This article appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press today, May 1, 2009. It is reprinted in its entirety and all rights are reserved by the Free Press.
Winnipeg’s zoo is turning its old panda enclosure into a $1-million manor for rare Asian lions to lure more visitors and funding for the struggling city attraction.
“This is all part of the goal to revitalize the park and zoo,” said Mike Stevens, president of the Zoological Society of Manitoba and member of the board of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy.
“And it’s all part of master plan to have a best-in-class facility.”
The 2000 master plan for the park called for a massive overhaul. Phase One was to include a new zoo entrance at Corydon Avenue and a multimillion-dollar revitalized polar bear exhibit.
Stevens said converting the unused 20-year-old panda bear enclosure into an Asian lion home got bumped up on the list of things to do because it was affordable, fit the criteria for promoting conservancy and education, and the lions would boost attendance.
“About four years ago, we had the African lions and they had some cubs,” said Stevens. “It was extremely successful and it became pretty obvious that lions are a top attraction.”
Zoo spokesman Dr. Bob Wrigley said 450,000 visitors came to see the lions.
“We knew everyone wanted to see the king of the beasts.” Now the zoo is hoping to successfully breed nearly extinct Asian lions, said Wrigley.
“We’re hoping we can be the first zoo in North America.” The warm-weather cats will have space to roam and a cosy abode in cold winters, Wrigley said. And their fans won’t be forgotten.
“It’ll be a four-season place for people.”
A two-storey mural and exhibits aim to bring people closer to the lions and their history, Wrigley said.
“We’ll have interpretive programs, special dinners and sleepovers with the lions,” said Wrigley.
“We want to show people’s relationship with the lion over 20,000 years of art and hunting” — from primitive cave paintings to the near-extinction of today.
There were lions in the wilds of North America at one time, he said.
“They would have been here before the last ice age and died out 10,000 years ago,” said Wrigley. The American lion came across the Bering Strait and was genetically related to the Asian lion, he said.
“It probably had longer hair because of the colder climate and it was larger.” Wrigley marvelled at the amazing range of the kings of the beasts who also inhabited Europe.
“It was pretty adaptable and yet it’s been so persecuted for thousands of years that now it’s just about disappeared.”
At the turn of the last century, there were only 100 Asian lions left in the world, said Wrigley. Today, there are about 250 Asian lions in the Gir Forest and zoos of India. The Assiniboine Park Zoo is hoping to swap India some macaques for an Asian lion couple.
Nearly one-third of the cost of the $1-million panda enclosure retrofit was raised by the Zoological Society of Manitoba.