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The Asiatic lion captive breeding programme

The major ex-situ conservation plan to secure the future of the Asiatic lion is the foundation and development of the Asiatic lion breeding programme.

Work in captivity

young lions at playThe first inter-zoo co-operative breeding programmes started in the 1960’s when the first studbooks were organised to allow the history of captive individuals to be traced. For any captive breeding programme to be successful and of conservational value it is essential that the origins and genetic purity of the animals within that programme are known.

The development of captive breeding programmes became more structured throughout the 1970’s and became formalised to their current status with the introduction of the Species Survival Programme (SSP) by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) in 1981.

Under an SSP, zoos co-operate to manage individual animals of the same species, held in different zoos, as a single population. A studbook is established to list genetic and demographic data on all of the individuals within the programme. Based on this information, recommendations are made regarding which animals should breed and with whom, which animals should be removed from breeding recommendation and which animals should be removed from the programme.

In 1981 the AZA established the SSP for the Asiatic lion to manage the 200+ descendants of Asiatic lions held in western zoos. Although a studbook and management plan were established, they had to be done so retrospectively as the captive population was already well established. The SSP had two significant caveats:

The entire captive Asiatic lion population outside India was derived from only seven founders (A founder being an animal used to start a new line in a breeding programme). This raised the possibility of inbreeding and the exposure of damaging recessive traits.

Although the origins of the seven founders could be confidently traced to India there were persistent, but at that time unconfirmed, reports that the founder animals may have been African imports, descendants thereof, or hybrids.

This second concern was shown to be all to real when a report titled "Evidence for African Origins of the Founders of the Asiatic Lion SSP" by S.J. O’Brien et al. was published in Zoo Biology in 1987. The report’s authors used genetic tests to compare animals in the wild population in Gir with those in captivity. Those results confirmed that the majority of the captive population, at that time, was not pure Asiatic. As a result of the O’Brien report the SSP was effectively discontinued.

A new programme was required to maintain a secure population in captivity and in 1990 the foundations of a European Breeding Programme (EEP) were laid with the receipt of four Asiatic lions (2 male, 2 female) of known purity by London Zoo from India. Zoos in Zurich and Helsinki received lions in 1991 and 1992 respectively. The programme was formalised by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) in 1994, and a new studbook was established for the EEP, held at London Zoo. By the end of 1996 some 12 zoos were participating in the Asiatic lion EEP.

As at 4th August 2006 there were 99 lions in the European Breeding programe in 36 collections.