One of the collaborative projects between Aalborg Zoo and University focuses on the Asiatic lion in the Gir forest – an Asian brother of the more well-known African lion. Only around 300 Asiatic lions are still alive in the wild, with around the same number surviving in zoos all over the world. All current lions descend from a mere 20 Asiatic lions that were alive at the beginning of the 19th century.
The Conservation Biology Research Group are helping the European Association for Zoo and Aquarium’s breeding programme for Asiatic lions – whose coordinator, Rikke Kruse Nielsen, is employed by Aalborg Zoo – establish a comprehensive genealogical tree of all Asiatic lions currently living in European Zoos. The intention with the breeding programme is to ensure the lion’s survival – not just in zoos, but maybe also sometime in the future in a safe natural environment in its native Gir forest.
Building a lion family tree
Key to this work are professor with special responsibilities, Cino Pertoldi, and assistant professor Trine Hammer Jensen, who are both partly employed by Aalborg Zoo and partly by Aalborg University. Cino Pertoldi explains:
“It is practically impossible to visually distinguish between an African and an Asiatic lion, and even more difficult to see whether a lion identified as an Asiatic lion is 100% genetically pure. Therefore, zoos all over the world have started DNA testing their lions, and my job is to analyse the data from these DNA tests and build up the genealogical tree.”
It is crucial that the lions used for breeding have the best genetic background and to breed lions that are as distantly related as possible to avoid inbreed defects.
- “The Asiatic lions are closely related to each other, but through the genealogical tree and genomic techniques, Cino’s and Rikke’s work help us select the best breeding partners. The family tree furthermore lets us identify families in which specific defects or illnesses are most likely to occur, enabling us to exclude those lions from the breeding programme and hopefully decrease the occurrence of the less fit individuals” Trine Hammer Jensen, who is also vet at Aalborg Zoo, explains.
High-level breeding at Aalborg Zoo
In 2014, Aalborg Zoo acquired a new male lion to further their breeding programme. Previously, the zoo had two female lions with a close family relation and thus low genetic impact. The new male lion has a high genetic status and has already proven his fertility, resulting in lion cubs at Aalborg Zoo shortly after his arrival. The zoo now aims to acquire two high-status females from Helsinki – females that have been meticulously selected on the basis of the genealogical tree.
- “By exchanging the two female lions – who will go to a Zoo in Portugal – we will get lions with a higher genetic impact. We hope that breeding them with the male lion can lead to a stronger and genetically more diverse family of lions and, eventually, maybe ensure the survival of the Asiatic lion" Trine Hammer Jensen finishes.