HDW's "BIG CATS" and FOOTHILL FELINES Present:
UP CLOSE AND PURR-SONAL
AT "TIGER TOUCH"
ENDANGERED FELINE SANCTUARY
MEET "ROCKY" - A RARE CAPE OR BARBARY LION DESCENDANT
The Magnificent Lion. King of Beasts, and probably the most famous and most feared member of the cat family. In ancient times, this powerful cat lived, hunted and roamed freely throughout extensive parts of Europe, India, the Middle East, and much of Africa. Today, there are only a very small amount of lions left in the wild in Asia - all in the Gir Forest in India. And, most of the lions left in Africa now live in national parks and reserves, where they are protected from their biggest foe - man. There are also hundreds of lions who live in captivity in various zoos throughout the world.
Lions are built for strength in the wild, not speed. The lion is so strong that, with its tremendously muscular forelegs and shoulders, a single adult male lion can drag a 600 pound (270 kilogram) zebra long distances to a shady, protected location, something 6 adult human men would have great difficulty doing. The lion's coat is ideal for hiding in the wild as it is the same brownish-yellow color as dead grass. Only the back of the ears and the tail tips of lions are black. Interestingly, young lion cubs are spotted, with their coats darkening as they mature. Lions have 30 teeth at adulthood, and these teeth are specific for cutting through the tough skin and tendons of their prey, as lions do not chew, but rather swallow their meals in chunks.
In order to live, lions have to kill. Unlike cheetahs, lions are actually much slower than most of the prey they hunt to survive, and therefore, they have to master the art of surprising their prey. Top speed for a lion is about 35 miles per hour (56 kilometers), which is why many lions often hunt at night, under cover of darkness. The gold colored eyes of the lion can see well in the dark, and the lion also possesses very acute senses of hearing and smell. The lion in the wild prefers large prey such as zebra, antelope, warthogs, etc., but they will take prey from cheetahs and even eat fish, turtles, and diseased animals when they are hungry. An adult male lion can eat 75 pounds (34 kilograms) of meat in one meal, and it may have to last him up to a week, until he can hunt and kill successfully again.
For many centuries, man has hunted lions as a way of showing courage. The Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III hunted lions from his chariot with a bow and arrow, and killed 102 in this way. Whenever lions and people come into contact, the lion almost always loses. Currently, enough lions are born in captivity to fill most zoo and circus needs. In the wild, a lioness will usually not have another litter of cubs until her own cubs are 18 to 24 months old, and able to hunt for themselves -- while in captivity, some lionesses have up to 3 litters of cubs per year.
It is now believed that most of the lions found in Southern Africa were a subspecies known as the Cape Lion (or black-maned lion of the Cape). The physical appearance of this lion differed from that of the lions which inhabit southern and east Africa today. Researchers have not been able to ascertain whether the extinct Cape Lion and Barbary Lion are indeed different subspecies. The original Cape Lion did not survive long into the second half of the 19th century and was the first of the African lion subspecies to become extinct.
In March of 1998, we interviewed TIGER TOUCH Exotic Feline Sanctuary Founder and Director John Williamson for the first time. Now, one year later, John is kind enough to share with us some incredible new information that has recently come to light regarding their resident adult male lion, Rocky.
ROCKY, Young Male Lion With Barbary/Cape Characteristics
HDW: John, it is difficult to believe, but it has almost been a year since our first interview!! Could you bring us up to date on what has been going on at TIGER TOUCH since we had our first interview together??
JW: Time does fly... Well, there hasn't been much visible change. We have moved a few cats around to new quarters and such. Niki, the Siberian Tiger, for example, now looks over my shoulder when I'm doing office work.
Expanding the agenda has taken up most of our time. For one thing, we are placing more emphasis now on education for children and working with some very dedicated teachers. They have developed a model program that effectively underscores the realities of species conservation today. It's a very unique concept and outshines anything we have ever seen.
We are almost finished with our nutritional studies of two years and hope to publish this year. These results play a significant role in our special emphasis on aggression control among the large felids. They also point to raising their tolerance to environmental stressors and boosting immune functions.
Most important, we have added several key professionals to our Board of Directors and officers, including a Zoologist, a planning specialist, and three Phd. researchers who oversee behavior and nutrition programs. It's getting pretty exciting. Along with all this we are moving toward a tax exempt status so we can solicit contributions and grants to support much of the work we face.
This is also the year to improve facilities for the already spoiled group of sanctuary cats, to improve our limited desert water supply with a new well, and to build a special facility for controlled breeding and cub care.
HDW: In March of 1998, we spoke about your exotic feline sanctuary, TIGER TOUCH , in general -- about how you got started, why you chose Nevada for your location, and about some of the felines currently in residence with you, most notably, Detonator, your Bengal Tiger. This year, I understand there has been an increasing interest in one of your other residents...Rocky, your adult male lion.
