At Auckland Zoo this morning, we made the extremely tough but kindest call to euthanise elderly male lions Zulu and Malik - a decision made on welfare grounds.

These two closely bonded half-brothers, born at Auckland Zoo in early 2004 just weeks apart, spent their entire lives together - primarily at Wellington and Auckland zoos.

Average life expectancy for lions in zoos is 17 years, and over the past year, both lions had been intensively monitored by our animal care and veterinary teams. (In the wild, life expectancy is significantly lower and health impacts much harsher, especially for males).

“Degenerative diseases of the bones and joints are very common in elderly big cats, so closely observing mobility is crucial. We first noticed Zulu experiencing stiffness and reduced mobility in his hind legs last November and began treating him with anti-inflammatory and pain relief medication, then in December carried out a full health check under general anaesthetic,” says Auckland Zoo’s Head of Veterinary Services, Dr James Chatterton.

“While Zulu’s diagnostic results were not definitive, his deteriorating mobility indicates a painful and progressive disease process is present and this continued to worsen despite multiple medications over several months.  Diseases such as degenerative arthritis and/or spinal diseases can be hard to diagnose on normal radiographs (x-rays) but are commonly found on post-mortem examinations of elderly big cats, including these boys’ mothers,” says Dr Chatterton.  

“Recently we saw Malik starting to display similar signs and also started him on medications.  Malik is at an earlier stage of this degenerative disease, but having spent his entire life with half-brother Zulu, with whom he’s so closely bonded, being left on his own would be unacceptably stressful and compromise his welfare. He also couldn’t be sent to another zoo. As well as the risks and stress of moving an elderly animal like Zulu, due to the complex social dynamics of lions, attempting to integrate him with any other lions would also be extremely dangerous, and likely fatal,” explains Dr Chatterton.    

“For their own survival, big cats are hard-wired to disguise any injury or pain, so once they start showing abnormal signs, we know there is significant disease present.  As professionals who care deeply for our animal patients, being able to make the call to euthanase at the right time is very important, as it enables us to prevent any untreatable pain and ensure animals like Zulu and Malik can pass away peacefully and with dignity.” 

Exceptional care

Auckland Zoo Carnivore team leader Lauren Booth and her team, who manage and care for these big cats, say Zulu and Malik were a privilege to look after in their twilight years.

“While these boys were born here at Auckland Zoo in 2004, they spent the majority of their lives at Wellington Zoo, but returned to us in 2018, and settled back in like they’d never left!”

“As many people will be aware, our Wellington Zoo colleagues have also just had to make a similar call for their elderly lionesses Djane and Zahra. It’s really tough when any animal in our care dies, but like Djane and Zahra, Zulu and Malik have had long enriching lives due to the exceptional levels of care zoos like ours are dedicated to and able to provide – we’re giving them lives as good, if not better than they’d experience in the wild. Sadly, human impacts on African lions’ wild habitat have seen these big cats disappear from 95 percent of their historic range,” explains Lauren.

“Male lions like Zulu and Malik have such a strong majestic presence, you can’t help but fall in love with them, and be inspired to care. Over their 17 years, many millions of people got to experience and connect with them, and in doing so contribute to our zoos’ local and international efforts for wildlife and wild places.

My team and I loved these beautiful boys’ natures and watching the bond they shared with each other, as we know so many of our visitors did too, and we will miss them greatly.”

Auckland Zoo director Kevin Buley says while Auckland Zoo is now currently without lions, it does plan to work with them again in the future as part of the collaborative Australasian breeding programme for the species.

“Wildlife conservation only ever happens because enough people care and are prepared to put animals and the environment first. You cannot underestimate the power of lions, giraffe rhinoceros and all the other species at good zoos to inspire people about wildlife. If we all make small changes in our own lives as a result, then the whole planet will be better off,” says Buley.


Keeper Chat

Carnivore keeper Beth puts out some special enrichment for lions Malik and Zulu

African Lion Fast Facts:

  1. Conservation Status: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species classifies African lions as ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction. Over the past 21 years, the African lion population has decreased by 43% (population today approx. 25,000) and continues to decrease.
  2. Threats: Key threats to lions are human population growth and agricultural expansion, causing loss of habitat for lions, and increasingly, human-animal conflict. Illegal hunting, poaching, and poisoning by livestock farmers are also impacting
  3. Life expectancy: In the wild, only about one in eight male lions survive to adulthood and their life expectancy is much short than females.  In zoos, the average life expectancy for lions is 17 years.  
  4. Male lions Zulu and Malik were born at Auckland Zoo in March and April 2004 respectively to mothers Amira and Kura. They shared the same father, Lazarus, making them half-brothers. Zulu and Malik relocated to Wellington Zoo in December 2004 and returned to Auckland Zoo in August 2018. They also spent 2 years at Orana Wildlife Park, where Malik bred, fathering seven offspring.