“These boys spend a lot of time together,” she said. “They still stalk one another, wrestle one another. They really like to groom and lie with each other.”
Lwazi and Ato are the star exhibits of the zoo’s new African Savannah precinct, which will be unveiled on June 28 – four weeks after the zoo reopened following an easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
Taronga Zoo’s chief executive Cameron Kerr said the coronavirus shutdown was the latest challenge faced by the zoo following sustained drought at Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, bushfires leading to significant smoke and haze and the negative impact on tourism.
“Unlike some industries, zoos do not easily hibernate and throughout the closure period we maintained the highest possible standard of care and welfare,” he said.
Online ticket sales had nearly sold out for the first day of the new precinct, and Mr Kerr said: “We are hopeful we will see a high number of people through our gates these school holidays, especially with the arrival of our big cats.”
The $32 million precinct also houses giraffes, zebras, meerkats and fennec foxes and is designed to teach visitors about the conservation challenges faced by these animals.
Two viewing areas provide an opportunity to see the lions throughout the exhibit. The topography of the enclosure also provides Lwazi and Ato with a bird’s eye view of their neighbours, which may be nerve-wracking for zebras and giraffes that would be prey in the wild.
Mr Kerr said the new lion habitat replicated the escarpments and rocky outcrops of the ‘kopje’ or high country.
“Importantly, this habitat is also going to enable us to supplement crucial breeding programs to support insurance populations for this species,” he said.
Mr Kerr said conflict between humans and animals was the leading cause of decline of African wildlife “and sadly lions are now extinct in 27 African countries”.
The new precinct focuses on conservation efforts in Kenya where Mr Kerr said there had been “significant declines” in wildlife in the past 30 years because of land degradation, habitat loss, competition for resources and poaching.
On a sunny winter’s morning, Lwazi and Ato seem content with lying in the sun, occasionally popping their heads up to admire the harbour views that are undoubtedly the envy of their Mosman neighbours.
Ms Everett said the lions’ diet consists of beef, chicken, kangaroo, deer as well as “bones and skin and feathers and everything”.
“It’s good for them to devour all of that,” she said.
Ms Everett said it was exciting to bring back lions to Taronga Zoo in Sydney after an absence of five years.
“We have really evolved in the way we create our habitats at the zoo,” she said. “It’s very much learning about the animals, the people who live where the animals live and also learning about the habitat and how we can all contribute to conserving all of those aspects.”
Andrew Taylor is a Senior Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.