JW: Yes, there has been an increased interest. Much of our need for expanded facilities is predicated on Rocky's new star status.
HDW: Could you tell us about Rocky...where he came from, how old he is, how long he's been with you, his daily routine and feeding patterns, and about his personality??
JW: Frankly, we don't know where Rocky came from. The person who owned him before us rescued him from someone who had him confined to a small pit in the ground. Rocky apparently suffered a lot of abuse, both physically and nutritionally in his early life. It's about three years now since we, in turn, rescued Rocky from the last owner, whose style ran more to neglect.
Last year Rocky reached his sexual maturity and changed from a well tempered cat to a typical male Lion, grumpy and often dangerous. He roars and charges to his breakfast each morning, then mellows out for the rest of the day. At night, or if the weather is bad, he sleeps in his den, usually with Detonator ("Det"), the Bengal Tiger.
At this point in time, Rocky enjoys a quiet afternoon hanging out with his cat and people friends. He is still prone to attacking one and all on occasion, but he seems to be getting used to his new life as an adult male. When he's good, he's stately and very good, but when he's in a foul mood we and the other cats keep our distance.
HDW: You have mentioned in your website (http://www.tigertouch.org) that Rocky is what is known as a "Barbary Lion". Is it true that you now have new information that may, in fact, show that Rocky is in actuality a "Cape Lion"??
JW: This is about the time to introduce a singularly dedicated person, Susan Aronoff. Through her love of lions and very hard work, she has become the project manager of a small, private group of us locating lions world wide that show the Barbary traits. With the help of genetic analysis and a coordinated breeding program, the plan is to breed back a viable gene pool and, with patience and some luck, reintroduce their second or third generation progeny to the wild.
HDW: What caused you to believe that Rocky was indeed a Barbary Lion at first??
JW: I'm sad to say I knew nothing of Barbary Lions until a few people of questionable integrity tried to buy Rocky. When we refused to sell, they tried more indirect ways of persuasion. With all this strange melodrama going on, we began searching for the reason, eventually uncovering a paper published by Dr. Hym Ebedes, a South African research Veterinarian.
His proposed study was to find evidence of genetic differentiation between two extinct sub-species of Lion, the Barbary and the Cape. His interest was peaked by his discovery of several Lions once owned by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. These Lions had the characteristics of the extinct Barbary or Cape, perhaps the most magnificent great cats of all time.
Dr. Ebedes then rightfully surmised that if there were a few animals still alive, perhaps more could be found in other captive situations. Thus the hunt and the drama began. Susan Aronoff responded to Dr. Ebedes call for help. Later, her efforts were essentially subverted, and credit claimed by another. Eventually, Dr. Ebedes called it quits. A few other people, including ourselves, both in the U.S. and S.A. tried to resurrect the program, but it seemingly died from lack of funding.
HDW: So then, what are the main differences between the Barbary Lion and the Cape Lion?? What is unique about each one, and where did they come from??
JW: Well, to make it short, the Barbary roamed a large area of North Africa, whereas the Cape was native to the Southern part of Africa. They appear quite similar. That is what raised the original questions by Dr. Ebedes. Were the two lions of the same sub-species before geographic isolation? Was there genetic drift, or had they both evolved separately from some earlier ancestor?
The last Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo) was killed in 1922 and the last Cape Lion (Panthera leo melanochaitus) was hunted down and killed earlier in 1865. During this same lion killing period, the Asian Lion, (Panthera leo persica) was almost exterminated, but now is possibly recovering in the Gir forest region of India.
HDW: How many Barbary and Cape Lions were there, and what is their status now??
JW: Historically, both the Barbary, which replaced the wide ranging European Lion of pre-Roman times and the Cape Lions were quite abundant. Both sub-species have long since been declared extinct in the wild. Until the Ethiopian Lions were discovered, it was believed there were no live individuals in captivity either. So far, only a handful of lions with Barbary characteristics have been located and catalogued throughout the world.
NALA, Lioness With Barbary Characteristics
HDW: What was/is unique about the Cape Lion, and what is it about Rocky in particular that causes you to believe now that he may actually BE a Cape Lion??
JW: Initially, Rocky was thought to be Barbary. However, very recent comparisons with the lions that have been cataloged indicate he is most likely Cape, the only live Cape candidate for breeding known. It shows in his magnificent black mane and golden halo configuration. His ear tufts match those of a Cape. He is also slightly smaller than the average Barbary, larger than the African Lion, but just right for a Cape Lion. We bow to other's expertise in these matters. In the end, only genetic analysis of all the candidate lions will sort it out.
HDW: Do you have any current or future plans to include Rocky in any genetic testing, and/or breeding program, to try to continue to work with his extremely rare bloodlines??
JW: Yes, we do. Overall, we will follow a privately managed program based on the genetic diversity of the various candidates. The study will be rather costly, but necessary for a meaningful program.
