Has Rare Lion of Africa's Cape Eluded Extinction?

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Spence said that when he saw the photograph, "every hair on my body stood upright, including [on] my neck and my back and everywhere else!"

New and Warmer Home

After contacting the zoo in Siberia, Spence arranged to take Simon's cubs, Rustislav and Olga (named after the Novosibrisk Zoo curator and his wife) back with him to Africa. They are the first Cape lion look-alikes to inhabit the Cape shores in a century and a half.

The journey home was an adventure in itself. Spence and his wife flew back to Cape Town on Siberia Air, with the cubs in a small traveling crate on the seat beside them. Passengers soon surrounded the couple, curious about the animals, who responded with a few snarls.

The two lions now live in their own pen in the Tygerberg Zoo. They spend their days sleeping in the sun on their own specially made platform.

Spence thinks the warmth of Africa is probably a welcome change for the animals, which were accustomed to Siberian winter temperatures that drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius.

The cubs are already much larger than the full-grown lions in other parts of the zoo. They also bear the unmistakable markings of a juvenile Cape lion. "They've got a large number of spots on them, which will obviously fade as they get older, but they were really spotted when we brought them home…and black behind the ears," Spence explained

Spence hopes to eventually use Rustislav and Olga to replenish the Cape lion stock. He also may build them a larger lion reserve, closer to Table Mountain, where their ancestors once roamed.

With a glint in his eye, Spence said it has occurred to him to release the lions onto the mountain. But, he added, "I should think there'd be some complaints from the neighbors if I turned them loose."

The author is a partner in the South Africa-based media company Atomic Productions. National Geographic Today recently featured the company's documentary special on the Cape lion.

For more information about the Cape lions in this story, contact John Avery , the director and trustee of the Tygerberg Zoo, or write to John Spence, director of the Tygerberg Zoo, P.O. Box 524, Kraaifontein, Cape Town 7569, South Africa.

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