- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

EL PASO, Texas (AP) - The El Paso Zoo is looking to build a pride.

Zookeepers have begun introducing their young lion, Rudo, to three lionesses one at a time. They hope that leads to friendship, giving zoo-goers a more natural view of how lions behave and live in the wild.

And perhaps like Simba with Nala in Disney’s “The Lion King,” Rudo might “feel the love tonight” with Zari. Or maybe Malaika or Kalliope. The three sisters have been on exhibit apart from Rudo, who arrived at the El Paso Zoo as a young cub in 2014 and might be ready to mate.

“Everybody would love to have cubs, but if we don’t get cubs, that will be OK as well,” zoo spokeswoman Karla Martinez told the El Paso Times (http://bit.ly/21BjSvN).

A pride of lions typically consists of at least one male, several females and eventually their young.

Under a recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, El Paso Zoo officials have been given the greenlight to see if Rudo can breed with one of the lionesses - a process and timetable entirely dependent on the animals and their natural behavior.

“The cubs would be the cherry on top, but for us, making sure that our animals are happy and healthy is our top priority,” Martinez said.

The zoo association follows a Species Survival Plan, a cooperative and carefully managed animal program that oversees the breeding and management of select species - many of which are threatened or endangered and urgently need to be conserved and protected, Association of Zoos and Aquariums spokesman Rob Vernon said.

“Through their participation in the SSP, facilities like the El Paso Zoo are helping to assure that populations of more than 450 species remain genetically and demographically healthy, which is important to long-term species survival,” Vernon added.

El Paso Zoo Director Steve Marshall said in a statement that the breeding recommendation is made in an effort to save animals from extinction.

“Daily, we create awareness about what is happening to animals in the wild so that our visitors and the community see their value and create change to become a part of saving these animals,” Marshall said.

The lion population has gone from 450,000 African lions in the 1940s to about 20,000 in 2015, according to zoo officials.

The lifespan of an African lion living in the wild ranges from 10 to 15 years. Under zoo care, most lions can live up to 20 years. The weight of the lions can range from 300 to just over 400 pounds.

A lion’s head and body can range from 4 feet to about 6 feet, with the tail ranging from 2 feet to 3 feet long.

As zookeeper A.J. Citro fed Kalliope through a protective mesh, the female lion gave unsuspecting visitors a glimpse of her towering height as she got up on her two legs and placed her front paws up against it. Onlookers watched in amazement as the lionesses stood some 7 feet off the ground.

“That’s what we love to see. That’s the experience we want people to have here,” Africa Collection Supervisor Amanda Leverett said.

When Rudo, a 3-year-old male, arrived from Seattle in 2014, he was shy and uncomfortable. Leverett said zoo officials wanted to make sure Rudo would settle into his new place before the zoo staff began introducing him to Zari, Malaika and Kalliope. The three lionesses have been at the zoo since 2010 and are about 8 years old.

After about two years of observation and planning, zoo officials are allowing full contact between Rudo and the lionesses. The introductions are being conducted behind the open exhibit.

“Lions are very unique among large cats,” Leverett said. “Most large cats are solitary animals and they would not live in a family group like this, in a pride. Tigers, leopards . wouldn’t stay together all day and all night.”

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Information from: El Paso Times, http://www.elpasotimes.com

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