Lions returning to the Audubon Zoo thanks to $5 million donation

NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) – The lion’s roar will soon return to Audubon Zoo thanks to the largest ever single donation.

Joy and Donald “Boysie’’ Bollinger donated $5 million to the Audubon Nature Institute to fund design and construction of a sprawling habitat for African lions.

Audubon officials say the project will spur a larger redesign of the Zoo’s popular African Savanna exhibit that opened in the 1980s.

Plans call for a pride of African lions to inhabit the new, 1.5-acre exhibit on a site that now houses the Zoo’s eland collection across from the rhino and zebra habitat. Design work is under way; construction could begin as early as next spring with an opening set for 2018.

Zoo officials expect the exhibit to have one male lion and two or three females.

Lion populations have declined sharply since the early 1990s in many parts of Africa, and studies show that the numbers are likely to dwindle further in the next two decades unless major conservation efforts to save them are successful.

Lions, a part of Audubon Zoo’s animal collection since the 1940s when it was known as the Merz Memorial Zoo, have not been part of the animal collection for three years.

Bubba, a male, died of cancer in May 2013 and female Cassie – now 19 years old – “retired’’ to the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center on the West Bank later that year.

The Bollingers, who have visited Africa many times, said they want their gift to offer a way for young people to share their experiences.

“Many children who come to the zoo will never get to see these magnificent animals in the wild,” said Joy Bollinger. “So this is bringing Africa to them.”