conditions there in the seventeenth century, in contrast to more open conditions in Florence at the time. The menagerie was open to the public by the eighteenth century; admission was a sum of three half-pence or the supply of a cat or dog for feeding to the lions. A rival menagerie at the Exeter Exchange also exhibited lions until the early nineteenth century. The Tower menagerie was closed down by William IV, and animals transferred to the London Zoo which opened its gates to the public on 27 April 1828.

Animal species disappear when they cannot peacefully orbit the center of gravity that is man.

Pierre-Amédée Pichot, 1891

The wild animals trade flourished alongside improved colonial trade of the nineteenth century. Lions were considered fairly common and inexpensive. Although they would barter higher than tigers, they were less costly than larger, or more difficult to transport animals such as the giraffe and hippopotamus, and much less than giant pandas. Like other animals, lions were seen as little more than a natural, boundless commodity that was mercilessly exploited with terrible losses in capture and transportation. The widely reproduced imagery of the heroic hunter chasing lions would dominate a large part of the century. Explorers and hunters exploited a popular Manichean division of animals into "good" and "evil" to add thrilling value to their adventures, casting themselves as heroic figures. This resulted in big cats, always suspected of being man-eaters, representing "both the fear of nature and the satisfaction of having overcome it."

Lions were kept in cramped and squalid conditions at London Zoo until a larger lion house with roomier cages was built in the 1870s. Further changes took place in the early twentieth century, when Carl Hagenbeck designed enclosures more closely resembling a natural habitat, with concrete 'rocks', more open space and a moat instead of bars. He designed lion enclosures for both Melbourne Zoo and Sydney's Taronga Zoo, among others, in the early twentieth century. Though his designs were popular, the old bars and cage enclosures prevailed until the 1960s in many zoos. In the later decades of the twentieth century, larger, more natural enclosures and the use of wire mesh or laminated glass instead of lowered dens allowed visitors to come closer than ever to the animals, with some attractions even placing the den on ground higher than visitors, such as the Cat Forest/Lion Overlook of Oklahoma City Zoological Park. Lions are now housed in much larger naturalistic areas; modern recommended guidelines more closely approximate conditions in the wild with closer attention to the lions' needs, highlighting the need for dens in separate areas, elevated positions in both sun and shade where lions can sit and adequate ground cover and drainage as well as sufficient space to roam.

There have also been instances where a lion was kept by a private individual, such as the lioness Elsa, who was raised by George Adamson and his wife Joy Adamson and came to develop a strong bond with them, particularly the latter. The lioness later achieved fame, her life being documented in a series of books and films.

Read more about this topic:  Lionesses, Population and Conservation Status

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