Celebrating Our Pride of Lion Protectors on World Lion Day

Each time you visit Hasani, you are helping to save lions in Africa!

In honor of world lion day, we are shedding light on how your visit to the Zoo is saving lions in Africa! Each time you come to visit Hasani and our lovely lionesses, a portion of your admission ticket goes towards supporting organizations like Pride Lion Conservation Alliance (PRIDE), a Houston Zoo conservation partner. In fact, just by visiting the Zoo, you are helping to protect 20% of the lion population in Africa. PRIDE was created on the idea that we can do more to save lions in the wild by working together on a landscape level. Founded by six women with over 100 years of collective lion conservation experience, PRIDE is a collaborative effort that works across different African countries to save more lions and to inspire and improve future protection work. Located in Kenya, Lion Guardians is a member of PRIDE that works to save lions by recruiting young Maasai warriors and providing them with the skills necessary to transition from lion killers to lion protectors.

Lion Guardians are taught how to read, write, and speak in Swahili.

The opportunity to join the Lion Guardians team can be a life-changing experience for young Maasai warriors that have had no previous exposure to a formal education. Guardians are taught how to read, write, and communicate in Swahili, and are trained in wildlife management and conflict mitigation techniques. After completing their training, Lion Guardians are able to monitor lion movements, warn pastoralists when lions are in the area, recover lost livestock, reinforce protective fencing, and intervene to stop lion hunting parties. By protecting the livestock local communities depend on, Lion Guardians build tolerance among locals for neighboring lions and other carnivores. This conservation model can be adapted to fit the needs of many cultures and wildlife species, which has given Lion Guardians the ability to expand outside of Kenya, into Tanzania and beyond.

Lion Guardian Luke is a Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior. Photo by: Philip J. Briggs

Since 2007, this unique approach has helped to reduce lion killing by more than 90 percent! The team has documented a tripling of the lion population in the non-protected areas of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem and provided passage between the Ngorongoro and Serengeti lion populations in Tanzania. Hard work and dedication over the past year has resulted in an 80% reduction in hunting parties from previous years – an impressive feat given the high levels of human-wildlife conflict currently being experienced in and around project areas. In addition, 2017 resulted in the protection of 136 bomas (livestock enclosures), the recovery of 90% of lost or threatened livestock, and the prevention of 8 lion hunts.

We are continually blown away by the hard work and dedication our family at Lion Guardians and PRIDE put into saving lions in the wild. As part of our pride, each and every one of you are lion protectors too! World lion day may only happen once a year, but every day is a good day to share your love of these big cats. So go ahead, let out a roar, and tell everyone you know how you are saving lions in Africa!

Part of the Pride: How You and the Houston Zoo are Saving Lions like Hasani in Africa

As 2017 came to a close, we eagerly welcomed Hasani, a 3 year old male lion, to our pride at the Houston Zoo. He has received a very warm welcome as thousands of Houstonians have made their way to the zoo to catch a glimpse of our new feline friend, but did you know that each time you visit the Houston Zoo to see Hasani and our pride of lions, a portion of your admission ticket goes to support work to save lions in the wild? Houston Zoo conservation partner, The Pride Lion Conservation Alliance was created on the idea that we can do more to save lions in the wild by working together. Founded by six women with over 100 years of collective experience, PRIDE is a new model of collaboration that works across different African countries to save more lions and to inspire and improve future conservation. Collectively, Pride Alliance members lead carnivore conservation efforts in 4 key lion range countries, researching and protecting 20% of Africa’s existing wild lion population. Combining science with community conservation efforts, these projects collectively employ hundreds of local people and engage thousands in efforts each year to address the biggest threats to lions and improve the lives of local people.

Located in Kenya, Ewaso Lions is a member of the Pride Lion Conservation Alliance that works to improve relationships between humans and carnivores through raising awareness of ecological problems and solutions, developing strategies for reducing conflict with carnivores, and educational initiatives that illustrate the benefit of wildlife for local livelihoods. The team at Ewaso Lions has had quite the year, and they couldn’t wait to tell their extended family here at the Houston Zoo all about it!