By sheer coincidence, a young lioness we are caring for shows all the characteristics of a Barbary. This spring we will probably allow she and Rocky to breed since they are both ready and live together anyhow. Any offspring from that pairing will tell us a lot more.
HDW: This is so exciting!! Let's turn now to lions in general and their current situation today. Could you tell us a bit about them...how many species and sub-species are there, to your knowledge, of this magnificent "King of Beasts"??
JW: The African Lion is the most numerous with estimates of around 50,000 in the wild. These lions seem to be a mixture of several minor sub-species. There are a few Asian Lions and the other sub-species are long extinct.
HDW: Which lions are the most endangered?? What is being done, that you know of, to try to save them??
JW: If one adheres to the accepted notion that a species or sub-species must have some living members still in the wild to be considered endangered, then the Asian Lion can be considered the most endangered. Once, there was a breeding program (Species Survival Plan) in place but genetic tests indicated a substantial hybridization among the remaining candidates and the program was dropped. The Asian Lion seems to be on its own. If one takes the logical position that species and sub-species members in captivity count, then it's the Barbary and Cape Lions that are most endangered and, as I've pointed out, there's precious little being done for their survival outside the limited private efforts of a few individuals.
HDW: What is an average lion's life span?? How large do they normally get to be as adults?? What are some of the unique traits about lions, perhaps some that people who haven't been around them like you have, wouldn't know about??
JW: Healthy lions will live to about 15 years in the wild and up to 25 in captivity. Some individuals become quite large in captivity, a few reaching over 800 pounds in weight. The average is much lower than that and even less in the wild.
Lions are generally thought to be the only members of the cat family to form social groups called prides in which a number of females and a male or two demonstrate remarkable cooperation. Actually, domestic and feral cats often form these social groups. The Barbary Lions, however, were loners, getting together only for mating.
HDW: Could you share with us what the latest is at TIGER TOUCH regarding some of the important genetics research projects you've been involved with??
JW: We have submitted Rocky samples to two previous studies which weren't completed for lack of funds. We also collected many samples of Canadian, North American, and Siberian Lynx for a European study . This study is still in process but has already raised significant questions about certain sub-species thought to be distinct. In a similar situation, the discovery this past year in which the North American Cougar, thought to be represented by fourteen sub-species, was shown to have insignificant genetic variability, not enough to warrant complex splitting of hairs.
This year we also plan on genetic testing of both the Bengal and Siberian Tigers for possible breeding programs.
HDW: What do you see ahead for TIGER TOUCH as we approach the year 2000?? Do you have any specific goals in mind that you could share with us, that you'd like to achieve in 1999??
JW: From a "business" point of view, putting our operations under a tax-exempt structure will allow us to continue with the more expensive aspects of our agenda.
Given adequate funding: We want to move along with the last phase of our research showing that big cats can be raised to be far less intrinsically dangerous than present methods allow. We want to codify and promulgate the conservation education package for children that has (and is) working so well. We want to completely rebuild our enclosure from emergency rescue caging to fully enriched habitats and cub care facilities. We want to support further research which has identified a common language among large mammals and which may improve communication between humans and cats.
HDW: Let's find out if you've had any new residents arrive since our last interview. Could you give us a little update and tell us about the felines that you currently have at TIGER TOUCH ?? How many, what kind of cat, and how they arrived at your sanctuary??
JW: As it stands now we have a Bengal Tiger (Detonator), a male "Barbary" Lion (Rocky), two Cougars, and two Bobcats. These were all rescued cats. In addition, we have a Siberian Tiger (Niki), given to us by a wonderful couple who were injured in an accident and could no longer care for her. Then there is a resident lioness with Barbary characteristics.
We have a Siberian Lynx and an African Serval. These two are our companions who live and travel with us.
No new cats have been added yet. We prefer to stay very small so we can put a lot of care into the ones we have and still be able to do our research which is dedicated to all cats. This year we may add another Bengal Tiger and likely a Sumatran Tiger cub. Facilities will have to come first, however. Of course, if Rocky and his girlfriend successfully produce offspring, we'll have our hands full anyway.
HDW: We are often contacted by students needing research information for school projects about the Big Cats. What advice would you have for our young people who might become hooked on these magnificent creatures, and who dream about someday becoming intimately involved with them and their protection, like you have done at TIGER TOUCH ??
JW: Our advice is always to learn as much as possible and follow their dream with their eyes wide open; to make sure no more species are lost. If the great cats are to survive it will be up to today's children to educate and bear witness to the people around them.
ROCKY, Priceless Treasure at Tiger Touch Sanctuary
HDW: How can people contact you to find out more information about TIGER TOUCH ???
JW: We can be reached by:
MAIL: TIGER TOUCH , Box 1240, Fallon, NV 89407, USA
HDW: John, thank you so much for this wonderful interview! We invite all interested readers to log on to the TIGER TOUCH website, located at: http://www.tigertouch.org.
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