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Male lions translocated to Liuwa Plain National Park

27/05/2009 10:16:40

Two male lions being transported by boat from Kafue to Liuwa. Credit African Parks

Lady of Liuwa

This lonesome 8 year old lioness is the only member of er pride left alive after the rest were killed by poachers or died due to lack of food. With the restocking of the wildlife underway at Liuwa, it is again capable oof sustaining a lion population.

First translocation ended in the death of the lion
May 2009. In 2008 there was an unsuccessful attempt at the translocation of an adult male lion to Liuwa Plain National Park. The aim was to introduce the male to the, now famous, lonely lioness; Lady Liuwa in the hope of her breeding and saving the unique genetic line of Liuwa lions .The operation which included three days searching in Kafue National Park and a road transfer of the animal for over 450km (in 10 hours) ended in tragedy when the animal died after suffocating on a partially regurgitated piece of meat during recovery from anaesthesia. This event caused a great deal of anguish amongst all of the Liuwa staff that worked so hard on such an important project. This set the scene for the second attempt in May 2009.

Lions captured in Kafue
May was chosen as a good time for the translocation due to the presence of good numbers of animals on the plains, plenty of water and flooded plains surrounding the Park that should curtail any "wanderlust" that the new arrivals might have had. All preparations were made well in advance and the pressure began to mount as "D Day" approached. The possibility of failure had to be excluded!

The release enclosure in the Park was secured, an aircraft booked and all personnel arranged. As is normal in a rural environment there were the last minute hitches which included waterlogged airstrips and unclear veterinary requirements. These were quickly dealt with, alternative plans made and the team set off for Kafue on a mission to secure the two males to join Lady Liuwa. After only two days we managed to lure a group of four young males to a clear capture site near the Kafue River.

The release enclosure in liuwa Plains. One of the lions is sheltering in the bush. Credit African Parks.

The release enclosure in liuwa Plains. One of the lions is sheltering in the bush. Credit African Parks.

Lions lured to capture site

The animals arrived at the old quarry just after nightfall after responding to playback calls of a lioness roaring. The veterinary team successfully darted the two selected animals and they were ferried back to the capture truck where they were woken up using the antidote to the anaesthetic at 22h00. The animals were given 3 hours to fully recover before we set off at 01h00 for Mongu. The plan was to arrive in Mongu at daybreak for the speedboat transfer across the Barotse Floodplain to Kalabo.

Release enclosure
The lions were darted in the back of the capture truck as dawn broke and they were efficiently transferred to the speedboat at the Mongu harbour. As anticipated there were many curious onlookers, lions in Mongu are a rare sight indeed! The trip across the floodplain took a record one hour fifteen minutes to Kalabo. There, the lions were loaded onto a Land Cruiser and transferred to the release enclosure near Matiamanene in the Park. This area was selected due to its location in the centre of Lady Liuwa's home range. The entire capture and transportation phase of the operation was a resounding success with seamless transfers between the various modes of transportation. The question of everyone's minds was now "what will the reaction of Lady Liuwa be"?

Female lioness on the scene
Dawn broke to the good news that Lady Liuwa had arrived at the enclosure and was interacting with the males! The following days were filled excitement and plenty of anxiety. The males were not thrilled at being enclosed in a boma which was not surprising given that they had never seen a fence, never mind have their movements restricted! In their attempts to escape the confines of the boma they broke some of the electric wires on the inside of the fence, a repair job was required.

Fence repair
The female lioness, the 'Lady of Liuwa'. was soon prowling around the enclosure. Credit African Parks.

The female lioness, the 'Lady of Liuwa'. was soon prowling around the enclosure. Credit African Parks.

A tall order indeed with two angry wild lions just meters away! We moved slowly and deliberately with the vehicle as cover and tried to get the damaged wires replaced. The lions reacted with a great deal of aggression; this is when one of the most remarkable things happened. As the males charged and growled the lioness ran up to the fence roaring at full volume as if to say "keep calm, these guys are trying to help!" It is always difficult to interpret such behaviours but it was uncanny how the situation calmed after she "intervened". Remarkably, this happened on a few occasions over the following days!

Such operations require a calm head and good logic and it was decided not to repair the electric component of the fence due to the great deal of stress that was being caused to the animals. We had partially achieved our objective - the lioness and the males had met and were interacting. An electrical barrier between them could have undone the progress so far.

Lions break free from enclosure - Tracked by radio
On day six the males managed to free themselves from the boma and spent the first day in the company of the lioness. Thereafter they started on a journey of discovery, patrolling their new home of 3600km2. For the first few days they moved from woodland to woodland, avoiding the grasslands that are so unfamiliar to them. The radio collar on one of the males allowed us to keep track of them as they moved. With a range of only a few kilometres this was difficult from the ground and our aircraft was called into service with good effect.

As we speak, the lions remain in the Park, patrolling their new territory closely followed 24/7 by our tracking team. When do we claim success? We certainly achieved our initial objectives of getting the animals to Liuwa and introduced to Lady Liuwa. It is now largely up to the lions to play their role - as the saying goes "you can take a horse to water....". Management will monitor the animals closely and sound decisions will be made on the basis of good information collected.

We are yet another step forward in our process of rehabilitating this unique African Park. We are all hoping that the lions respond to our matchmaking and breed, returning the lions of Liuwa back from the brink of extinction.

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