"Auntie" Kya is due to become a first-time mom in September
The Oregon Zoo may soon be welcoming another litter of African lion cubs, its second in two years. Animal-care staff say Kya, one of two female lions in the zoo's Predators of the Serengeti habitat, is pregnant and expected to give birth in September.
Laura Weiner, senior keeper for the zoo's Africa area, cautions, though, that it is Kya's first pregnancy, and the birth of a healthy litter of cubs is no sure thing.
"If all goes well, this will be a great learning experience for Neka's cubs to see another litter raised within the pride."
—Laura Weiner, senior Africa keeper
"We're very excited for Kya to get the chance to be a mom," Weiner said "There are always concerns though — especially with first-time moms. Even if the birth itself goes smoothly, we don't know how Kya will react once her cubs are born. But she's spent a lot of time with Neka's cubs, and we hope her nurturing instincts will kick in."
Keepers believe conception occurred in late May, when they observed breeding activity between Kya and Zawadi Mungu, the zoo's male lion. The pregnancy was recently confirmed by researchers at Smithsonian's National Zoo, who measured hormone levels in a fecal sample collected from Kya that had been submitted for analysis.
Weiner says that Kya has been putting on weight, though is perhaps not noticeably pregnant to the casual observer. She also seems to be a bit crankier as her due date approaches.
"She definitely growls a lot more," Weiner said.
As they did with Neka last year, keepers will be giving Kya access to an off-exhibit maternity den to provide a private and comfortable birthing environment. Animal-care staff will monitor the expectant lion via a closed-circuit surveillance camera, but they'll most likely be taking a hands-off approach.
"Just like with Neka, we want to let this birth happen as naturally as possible," Weiner said. "It's not unusual for first-time moms to struggle, but that's a process we need to allow. If all goes well, this will be a great learning experience for Neka's cubs to see another litter raised within the pride. All three of Neka's cubs are females and may have cubs of their own at some point. This is what they would be experiencing in the wild."
According to Weiner, the average gestation period for African lions is a little more than three months, and the average litter size is two to five. Cubs typically weigh about 3 pounds at birth and are born blind, their eyes opening within a week or two.
Kya, Neka and Zawadi all came to the Oregon Zoo in 2009 based on a breeding recommendation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan for African lions. Zawadi, the male, came from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and the adult females, Neka and Kya, came from the Virginia Zoo and Wisconsin's Racine Zoo respectively.
"They're all around the same age," Weiner said. "That made it easier for them to bond and become a unified pride. We're glad there was such a strong connection between all of them."
The AZA has established Species Survival Plans for many threatened or endangered species — cooperative breeding programs that help create genetically diverse, self-sustaining populations to guarantee the long-term future of animals. These SSPs also support relevant field projects, research and public education to help prevent animal endangerment and extinction.
"Just two decades ago, lions were plentiful in much of Africa," Weiner said. "But today they are vanishing at alarming rates. The wild lion population is estimated to have dropped by 75 percent since 1990. Hopefully, we can start a new chapter in lion conservation."
The Oregon Zoo supports Living with Lions, a conservation research group working to protect Africa's dwindling lion populations by employing Maasai warriors to monitor and help reduce human conflict with predators.