Zoo's new lions a 'sign' Ivory Coast is moving out of crisis

ABIDJAN - 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 revitalised. After a decade of political and military crisis, it has expanded by nine per cent 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 (S$109,000), 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.

"It will become a zoo when we meet international standards, when the animals kept in cages can be released into semi-natural spaces that are closed but that don't make a chimpanzee feel like he is a prisoner," he added.

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."