The Honolulu Zoo’s 2 1/2 -year-old male lion made a proud debut yesterday atop the grassy hill in the reopened lion exhibit, where he was greeted by throngs of eager families, zoo keepers and city officials.
The African lion — named Ekundu, or "red" in Swahili — is the first to be housed at the zoo since two 20-year-old lionesses were put down in 2008 because of old age. With the arrival in November of a female as a mate for Ekundu, zoo officials hope to breathe new life into their exhibit.
"One of the biggest things we want to do is to keep the zoo vibrant," said Sidney Quintal, director of the city’s Department of Enterprise Services, which oversees the zoo. "The vision is to create a visitor experience that’s just breathtaking."
Ekundu arrived in Honolulu on July 1 and was kept in quarantine before being released into the exhibit yesterday. He was raised by his parents at San Diego Wildlife Park, where he was also trained and socialized to be around humans.
The African lion weighs 365 pounds and has a fledgling mane that zoo keepers say will fill out as he matures.
"He’s very handsome," said the lion’s primary zoo keeper, Caitlin Capistron. "He is the king, after all."
After housing two aging lionesses for the past two decades, the zoo had to make a number of modifications to the exhibit before the arrival of the spry young male. The zoo increased fencing and rock-wall heights by four feet and installed a new viewing window with funding from the nonprofit Honolulu Zoo Society.
"It was something that we wanted to be a part of," said Suzanne Kariya-Ramos, executive director of the society. "We’re very excited."
The lion was donated through its partnership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan Program. The organization tracks a variety of endangered species — including lions, tigers, chimpanzees and elephants — at zoos across the globe in order to ensure the animals find proper homes. The association also controls breeding efforts, bringing prospective mates together and enforcing birth control where necessary to ensure genetic diversity.
Like Ekundu, the zoo’s 2-year-old lioness — expected to arrive from New York’s Bronx Zoo in November — was obtained through the species survival program. The Honolulu Zoo will also be sending two tiger cubs born in Hawaii in 2008 to other zoos, including a facility in Japan, next month.
"We get and give," Kariya-Ramos said. "What is best for the survival of the species is what we do."