When you drive around the FOUR PAWS big cat sanctuary, LIONSROCK, in the Eastern Free State on a cold winter’s day, you will observe the big cats like the lions and tigers finding their own ways of adapting to the colder climate.
June and July are part of the coldest time of the year in this part of South Africa. The average daily temperature is 8.1 degrees Celsius and on the coldest nights, the temperature can drop to around -6.5 degrees Celsius.
The LIONSROCK lions however have it pat down with their winter rule of thumb: Bask in the sun.
Our first stop on this winter’s tour of LIONSROCK, was the enclosure of Simba and Andi, where the handsome Simba was sunning himself in the cool morning sun sticking to this golden rule. He was proudly displaying his thick mane. This is one way of preventing heat loss in male lions. However, Simba cannot bargain on a thicker coat for the winter, as lions do not grow a thicker layer of fur, like other big cats.
His companion, Andi, who likes to lie close to Simba and with whom he has successfully been socialised with, surveys their kingdom with her eyes on the hills neighbouring Lesotho. There, snow can easily cover the tops of the Maluti mountains and temperatures have plummeted. The first snowfalls this year already turned the far-off mountains into a winter wonderland in April.
Lions do not tolerate the cold easily and in the wild, even their feeding activity may be affected because their hunting might be impaired by not being able to hunt because of the cold. Of course, for the big cats at LIONSROCK, food fortunately will be regularly provided by the Sanctuary’s team.
Simba was rescued from Mosul Zoo in Iraq and brought to the Sanctuary in February 2018, after spending a year being rehabilitated in Jordan. He likes to stay in his night shelter with Andi when the temperature drops at twilight, until the Free State sun comes up against the horizon.
Andi was rescued from Romania and spent the first months of her young life inside a room and arrived in July 2012 at LIONSROCK. Her preferred method of warming up is lying on top of her platform in her enclosure in the midday winter sun.
Lions and other big cats do not hibernate and the more than 80 lions at LIONSROCK will wait in their night rooms for the sun to rise and temperatures to warm up before venturing out.
As lions are sociable animals, in the wild they would also huddle together to keep warm. The two LIONSROCK males, Genghes and Kahn, who are part of the biggest lion pride, like to be together and do a big cat huddle against the cold.
At the tiger enclosures, the Siberian tiger Raspoetin, shows all the versatility the iconic species are known for. Siberian tigers are adapted to live in the cold climate and in the wild they generally sleep for up to 20 hours a day during the cold. Raspoetin however takes an eager interest in any movement around his enclosure and moves around despite the cold.
As tigers are found in diverse climatic conditions, their coats and layers underneath adapt to protect them. During wintertime, they have thicker coats and an extra layer of fat on their flanks and bellies to protect them.
The big cats might also adapt their behaviour. Over at their enclosure, the four playful brothers, the Starlight tigers, regularly take a dip in the small tiger pool. The four enjoy cooling off in the water on a hot day but no such fun is to be had at present!
At the two Special Care Units the two coldest months of the year can be especially difficult for the big cats who did not have a good start in life. Some of the big cats suffered from malnutrition before they were taken into the sanctuary and still require extra mineral and calcium supplements. Animals in the unit like Ekira, Tokkelos and Kimba need special treatment and supplements when their health problems are worsened by the cold weather.