A major zoo in Ethiopia is poisoning rare lion cubs and selling the corpses to be stuffed because it can't afford to care for the animals, which are the national symbol, the zoo's administrator said Wednesday.

"These animals are the pride of our country," Muhedin Abdulaziz of the Lion Zoo told The Associated Press. "But our only alternative right now is to send them to the taxidermist."

Ethiopia's lions, famous for their black manes, adorn statues and the local currency. The country's emperors were long fascinated by lions, part of their connection with Solomon, the lion of Judah.

Wildlife experts estimate that only 1,000 Ethiopian lions, which are smaller than other lions, remain in the wild.

The Lion Zoo has poisoned six cubs so far this year, Abdulaziz said. He added that the poisoning has been going on at least since he arrived two years ago; the total number of cubs killed was not clear.

Federal wildlife officials monitor the poisoning, which is painless, according to Abdulaziz. The federal officials did not immediately return calls for comment.

The Lion Zoo is a popular attraction in Ethiopia, although international wildlife organizations have expressed concern about its ramshackle facilities. Built in 1948 by Emperor Haile Selassie, it houses 16 adult lions and five cubs in cages surrounded by barbed wire.

The dead cubs are sold to taxidermists for $170, each to be stuffed and resold, Abdulaziz said. Hunters also kill the wild animals for their skins, which can fetch $1,000.

"I feel so sorry about this," said Girma Chifra, 25, who was visiting the zoo Wednesday. "They're a symbol of our country. I didn't know they were killing the cubs, this is not good."

The zoo costs around $6,000 to run each month, but it only receives $5,000 in revenues from entrance fees, Abdulaziz said.

Mesganu Arga, head of the Information and Culture Bureau in Addis Ababa, said the city was looking into the matter.

"These are rare animals and a treasure to the country," Mesganu said. "We are promoting these lions."

Animal conservation groups expressed outrage at the killings.

James Isiche, regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Nairobi, Kenya, said the zoo should prevent the animals from breeding if it can't care for them.

"Enforcement to protect these animals is critical," he said.

The Born Free Foundation called for an investigation into the animals' treatment.

"We would encourage the authorities to take action to establish, at the very least, a sanctuary for lions and to enforce whatever laws are necessary to prevent those lions from being unnecessarily killed, sold or given into trade, alive or dead," said Will Travers, chief executive officer of the British-based foundation.