This year came with its challenges, as parts of Kenya, including the area where Ewaso Lions is based, were hit hard by a very severe drought. The Ewaso Nyiro River dried up in early January and wildlife and livestock converged around small waterholes, increasing the conflict between lions and humans. The river flowed again temporarily in February/March, but it had dried up by June 2017. Fortunately, the rains arrived towards the end of October and carried to November, bringing much needed relief to the region.

While the drought put a great deal of stress on both lions and humans in the area, it did not stop the Ewaso Lion project from seeing a number of incredible successes! Two of the lionesses tracked by the project gave birth to cubs – Nabulu gave birth in late 2016, and Naramat gave birth to 4 cubs in April of 2017. A number of new male lions also arrived in the region, and 6 lions were collared to help identify key routes the lions use to move around within the community landscape.

Ewaso Lions Scouts have been conducting transect surveys to record lion (and other carnivores) sightings and tracks, wild prey and livestock, and incidents of conflict with livestock. They patrol, almost on a daily basis, a total of 24 fixed transects (each almost 2 miles long) distributed across the lion range. Up until the end of October, a team of 25 conducted a total of 665 patrols, covering a distance of 3,477 miles on foot with over 2,000 patrol hours. In addition, the project has trained 20 tour guides and rangers in lion identification, ecology, conservation issues, and data collection using a custom smartphone app. These participants are now certified Lion Watch Guides who help Ewaso Lions gather data on lions by recording sightings during the course of their work.

Through their Mama Simba program, Ewaso Lions has engaged more than 300 Samburu women in conservation. This year the Mama Simba ladies went on 5 wildlife safaris in to Samburu National Reserve, piloted new ideas to help them better dispose of waste, particularly plastic waste which poses a serious threat to livestock and wildlife, and organized 3 events with women from local villages. The ladies brought together women, elders and children from their communities and played a specially designed conservation game.

In addition, a total of eight Lion Kids Camps have been held and 213 Kenyan children have been exposed to conservation education through the Camps. This program is helping to foster the next generation of wildlife heroes in Kenya. Following a special Reunion Camp in August 2015, 66% of children wanted to pursue a career related to wildlife (e.g. conservationist, wildlife vet, tour guide, or ranger), with a further 5% openly supporting conservation while in pursuit of an alternate career.

Talk about a busy year! We are beyond proud of all of the hard work and dedication our family at Ewaso Lions has put in this year to save lions in the wild, and we can’t wait to see all of the amazing things they are able to accomplish in the new year. We’d like to thank all of our guests for supporting projects like this one through the purchase of your admission ticket here at the Houston Zoo. Make sure to stay tuned for updates!

Shasta Is Turning 4!

Written by Samantha Junker, Senior Keeper


Turning 4 is a big deal and the Houston Zoo is throwing our cougar, Shasta, a birthday party to remember! We invite our guests to join us for fun, games, and of course singing happy birthday to Shasta as he receives his ice pop cake!

Shasta 2Shasta has dual roles here at the zoo; not only is he an ambassador for wild cougars, but he is also the official mascot of the University of Houston! Shasta VI (his official title) makes appearances at UH games via live webcam and also guards the UH senior rings before the class ring ceremony.

While his roles here keep him busy, Shasta had an uncertain beginning to his life.  Orphaned in the wild at a very young age, it took the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife several days to find him.  He was hiding so well, the searchers had to chirp like a cougar in order to locate him.  Shasta chirped back and was quickly found.  He was hungry and thirsty, but otherwise ok!  Since Shasta was still too young to fend for himself, a forever home was needed and that is where the Houston Zoo stepped in.

Shasta currently resides at the Houston Zoo with a female cougar named Haley, also orphaned in the wild.  Please join us at the cougar exhibit on Sunday, September 27 from 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. to help celebrate everything Shasta!


Enrichment – Works With Pets Too!

Written by Samantha Junker

enrichment-blog-21Most of us have experienced that feeling when we get home and walk through the front door. Something’s wrong. Our eyes dart around the room trying to pinpoint what is different and then we see it. The couch. The pillow. The brand new lithium battery for my laptop (THANKS BENNIE!). Whatever it was, our pet has destroyed it.

