Mramba, king of the Virginia Zoo (Virginia Zoo photo by Cedrick Garrett).

Animal StoriesTales of the Tails – Lion Around the Zoo

January 30, 2017

The lion is Africa’s big cat. With their majestic manes, charismatic roars and complex social structures, these striking creatures are unique and well-distinguished in the animal kingdom.

The African lion, Panthera leo, is one of the world’s most recognized animals. These lions can be found in groups of up to 30 lions, known as prides, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and a very small population of the Asian lion subspecies can be found in India. Their habitat is comprised of semi-desert open plains, as well as woodlands with thick brush.

The social structure in a pride is determined by several factors. The largest lion with the darkest mane is often the dominant male (and most attractive to lionesses), but lions can also fight for power. The dominant male will then pick his mate, which can include more than one lioness.

After a 105-day gestation period, lionesses will birth a litter consisting of one to four cubs. Once the cubs are old enough, the males often group together in search of their own territory and a new pride of their own.

Male lions have the authority in the pride because they are very territorial. The male lion guards the pride’s territory by roaring and marking his scent with urine or feces. Male lions also protect the cubs while the female lions hunt for food.

Lions share their habitats with many other types of animals, including those who are the lions’ main prey. Antelopes, buffaloes, zebras, wild hogs, giraffes and even unprotected young elephants, rhinos and hippos can be prey for female lions, who are the primary hunters in the pride. The lionesses will form a circle around their prey, preventing it from escaping their clutches. After hunting, the dominant male eats first, then smaller males, then lionesses, and then finally the cubs eat last.

Even the biggest of cats is facing the same epidemic many other species face every day: extinction. Lions are considered to be vulnerable to extinction according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The lion population has dropped by 43 percent over the past 20 years due to several factors such as habitat loss, the decline of prey, and death due to humans defending their lives, land and livestock. Current data leads the IUCN to believe that there are less than 30,000 lions left in the wild.

Due to this decline in the population, lions in zoos and sanctuaries across the world, as well as Mramba and Zola – the Virginia Zoo’s very own African lions, are part of a SSP, or Species Survival Program®.

This program oversees and manages the species’ population by monitoring breeding to prevent overpopulation and inbreeding, and also ensures the species’ survival in the wild through conservation efforts such as educational training programs for farmers. Maximizing the genetic diversity of the species through breeding is also a priority of the SSP, which is why animals are often transferred to different zoos.

Mramba, the Zoo’s male lion, was born on July 8, 2003 at the Indianapolis Zoo. A little over a year later on October 14, 2004, Mramba arrived at the Virginia Zoo and has been here ever since.

During the past 13 years at the Zoo, Mramba has shown Keepers and guests his distinctive personality. Since he was a cub, Mramba has generally always been laid back, and is considered by Keepers to be a couch potato. In fact, it seems like one of his favorite things to do is nap!

When Mramba isn’t napping or “lion” around, he can be found doing a plethora of fun things. Mramba’s seemingly favorite thing to do is roar loudly for everyone and everything in the Zoo to hear. His signature roar can be heard more than five miles away, especially when he has access to the passage between his habitat and inside enclosure. He is frequently caught roaring here, which Keepers believe is because this area makes his roar echo even louder.

Mramba also keeps busy with various enrichment items given to him by Keepers. He occasionally gets cardboard boxes, which he seems to enjoy pulling apart. Different scents and dried herbs are also scattered in his habitat, which he investigates and even sometimes rolls in. His favorite scents appear to be cumin, mint, and, surprisingly, Axe Body Spray!

Mramba lives with another lion named Zola. Zola was born at the North Carolina Zoo, in Asheboro, NC, on July 17, 2004 and arrived at the Virginia Zoo a year later on July 14, 2005. She and Mramba have been inseparable ever since.

Zola seems to be the exact opposite of Mramba, enjoying different foods and activities. While Mramba devours rabbit for dinner, Zola prefers to eat a rack of ribs. She is also more active than him, and is often spotted trying to catch birds, squirrels and other small animals that may naturally make their way into the exhibit. She is very food motivated, and her favorite type of enrichment from her Keepers typically includes a tasty snack or two.

Mramba last weighed in at 316 pounds. Zola is slightly smaller, weighing 268 pounds.

The pair have conceived two litters of cubs together. Their first litter included one male and one female cub, which were born on August 21, 2007. The second litter consisted of three males and one female, born on May 2, 2009. Both cubs from the first litter recently had their own cubs, making Mramba and Zola grandparents!

Dakari, from the second litter of cubs. (2012)

Mramba, Zola and their four cubs lounging in the sun in 2011.

Even though all of their cubs have left to pursue breeding opportunities at other zoos, you can see Mramba and Zola in their exhibit in Africa – Okavango Delta any day of the week. If you can’t make it out to the Zoo, you can still support the dynamic duo by donating to the Virginia Zoo Keeper Fund or Conservation and Research Fund, which ensures the well-being of these animals during their stay at the Zoo, as well as conservation efforts currently in place to help their relatives in the wild. Donate today to help save lions across the world.