ASHEBORO — A new lion residing at the North Carolina Zoo is available to be seen by the public as of last week.
All 400 pounds of him.
The 3-year-old male lion, Haji, came from Audobon Zoo in New Orleans. He’ll be a companion for Mekita, 13.
Haji and Mekita are on a rotating schedule where guests can see them in their habitat. Guests should be able to spot Haji by his growing mane, which is mohawk style. His mane will continue to grow and darken as he ages.
“We’re excited our guests now get to see Haji more often,” said Jennifer Ireland, the Zoo’s curator of mammals. “We’re giving Haji more time to explore his new habitat to help establish his territory. It takes a lot of time and patience to work with big cats. Right now, they can see and smell each other.”
The Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Lions Species Survival Plan recommended the pairing of Haji and Mekita. Haji was brought to the Zoo mainly as a companion for Mekita because lions are big cats that live in social groups called “prides,” according to NC Zoo.
Mekita’s last mate — 23-year-old Reilly — died last August, leaving her as the Zoo’s only lion. Reilly lived at the Zoo for 21 years, spending most of his time as Mekita’s mate.
Although Haji arrived in December, guests could only catch a glimpse of him in the past several weeks. During that time, Haji and Mekita have been going through introductions — comparable to a chaperoned courtship — in their indoor quarters. Introducing lions to new companions and habitats can be a lengthy process.
Ireland said Haji and Mekita would eventually be able to roam the habitat together as they become more comfortable with each other.
“We are seeing some positive signs in their introductions, such as vocalizations to each other,” she said.
Lion prides in the wild comprise a dominant male, several females, and their offspring. They may sleep up to 20 hours per day. Lions are native to the savannahs and grasslands of Africa and can reach speeds up to 50 mph for very short bursts.
A lion’s average lifespan in the wild is about 10-15 years. Male lions under human care have a median life expectancy of 17 years. Males can weigh up to 570 pounds, while females weigh up to 277 pounds.