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Community News

Five lion cubs born to captive bred mothers, now living independently in a semi wild reserve

Featured Give giving a go lion conservation Give giving a go lion conservation

Give Giving a Go can exclusively report that two captive bred lion prides, living in a semi wild environment in Zimbabwe, have successfully produced five second generation cubs, which are now being raised independently by the pride without any human contact.

‘It is an exciting time; the first born cub is now two years old, so is classed as an independent member of the pride and she is thriving and acting like any wild-born lion’, said Helen Rennie, the Development Coordinator.

The success is part of the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) lion breeding project which aims to successfully release captive bred lions into the African Safari. The project has four stages of implementation and is currently nestled nicely at stage two. ‘When they are old enough, these cubs - and others like them born into the program - will be reintroduced into appropriate national parks and reserves’, continued Helen Rennie.

 

give giving a go lion breeding success 3The project has been running since 1999 and was developed by Andrew Conolly at Antelope Park in Gweru, Zimbabwe to ‘seek an answer as to how to successfully use captive bred lions to create a source for the reintroduction of lions into the wild’, reported an ALERT representative.

This is a very complex and thought out project, which has had clearance from Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA).

However, there are many problems and potential dangers with reintroducing lions back into the wild. ‘The most notably dangers include the likely conflicts with humans and their livestock following release. This may be especially true of captive bred lions that might not have learned human avoidance characteristics of some wild lions’, continued ALERT.

These dangers have been assessed and several valid reasons have been put forward to explain why past predator releases have had limited success. ALERT explained, in a recent report, that limited success is due to: ‘animals not being given pre-release training; their dependence on humans was not curtailed; they were released as individuals with no natural social system; and that they had no experience of predatory or competitive species (Sharma 2005)’.

So, yes, there are dangers and complications, but the hard facts are that ‘lion populations in Africa have decreased by almost two-thirds over the last 50 years, predicting that as few as 32,000 lions may be left on the continent’, highlighted Researchers from Duke University, who released the study on ‘Voice of America’.

And this is where this amazing project comes into its own. The project has achieved many successes along the way and is why they have progressed so rapidly in such a short period of time. The first success came in the form of their stage one ‘breeding program’ which was developed at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe and then expanded to Victoria Falls in June 2005 and to Livingstone, Zambia in December 2008.

Stage one was assessed by the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSPCA) in 2005 and found ‘highly ethical and extremely well managed’’, reported Dr. R.D. Taylor, Conservation Programme Director for the WWF Southern African Regional Programme Office (SARPO). It is structured in a way that allows the female to care for her cubs for the first three weeks of their life. ‘This period allows the cubs the best start in life as they are able to take advantage of colostral secretions in the first few hours or days postpartum; gaining anti-bodies from the mother’, said an ALERT statement. The cubs are then removed so that they can ‘bond to a human handler assigned to raise them such that they build enough confidence in their surrogate mother to follow them into the African Bush; a vital part of their pre-release training’, continued ALERT. On the surface this may seem like a cruel act, but ALERT state that ‘removing cubs from their mother is standard practice for carnivores in most zoos and captive breeding centres’. At present ALERT have reared a total of 97 Cubs in 9 years.

To encourage cubs to become confident in their environment and to develop behavioural attributes, they are taken out on their first walks around the age of six-weeks old. ‘As the cubs get older and gain in confidence they are taken on longer walks’, highlighted the report from ALERT. The project has noted that 12-15 month old cubs are successfully making their first kills, often birds, monitor lizards or small and young antelope, and at the age of 18 months have managed to kill warthog, baboon, wildebeest and even buffalo and giraffe.

As you can imagine the project is a very expensive one. There are ongoing costs such as employing staff and also working with local communities to meet the challenges of living alongside dangerous predators. In addition, a large section of the outgoings is in the form of research projects aimed at improving the understanding of the lion’s behaviour in Africa’s ecosystems. For example, it can cost £250 to buy just one remote sensor camera and £3,500 for one satellite tracking collar. ‘Both help us to monitor lion populations so that we can learn more about how to better conserve them’, detailed ALERT. 

These costs have developed the need to generate some funds through lion walks (the Walk with Lions activity), to support this self sustaining project. These were again assessed by Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority and were ‘generally supportive of Walk with Lions’, concluded an ALERT statement. Here tourists are permitted to join the lion walks when the cubs are between six and eighteen months old. ‘In allowing this participation the program raises awareness and generates funding to operate stage one of the program, as well as helping to raise finance for the later release stages’, said an ALERT representative. 