After going through the stages of grief for my lost battery, (and making sure Bennie was ok!) I sat down and came up with a game plan of how to prevent it from happening again. Apparently, my dog was in need for something to occupy her time with. I started with her food and its presentation; fed her in toys, teasers, or hollow bones sealed with frozen peanut butter. What once took her 30 seconds now took the better part of an hour and I noticed an immediate decrease in the destruction of my property!

Looking back, it was so simple! I am a zookeeper! Enrichment is something I do every single day here at the Houston Zoo! It’s only natural I should be doing it at home as well!

If you have ever walked by any of our carnivores and noticed a toy, a hanging log, paper, or a box on exhibit, you are looking at enrichment. Enrichment is anything that encourages a natural behavior, and our zoo animals need it just like our pets at home for all of the same reasons. To change it up. To do something different. To be active and engaged.

African Lion Enrichment-0014

Zookeepers have found that if we provide something to tear, like paper, our cats get to exhibit a natural behavior, but not necessarily at the expense of our exhibit plants. If we present their food in a new or unique way, they spend more time eating. If we offer them new scents such as perfume and spices, they spend more time exploring and marking. We are offering them more choices throughout their day.

Join us for Enrichment Day on September 19 to see all of the different ways the animals at the Houston Zoo are enriched! Maybe you will find some new and exciting ideas to try at home!

Elderly Tiger Pandu Laid to Rest

Pandu, one of the Houston Zoo’s two elderly Malayan tigers, was humanely euthanized today after a long life. The decision was made by the tiger’s keepers and veterinary team after the 16-year-old tiger began to become uninterested in food, lethargic, and showing signs of pain. After an extensive medical review, our veterinary and tiger experts decided that the most humane option was to peacefully euthanize him.

pandu drinks

For  many years, Pandu received a combination of stem cell therapy and arthroscopic surgery to address orthopedic issues in his right elbow courtesy of Dr. Brian Beale of Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists and Michael Coleman, Ph. D. and Jonathan Davis, stem cell specialists with InGeneron, Inc. These treatments greatly added to his quality of life, and gave him the energy to participate in some of his favorite activities – swimming and painting.

Affectionately called “Professor” by his keepers, Pandu was an extremely vocal cat, so much that the team had to train him to be quite while they were feeding him so that they could hear one another talk. Also one of the zoo’s most requested painters, Pandu had a preference for purple paint and his work can be found hanging in homes around Houston. Pandu was also a frequent participant in the popular tiger training window enrichment exercises.

“It is never an easy decision to euthanize an animal, but it is one we make with the animal’s well-being as the top priority,” said Sharon Joseph, vice president of animal operations at the Houston Zoo. “With four incredible veterinarians, a complete veterinary clinic and world-class animal keepers, our animals receive the best care possible, and that includes end-of-life decisions.  While it’s always exciting to celebrate births at the zoo, we also mourn heavily when one of our animals dies.”

Malayan tigers are critically endangered with only about 300 remaining in the wild. Pandu is survived by his habitat mate, a 14-year-old female Malayan tiger named Satu.

Carnivorous Plant Garden Opens May 16

We all know that the Houston Zoo has lots of carnivores, right?   Lions, tigers, bears, foxes and many more. But, did you know that even some of the plants on grounds are carnivorous?

The Zoo’s amazing Horticulture Department is opening a new carnivorous plant garden! The grand


opening will be May 16. This wonderful garden is generously underwritten by Pet Flytraps (petflytrap.com).

Carnivorous plants all have a few things in common. They all capture and kill prey. They all have a mechanism to facilitate digestion of prey. And, they all derive significant benefit from nutrients from the prey. They often grow in swamp or bog areas, and many are native to the United States. One of the most popular and well known carnivorous plants, the Venus Flytrap, is found in boggy areas in North and South Carolina.

Venus Flytrap
Venus Flytrap

There are actually 6 orders, 9 families and 595 species of carnivorous plants. It’s not hard to figure out what their benefit for humans is – pest control. Some of these important plants are endangered. You never want to take them from the wild, and when buying one, be sure it is from a reputable vendor. That is crucial information because these plants are an indicator species. That means that if there is something wrong in the habitat they grow in, they will show the effects first.

