Zoo’s new li­ons a ‘sign’ Ivory Coast end­ing cri­sis


The eyes of 30-odd uni­formed school­child­ren light up at the sight of three mag­nif­i­cent li­ons brought to Abid­jan zoo to re­place the big cats that starved to death dur­ing post-elec­tion vi­o­lence in 2010-2011.

For many Ivo­rians, the ar­rival this month of the South African fe­lines — two lionesses and a male — shows that the coun­try re­ally is man­ag­ing to get back on its feet.

“What do li­ons eat?” asks the guide as the chil­dren watch the two to three-year-old an­i­mals with a mix of fas­ci­na­tion and ter­ror.

“Fufu!” shouts out a lit­tle girl aged no more than five, prompt­ing a smile from the guide at her ref­er­ence to the West African sta­ple, a puree made from the cas­sava plant.

She is, af­ter all, too young to re­mem­ber the vi­o­lence that erupted in the Ivory Coast at the turn of decade and the de­pri­va­tions it brought.

But the deadly un­rest is still fresh in the mind of zookeeper Alexis Ou­laye.

“The li­ons died un­der our watch be­cause we didn’t have any food to give them. They only eat meat. We our­selves had no food to eat back then,” he said.

More than 3,000 peo­ple lost their lives and tens of thou­sands more were forced to flee their homes in the trou­ble sparked by for­mer pres­i­dent Lau­rent Gbagbo’s re­fusal to hand over power, claim­ing elec­toral fraud in the 2010 pres­i­den­tial vote.

Since Pres­i­dent Alas­sane Ou­at­tara took over in 2011, the econ­omy of the world’s largest co­coa pro­ducer has been re­vi­tal­ized. Af­ter a decade of po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary cri­sis, it has ex­panded by 9 per­cent be­tween 2012 and 2014, with strong in­vest­ment in the public sec­tor.

The Abid­jan zoo was sit­u­ated at what was a flash­point in fight­ing that gripped the coun­try’s main city at the height of the cri­sis. When its food sup­plies ran out, the few guards and keep­ers stuck at the fa­cil­ity could not ven­ture out for more. Some 40 an­i­mals died, among them six li­ons.

One of the for­tu­nate sur­vivors was CAN, an ele­phant named af­ter the French acro­nym for the African Cup of Na­tions be­cause she was born in 1992, the year the Ivory Coast won its first tro­phy.

A hippo, mon­keys and snakes also made it, thanks to their ded­i­cated keep­ers.

“We would come very early in the morn­ing to pre­pare the herbs and ba­nana ra­tions for the an­i­mals. That’s how we saved the her­bi­vores,” said Ou­laye.

Feed­ing off rot­ten bread, two hye­nas also sur­vived.

“But the li­ons starved to death,” Ou­laye sighed.

Lala, an Ethiopian lioness, held on till the af­ter­math of the cri­sis, in April 2011. But she had al­ready grown too weak to go on living, breath­ing her last as things started to get back to nor­mal.

‘No zoo with­out beasts’

The lion cages stood empty for nearly five years but the three new cats have brought with them a healthy dose of hope.

For zoo direc­tor Samouka Kane, they are “a sym­bol of re­cov­ery, of re­pop­u­lat­ing the zoo.”

Beam­ing, he told AFP: “It’s hugely sig­nif­i­cant. This will be used to turn the zoo’s im­age around. There is no zoo with­out beasts.”

Buy­ing and trans­port­ing the an­i­mals cost some 50 mil­lion CFA francs ( US$80,000), said En­vi­ron­ment, Wa­ter and Forests Min­is­ter Mathieu Babaud, who added he hopes to see them pro­duce some cubs be­fore too long.

Other species are ex­pected to fol­low, in a bid to cre­ate what Babaud called a “mini-sa­fari” in the heart of the Ivo­rian eco­nomic cap­i­tal. Three ze­bras are due in April, fol­lowed by gi­raffes and other fe­lines.

Abid­jan is home to the coun­try’s only zoo, and one of the most im­por­tant in West Africa, though in re­cent years it has looked more like a sad menagerie, direc­tor Kane said.

But even now, vis­i­tors are over­joyed at the sight of the li­ons.

Among the an­i­mal- lovers is young Honorine Out­tara, who came to the zoo spe­cially to see the jun­gle mon­archs in per­son.

“I see li­ons on tele­vi­sion all the time, but I’ve never seen them in real life be­fore,” she smiled.

“I am blessed.”


A lion, do­nated by South Africa, stands in its en­clo­sure at Abid­jan Zoo, Ivory Coast on March 10.

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