National Geographic Today
In April, as Baghdad fell, U.S. Army scouts were the first to scour the palace grounds of the late Uday Hussein, son of Saddam Hussein.
Coalition rockets and gunfire had nearly destroyed the palace grounds, and none of the troops expected to find anything alive. Then, in a small, war-scarred compound, Staff Sgt. Darren Swain peered into a roomand saw three lions, cowering, starving and abandoned.
Two lions were females, one of which was pregnant. The soldiers named them Zena and Heather, for their girlfriends back home, and fed them MREs (meals ready to eat). A few days later, with gun battles still raging in the streets outside, Zena gave birth to six healthy cubs. The females protectively kept the male, Brutus, at bay.
Like so many other issues in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the fate of the lions remains in conflict, a matter of national identity and autonomy. Barbara Maas, a wildlife ecologist and chief executive of Care for the Wild International, a wildlife organization based out of Kingsfold, West Sussex, United Kingdom, which works for the welfare of animals, arrived in Baghdad shortly after the end of the war. After assessing the situation for Uday's lions, she recommended they be relocated to SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa, near Kruger National Park in the northern province of Limpopo.
Relocating the Lions
"There was almost a happy ending to this story," says Stephan Bognar of WildAid, a San Francisco-based wildlife conservation organization. Bognar was among the first wildlife specialists to arrive in Baghdad after the city fell. His original mission was to help out at the Baghdad Zoo.
"Wildlife groups saw the conditions of the Baghdad Zoo and immediately began searching for a way to relocate the lions to a better homesomewhere where they could live out their lives as almost free animals." Despite opposition by international conservation groups, the lions, which are still in their palace ground compound, may end up in the Baghdad Zoo, with its own collection of ten lions.
It will be expensive, though, as mature lions eat more than ten pounds of meat a day. "There is no way the Baghdad Zoo will be able to afford their lions along with other meat-eating predators such as the cheetahs and bears," says Louise Joubert, founder and trustee of SanWild, who has fought hard for the relocation. "They need to give some of the lions away, at least the cubs. SanWild is the perfect place where the lions can live free in a reserve protected by a registered trust."
Releasing the lions may not be that simple, says David Jones, director of the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, who is coordinating work at the Baghdad Zoo on behalf of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
"There is fairly strong evidence that Uday Hussein's lions were fed human bodies, and possibly even live people. Is it wise to release these lions when they may be behaviorally disturbed?" Jones asks.
At first, Baghdad Zoo authorities approved the relocation. Then Adel Salman Mousa, appointed director of the Baghdad Zoo, decided against ithe wants the lions to remain in Baghdad.
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