One question many have about these plants is – how can insects pollinate these plants when they eat insects? Seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? The flowers of these plants usually grow on a stalk that reaches well above the traps. That way, the pollinators, often bees or flies, aren’t caught in the trap and eaten. You can learn more about pollinators during Pollinator Days at the Houston Zoo on June

Pitcher Plant
Pitcher Plant


Some of the plants you will be able to see in the garden include Venus Flytraps, Sundews, Butterworts, both native and tropical Pitcher Plants and more.   Members of our Horticulture Team will be available at the carnivorous plant garden from 10AM to 3PM on the 16th so that you can learn even more.



Species Spotlight: Black Bear Cubs Willow and Belle

Our American black bear cubs, Willow and Belle, are anything but ordinary. In fact, they are not black at all! The Zoo received these orphaned cubs in December 2013 and initially weighed 40 pounds. However, carnivore keeper Stephanie Mantilla reported that Willow is 139 pounds, and Belle is 148 pounds. Some of their favorite foraging foods include grapes, bananas, avocados and hard boiled eggs! Needless to say, the girls adjust well to life at the Zoo.

Interestingly enough, the girls are often mistaken for grizzly cubs. American black bears are actually most similar to the Asian black bear, and are very different from grizzly bears based on size and profile. Grizzlies are much larger in size, and have an “angled” profile because their shoulder blades stick out; black bears are smaller framed and have a more “straight” profile due to their smaller shoulder blades. The shade of black bear fur even differs from region to region! Willow and Belle both came from California and Mantilla said black bears from that region have a cinnamon-colored coat. In warmer areas, their fur looks blacker because of the heat.


While black bears in general are listed as “least concern”, their conservation status differs depending on the state. Black bears in Louisiana and various parts of Texas are listed as endangered, and each individual state lists their own sub-species of black bears as endangered or not.

“There are different sub-species of black bears, like the Louisiana black bear,” Mantilla said. “Black bears are a little bit genetically isolated, so it determines whether or not if they’re endangered or not. But overall, black bears are the highest populated bear species in the world, and they’re doing pretty well.”

And while some may think hunting is the biggest threat to this species, Mantilla added that feeding bears actually causes the most harm to them. She said it is best to refrain from feeding wild bears because they are so intelligent, they will remember where to go to find more food.


Even though the black bear are listed as “least concern”, the Zoo is committed to bringing awareness and conservation efforts for all species living here. The Zoo will hold Bear Awareness Day on Saturday, April 4 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. All proceeds will go to the East Texas Black Bear Task Force, an organization dedicated to restoring the black bear’s historic range in east Texas through education, research and habitat management. The event will take place in front of the bear exhibits. Stop by and say hi to Willow and Belle!

The Houston Zoo is Protecting African Painted Dogs in the Wild!

The HoP. Dog029083uston Zoo loves its African Painted dogs and is committed to doing whatever we can to save them in the wild!  We partner with organizations that work tirelessly to ensure the protection of painted dogs in Africa and we strive to enhance their incredible work by providing many forms of support.

Next week we will be providing training for a Zimbabwean African painted dog researcher at the Houston Zoo.  MK is a conservationist from a local community in Zimbabwe employed by an organization called Painted Dog Research.  He will spend time with our veterinary staff and facilities staff to strengthen his skills and knowledge in animal care and construction.  He needs to have a good understanding for animal care when he is assisting other researchers with darting (shooting a dart that delivers a sedative) and providing medical care to wild painted dogs.  A solid understanding of construction will allow him to assist his team at Painted Dog Research and local communities with maintenance and building.  MK is on the front lines saving painted dogs and the Houston Zoo is proud to enhance his efforts.

MK with other researchers in the wild
MK with other researchers in the wild

One of the serious threats that faces painted dogs in Africa is being entangled in wire traps that are intended for animals like antelope.  The dogs get caught in them when they chase their prey. It is sort of like dolphins getting caught in tuna nets- the traps are not actually intended for the dogs like the nets aren’t intended for the dolphins.


