A pride of Asiatic lions gingerly took their first steps into their new home on Wednesday, which has been specially created at Chester Zoo to help conserve the world’s rarest species of the animal.
The 5,000 square metre area is the UK’s largest habitat for the lions, with only around 350 of the of the extinction-threatened animals left.
Once the fearsome hunters roamed across Northern Africa, Greece, Turkey and Asia but they are now confined to a single, small region of India.
Lionesses Kumari and Kiburi, along with adult male Iblis, all aged 12, have been exploring their sprawling new habitat, modelled on the Gir Forest region of India, the only place where the species still lives in the wild.
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.
“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 habitat recreates the scrubland savannahs of India’s Gir Forest, the dry forest habitat contains raised hilltop viewing points for the pride, as well as heated rocks and a water hole.
The habitat comes complete with heated indoor dens that zoo experts hope will one day be the perfect environment for cubs and could be a major boost to the European breeding programme for the species, which is teetering on the brink of extinction 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 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 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.”
The Asiatic lion habitat will open to visitors from Friday, entry is free, with normal zoo admission. Zoo tickets can be booked via www.chesterzoo.org.