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African lion populations declining steadily - Will reintroduction be the only way to save some populations?

24/08/2008 22:15:50

Copyright ALERT

When you think of a lion, does the word vulnerable spring to mind?

Vulnerable is exactly how the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the African lion with a 30 - 50% estimated drop in populations in just the last 20 years. The species is classified as Endangered in West Africa where fewer than 1000 individuals are estimated to survive. Furthermore the IUCN states that "The causes of this reduction are not well understood, are unlikely to have ceased, and may not be reversible."
"There is probably no other species whose distribution range has shrunk over historical times to the extent shown by the lion" (Smithers, 1983).

Lion distributionIn 1975 IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group Chairman Norman Myers wrote "Since 1950, their numbers may well have been cut in half, perhaps to as low as 20,000 in all or even less". Two surveys conducted in 2002 provide the first estimate of current lion populations with some statistical accuracy: The African Lion Working Group (ALWG) estimated 23,000, with a range of 16,500-30,000, African lions remain, while Philippe Chardonnet approximated 39,000 lions, with a range of 29,000-47,000. Further, it was estimated that 43% of lions reside in just four populations in three countries, and 45% of locations with lion prides are comprised of less than 70 animals.

The challenges lions face are complex with over 100 problems cited at the World Conservation Union Lion Strategy Workshop in 2006, which fall into three categories: the encroachment of humans into the lions' habitat; illegal hunting, snaring and poaching; and disease outbreaks, which have all taken their toll.

Traditional habitat protection conservation methods have had little impact on declining lion populations and may actually be working against their long term survival; "The lion is perceived by local communities as having negative economic value, either through loss of life and livestock or through loss of income-generating opportunities restricted by protection of the habitat and wild prey lions need to survive. (Conservation Strategy for the Lion Panthera leo in Eastern and Southern Africa 2006).

New conservation methods
New conservation ideas are needed if the lion is to survive; local communities need to be engaged in protecting the species as well as the environment within which it can thrive. Also, a workable method of lion reintroduction into areas where wild populations are most diminished needs to be found. In the past it was possible for wild populations to expand into areas where populations had been lost (one third of the Serengeti's population was wiped out in just three years between 1994 and 1997 due to an outbreak of canine distemper); but as Laurence Frank, director of Living with Lions points out, such natural repopulation may no longer be possible "If we allow lion populations to drop too low, the difference this time is that there is no source of replenishment from surrounding areas".

Copyright ALERT

Copyright ALERT

Reintroducing captive lions to the wild
So where are these new lions going to come from? The African Lion & Environmental Research Trust (ALERT), founded by Andrew Conolly in Zimbabwe in 2005, believes that the reintroduction of wild borne cubs from rehabilitated captive bred lions is a viable option.

There are many complications and potential dangers inherent in reintroducing lions back into the wild however; most notably the likely conflicts with humans and their livestock following release; this may be especially true of captive bred lions that might not have learned the human avoidance characteristics of some wild lions. There are several reasons that have been put forward to explain why past predator releases have had limited success (Sharma 2005): the animals were not 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.

The African Lion Rehabilitation & Release into the Wild Program operated by ALERT is a four stage program designed to eliminate these past problems.

Stage one
In stage one the young cubs are taken on walks to build their confidence in the African Bush, allowing them to practice their natural hunting instincts. The game they encounter ranges from small antelope to wildebeest and buffalo. The latter part of the first stage focuses on cubs aged 18 months to two-and-a half years; they go out on Night Encounters, accompanied by guides and handlers on vehicles who use red filtered lights to monitor their activities. Since Night Encounters began in July 2005 over 160 have taken place with the lions achieving a 43% hunting success rate.

Lion hunting - STage 2. Copyright ALERT

Lion hunting - STage 2. Copyright ALERT

Stage two
In stage two the lions have the chance to develop a natural pride social system in a minimum 500 acre enclosure. There is plenty of game for them to hunt and all human contact is removed. To advance past this stage the lions must meet two criteria: that of being socially stable and self-sustaining. Once fulfilled, they move to stage three.

Stage three
A minimum 10,000 acre managed ecosystem; again there is plenty of prey, plus competitive species such as hyena.

Stage four - Release into the wild
It is the cubs born in stage three, raised by the pride, within a natural environment and with their natural avoidance behaviour of humans intact that can be released to repopulate Africa's national parks and conservancies.

To date, the program has reached stage two, with the first release at the Dollar Block reserve in Zimbabwe. The released lions have successfully hunted a range of species from impala to adult giraffe, a remarkable achievement for the captive lions that they were.

In time, these methods could provide an answer to dwindling lion populations. But creating a lasting environment for them to thrive in is multi-faceted.

Dr Pieter Kat - Consultant Ecologist

"I am appreciative and excited to be involved by the initiatives taken by Andrew Conolly and ALERT. Through years of self-funded and determined effort, they have developed a program of re-introduction that has a very good chance of success. Predators are notoriously difficult to reintroduce, but now we have a workable plan. The future of African lions is in African hands. Let us salute those who have been steadfast to ensure this future, and recognize that any action is better than the currently looming extinction of an African icon if we do nothing." Dr Pieter Kat, Consultant Ecologist

One of ALERT's core beliefs is in habitat protection. Given we are failing the lion on this front a range of solutions must be found, and ALERT is involved in this through its Conservation Centre for Wild Africa (CCWA) branch that seeks to engage in conservation & research for a variety of Africa's wildlife species in order to offer balanced eco-systems to future generations. In addition to CCWA, ALERT comprises the ALERT Communities Trust (ACT). ACT advocates the notion that only with community involvement can the lion, and other species, survive. If the livelihood of communities bordering conservation areas is linked to the state of that environment they will have reason to protect it.

For further information about the lion program and its associated conservation and community development programs please visit or send an email to For information on joining the program as a voluntourist please visit

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