New Orleans’ New Pride

Audubon Zoo’s highly-anticipated lion habitat opens this month.
illustration by Tony Healey


Audubon Zoo is poised to open its new lion habitat on Saturday, May 18, returning lions to the Zoo after a six-year hiatus. The habitat is a creative addition to its African Savanna exhibit and follows Audubon’s practice of organizing the animal habitats geographically.

The driving force behind the lion habitat is conservation. According to data provided by Audubon Zoo, the current wild lion population is only about 20,000, yet it was once more than 450,000 in the 1940s.

“Under the recommendation and guidance of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) Audubon hopes to breed lions,” said Annie Kinler Matherne, communications strategist at Audubon Nature Institute, who added that lions are classified from threatened to critically endangered.”

Audubon chose four lions — one male and three females — to form the pride. Scientists considered the lions’ genetics and behaviors to create the best potential matches to, ahem, “help bolster the lion population in human care.”

Arnold, who I suppose in New Orleans we can call “The Rex of the Savanna,” came from Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon. The three females, henceforth known by me as “Queens of Iris, Muses and Nyx,” are Nia, Kali and Zuri, who each came to Audubon from the Peoria Zoo in Peoria, Illinois. The lions have been getting to know each other since March in their behind-the-scenes enclosure so they will be acclimated and bonded as a social group before their public debut.

“Lion introductions take quite a bit of time,” said vice president and Audubon Zoo general curator Joel Hamilton. “We are making sure the lions form a cohesive pride under the care of our expert animal team.”

As part of the African Savanna, the lion habitat has been modeled after a 1920s-era train station. Visitors get a sense of place from empty train cars and abandoned crates and enter the station to gain access to a panoramic view of the rolling savanna created for the lions. Zoo staff will occupy the train cars, which are equipped as conservation and research stations, and provide new programming for visitors with interactive animal care and education demonstrations.

The train station has a poignant meaning behind it. According to Audubon, the station is “a symbol of the transportation system that once spanned lion country and, tragically, opened the door to habitat loss, poaching and the devastation of Africa’s vast natural resources.”

The anticipated popularity of the lions has Zoo officials expecting an increase in guest attendance. They have no specific projections, but did share that 2018 brought 764,621 visitors to the zoo. Of that amount, roughly 60 percent were from Louisiana and 40 percent were from out of state.

To promote the new lion habitat, Audubon Zoo is working with local companies Trumpet Advertising and Search Influence on a robust marketing campaign. The teams are planning specific media buys in traditional and digital media for an integrated campaign. Additionally, Audubon is reaching out to engage the community of Zoo supporters directly.  

Opening day coincides with Audubon’s, “Endangered Species Day” programming — part of the zoo’s “Party for the Planet” event series— from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The zoo will be collecting old cell phones to recycle for its “Gorillas on the Line” conservation effort, which helps protect the animals by reducing consumer demand for coltan, a mineral found in small electronics that is mined in gorilla habitats in Africa.

The lion habitat will be in full view of the public during Audubon Zoo’s normal hours of operation, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For additional information, visit

Jennifer also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on