At present the project has successfully raised funds and financed and implemented its stage two program, which has a principal objective to ‘release captive born lions back into a natural situation where they could entirely fend for themselves’ and to make the ‘first steps step to becoming a socially stable and self-sustaining pride’. 

The first ever stage two release took place on 29th August 2007 on the Dollar Block reserve in central Zimbabwe, fully funded by Antelope Park. A pride of two males (Luke & Maxwell) and five females (Ashanti, Kenge, Mampara, Muti and Phyre) were successfully released into the 385 acre site. However, common to any unique and pioneering programme, the first stage two was hindered by an unforeseen event; the death of two females, Muti and Mampara. ‘This was a very sad moment for all the staff on the project’, emphasised an ALERT statement. The program was also unfortunately halted prematurely because of deteriorating economic situation in Zimababwe, 

However, now there are two stage two release areas which are currently operational. On August 26th, 2011 Mr Peter Mumba, then Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Tourism, along with the Environment & Natural Resources for the Republic of Zambia released a pride of six females aged +3 years old into the 707 acre Dambwa Forest Release Site. This site has been fully funded by Lion Encounter Zambia at a cost of c. US$550,000 including the translocation of game species to the site. ‘Since release the pride has been hunting successfully on a range of species including wildebeest, puku and impala. On December 12th, 2011, a male (Zulu) was introduced to the pride and has settled in well with the females’, said an ALERT representative.

The second site is The Ngamo Release Site. On September 1st 2010 Francis Nhema, Zimbabwe’s Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, opened a 403 acre stage two area at the Ngamo release site next to Antelope Park in central Zimbabwe. The land has been leased from local government authorities. Whilst ALERT has developed and maintains the site, the fence of the site itself has been provided by Antelope Park at a cost of c. US$250,000. ‘To date these lions have already exceeded our high expectations. They have managed to create a dynamic, highly efficient, self-sustaining pride closely mirroring the behaviours one would expect in wild prides’, reported ALERT. 

Despite the project achieving important progress, there are however, still many who actually believe that Africa has no future destinations for such lions, and therefore this and other similar projects are worthless. ‘This is far from the truth. Reintroductions may be suitable in protected areas where lions have been extirpated or where extant populations have become genetically non-viable and natural re-colonization is unlikely such as is found within the Ngorongoro Crater, which are closed to gene flow and would benefit from an infusion of genetic material. Other examples could include countries recovering from civil war and economic instability such as Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda and Uganda‘, said the ALERT report. 

There are bound to be set backs and problems along the way, as discovered at the Dollar Black Site, but ‘reintroduction of intelligent animals with complex sociality is always difficult. We do the best we can with the information we have available. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the USA in 1995 was a similarly complex issue and not without problems and setbacks, although the introduced wolves were wild-caught in Canada’, explained an ALERT statement.

With this in mind it is believed that this viable and valuable project is not only worthwhile, but a necessity as a spring board to save the lion populations of Africa. In fact ‘only 40 years ago, Africa was home to 200,000 lions. If this rate of decline is allowed to continue we will be facing an Africa without any wild lions in the next 40 years. If we do not take action now we could soon lose the King of Beasts’, a statement from ALERT confirmed.

So the project continues with its next objective, that of stage 3, for lions to live out a near-wild life and managed eco-system, free of human contact and with a greater variety of game species and other predators such as Hyena; and stage 4 the release program in to the wild safari taking consideration of aspects such as prey base levels and proximity to local communities. 

give giving a go lion breeding success 2ALERT has currently secured land for their first stage three release area and believe ‘the Ngamo pride is now ready for release into such an area’. They are also currently continuing to liaise with governments across Africa to identify suitable areas in which to re-establish lion populations in stage 4. However lack of funding has delayed development of the secured land in stage 3. Helen Rennie, Development Co-ordinator said, ‘I’m sure you appreciate, the costs involved are substantial’.

This project has shown important progress and is hopefully developing an important model for lion breeding and reintroduction, as well as a model for many other species breeding programs to use. This idea of survival and sustainability is nicely summarised by ALERT, who state ‘we must not make the same mistakes that have been made with other species, such as the tiger. We can, and must, act now while there is still time. If not, this iconic creature could be lost forever; a devastating prospect both for the continent of Africa and our planet’.

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Last modified onWednesday, 03 September 2014 08:51
Trevor Snelling

Trevor Snelling can also be found at Visit us on Google+ or contact him on tsnelling@givegivingago.com.au

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