VIDEO: Bristol Zoo's hand-reared lion cubs finding their animal instincts
David Clensy meets the new arrivals at Bristol Zoo – a pair of rare Asiatic male lions being hand-reared by keepers after being rejected by their mother
THESE are no kittens. Even at just 12 weeks old, a lion is a lion, and despite their difficult start in life, Kamran and Ketan are quick to remind you that they are the kings of the jungle.
As senior keeper, Simon Robinson sits beside the pair of young Asiatic lion cubs in their enclosure, Kamran gives him a swift swipe of his paws – partly playful, partly a reminder of who is really in charge in this cage.
With just 100 individual Asiatic lions living in the network of zoos working on the captive breeding programme for the endangered species, every cub counts – especially when they're both males, as there is a particular shortage of the male animals.
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Which explains why the keepers at Bristol Zoo have spent the last few months going to extraordinary lengths to ensure the young cubs' survival.
When their elderly father, the zoo's 18-year-old male lion Kamal was euthanased just 12 days after their birth, the cubs' mother Shiva started withdrawing her care for the cubs.
"I don't think it was grief as such," says Lynsey Bugg, assistant curator of mammals. "It was more that she felt uneasy without the reassurance of having the dominant male there.
"In the wild, that would be the moment a new dominant male would come in and take charge of the pride, and I'm afraid when they do take over, the first thing a new male tends to do is to kill all the young cubs – so they can start breeding immediately and get their own genes passed on to the next generation.
"That might explain why, within 24 hours of Kamal's death, Shiva started showing signs of abandoning the cubs – failing to feed them and keep them warm.
"We knew we had to act fast," she says. "We monitored them for another 24 hours, before taking the decision to step in and remove them from their mother in order to hand rear them.
"It was a very difficult decision to make, but we knew that for the greater good of the breeding programme, it was essential we didn't lose two young males."
As we reported in yesterday's Post, a team of five keepers have been hand-rearing the cubs since November – in order to protect the them from any unnecessary stress, they have not been on public display during this time, and remain in a behind the scenes enclosure, though a video feed now allows visitors to the zoo to watch the young lions from a safe distance.
"It's gone very well. They took to the bottle well, and have been putting on weight and growing rapidly," Lynsey says. "They are already five times the size they were when we removed them from their mother."
As Simon knows, the pair already have powerful claws, paws and teeth – the cubs have already grown a full set of razor sharp teeth.
"They can be quite rough, but it's all in play," Simon says. "At one stage we all looked like a team of bramble pickers though, with scratch marks all down our arms.
With their new teeth, over the past few weeks the cubs have also started to be weaned on to horse meat and chicken.
"They're now down to just one bottle a day," Lynsey says. "Which is great, because our aim is to have as little contact with the cubs as possible – for fear of imprinting upon them, that is, taking the role of their mother in their minds.
"Whenever possible, we have acted in the same way their mother would have done – when they were little, for example, we would pick them up by the scruff of their neck, and we would brush them with a coarse dog brush, which mimicked the coarse surface of their mother's tongue.
"We want them to retain as many of their animal instincts as possible, in order for them to go on to be useful members of the breeding programme.
"For me, this project won't be a complete success until both cubs have gone on to breed."
The next major goal will be to successfully reintroduce them to their mother's enclosure.
"In the long term, we will try to reintroduce another adult male to breed with Shiva," Lynsey says. "But we don't want to do that while the cubs are here, for obvious reasons – we don't want them to be threatened by an incoming male.
"But we hope to keep the cubs with us here in Bristol until they are about 18 months old, when we will start looking at arranging for them to be transferred to another zoo in the breeding programme.
"That does mean trying to reintroduce them to their mother's enclosure in the next few months, but that's something we are going to have to do slowly, because we really have no idea how Shiva will react to them, or how they will react to her.
"So initially we will put them in neighbouring enclosures, where they can see each other, and we will watch their interactions very carefully before we remove the dividing barriers."