Birth of Lion Cub Expands National Zoo's Lion Pride

For the first time in more than 20 years, tiny lion paws are making a mark at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Early this morning 6-year-old lion Nababiep gave birth to one cub, adding another member to the lion pride the Zoo has carefully worked to build over the past year.

“This is a historic moment for the National Zoo and positions us to contribute even more significantly to the conservation of African lions and to become leaders in the captive management of a pride,” said Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo. “We hope everyone shares our excitement and will help us welcome the cub enthusiastically.”

The cub was born around 4 a.m. May 18 and since then has been mobile and appears to have nursed. Because it is not uncommon for intervals between births to be several hours long, keepers will continue to monitor Nababiep for additional cubs. Visitors to the Zoo’s website can monitor the cub online during the coming weeks on the new lion cub cam. The cub will not be out in the yard, however, until later this summer, which will give the Zoo’s animal keepers and veterinary team time to examine it and monitor Nababiep as she adjusts to being a first-time mother. In the wild, lions may wait up to six weeks before introducing their cubs to the rest of the pride.

Although the Zoo has managed lions in the past, it has been many years since it had the right combination of animals by age and gender to develop a pride. Doing so successfully has required extensive planning, knowledge of the species’ natural history and an understanding of the individual animals involved. 

The Zoo has slowly introduced its two female African lions (Panthera leo), Nababiep and her sister Shera, to male lion, Luke, in its effort to build a pride. Over the past few weeks, keepers have gradually separated the three again to give Nababiep privacy and emulate the natural process. The birth of the lion cub marks the next step in building a pride, and keepers will slowly introduce the cub to its aunt, 5-year-old Shera, and father, 4-year-old Luke, with the aim of eventually bringing all four lions together.

“The birth of Naba’s cub represents our team’s hard work to successfully introduce our lions, but we still have many exciting and challenging goals ahead,” said Rebecca Stites, a lion and tiger keeper at the Zoo. “I’m really looking forward to watching the cub experience everything for the first time—the first time it goes outside, plays with its first toys and meets the other adults in its pride.”

In the wild, a typical male lion becomes the resident male in a pride, which consists of related females and offspring, at the age of 4. Although females in a pride do more than 80 percent of the hunting, the social structure of a pride is more complex than researchers once thought. For example, in smaller prides, males may be more active in hunting. The formation of prides makes lions unique among the great cats, many of which are solitary animals. Hunting, disease and habitat loss have contributed to a decline in the population of African lions, which are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“Cubs are a huge draw for the public and are natural ambassadors for their species,” said Kristen Clark, a lion and tiger keeper. “Visitors will be able to watch the cub grow up with its mother, aunt and father—the way it would in a defined social pride in the wild.”