Painted Dog Research have used radio tracking collars  to follow the dogs for over 20 years and have witnessed numerous mortalities from the wire traps.  They designed a specialized tracking collar with a metal plate that provides some protection for the throat and neck from the wire, but staff at Painted Dog Research believed the design could be improved to be even more effective.  They approached the Houston Zoo for assistance with a new idea to give further protection to painted dogs.


Our skilled staff take pride in their work to save wildlife.  Our facilities team jumped at the opportunity to design clips that could be attached to the tracking collar to protect the dog’s necks from the wire.   They created several prototype collars with various sizes and styles of the clips to be tested on trained domestic dogs.  The testing will  reveal an effective and safe design that can hopefully be produced this year.

photo 2
A protective clip design for tracking collar
Collar prototypes with two different clip designs.

You can save animals here in Texas from being trapped in plastic traps that can be just as deadly as the wire traps the dogs face.  When plastic bags or plastic six-pack can holders end up in our environment, animals can ingest or become entangled in them.  Use canvas bags and remember to cut every hole of those six-pack can holders to save animals in Texas!

Every time you visit the Zoo you save animals in the wild.  Thank you! A portion of your admission makes it possible for us to protect wildlife from extinction.

Clouded Leopard Cubs Play Outside!

Our twelve-week-old clouded leopard cubs Koshi and Senja took their first romp in the grass today during one of their final days behind-the-scenes. As they grow, their mischievous personalities are becoming more and more apparent. Koshi thinks it’s fun to practice his aerial skills by leaping onto the caregivers while Senja prefers climbing and has perfected the art of escaping over the baby gate barrier.

The pair, born June 6, will soon be moved into their permanent home inside the zoo after nearly three months of around-the-clock care by zookeepers. They will make their public debut in mid-September after a habitat acclimation period, which will take place under the watchful eyes of the carnivore team.

Watch the two cubs play in the grass:

Clouded Leopard Cubs Born at the Zoo!

Friday, June 6 was an exciting day at the Houston Zoo as we welcomed two clouded leopard cubs to our family. The unnamed male cubs were born after an unassisted, one-hour labor.  After a healthy proclamation by our chief veterinarian, zookeepers began steps to hand-raise the cubs.  The cubs began successfully nursing from a bottle within four hours of birth.
Clouded Leopard Cubs
The cubs are a result of the first pregnancy for two-year-old Suksn who gave birth in a private den off-exhibit.  A few hours after their birth, the cubs were moved to the veterinary clinic to begin receiving 24-hour care by the zoological team. The pair will remain behind-the-scenes for several months while they continue to grow and thrive.
This birth is not only the first birth for Suksn, but also the first clouded leopard birth for the Houston Zoo.  This is also the first offspring for the cubs’ father, Tarak, also two years old.  Suksn and Tarak have been residents of the Houston Zoo since 2012.
Clouded leopards are vulnerable to extinction because of deforestation and hunting.  Since this animal is so rare, it is important to do everything possible to ensure the health and well-being of every clouded leopard born in the care of man. The current practice among zoos is to hand-raise all newborn clouded leopards.  Following best-practices from successful breeding programs like the Nashville Zoo and the National Zoo Breeding Facility, our keepers and veterinary staff are extremely well-equipped to ensure these cubs receive the best care possible.
About Clouded Leopards
The clouded leopard is unusual among the world’s cat species. They are the smallest of the large cats, have the largest canine teeth in proportion to their body size of any other cat species, and their coat is striking, yet so well blended for their habitat, that they are extremely difficult to see.
Named for its spotted coat, the clouded leopard and its habit has remained a mystery. They live in an area ranging from the foothills of the Himalayas down the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Southeast Asia. They are under pressure from habit loss, poaching for their attractive coats and even the pet trade in a number of countries throughout Asia.
Clouded leopards excel at climbing; there are few cats in the world which can run up a tree, rotate their ankles to run down a tree headfirst or hang upside down from a tree limb using their long tails for balance. 

-Article contributors: Sharon Joseph, Beth Schaefer, and Sara Riger

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