Edinburgh Zoo use ‘online dating’ to match lions

Jayendra and Roberta in their enclosure. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Jayendra and Roberta in their enclosure. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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IT’s a new relationship observers are hoping will be love at first sight – although if this couple hit it off it will not be due to animal magnentism but a scientific “love match”.

Staff at Edinburgh Zoo are hoping they could soon see some new lion cubs at the attraction, after the arrival of a new female lioness to their pride of Asiatic lions.

Roberta was selected to join resident male Jayendra at the city habitat through a process of “animal online dating” – with the pair matched up because of valuable genetic traits which could help their cubs survive.

Roberta arrived in October last year from Magdeburg Zoo in Germany, but was not properly introduced to Jay until April in order to give the couple time to familiarise themselves with each other.

And their meeting was less a love match and more a genetic match as Roberta was specifically selected to be paired up with Jay through the European Endangered Species Programme (EEPs) due to her genetic characteristics. The aim of the breeding programme is to ensure as much genetic variation in the captive population as possible and this is achieved with the aid of an animal profile studbook which has details of each individual animal on the programme and their sex, date of birth and full ancestry.

The Species Coordinator then acts as “matchmaker”, deciding which animals will be paired for breeding and arranging for the animals to be transferred to the relevant zoos.

Alison Maclean, team leader for carnivores and giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo, said: “Roberta has settled in nicely, although she is still a little shy and nervous. She is slowly starting to warm to her mate Jay and can sometimes be seen sitting close to him in their outdoor enclosure.

“We are hopeful that they will become a breeding pair and produce cubs in the not too distant future, which will be fantastic for Roberta and Jay, as well as the overarching conservation breeding programme for these endangered species.

“Whilst many visitors are familiar with the expert levels of care zoos provide for their animals, they might not be aware that zoos are actually responsible for the conservation of species and play a vital role in conserving species from extinction. It is because of the threat of extinction faced by Asiatic lions that RZSS Edinburgh Zoo is a part of the co-operative breeding programme.”

Today there are very few Asian lions remaining, with wild populations only located in India’s Gir Forest. The 14th Asiatic Lion Census, which was conducted last month, found an estimated 523 individuals in the wild, an increase of 27 per cent since the last census in 2010.

Originally listed as critically endangered in 2000, the recent increase in the Asiatic lion population has changed their status to endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.