Today is World Lion Day, a global movement to raise much-needed awareness for the conservation and preservation of these majestic cats. Can you imagine a world without the king of the beasts? Part of Africa’s famous Big Five (and India’s too), the mighty lion is an iconic species that, like so many others, is now in grave decline. Classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, lion populations the world over are under threat and the time to act is now.
As a leading conservation company, &Beyond remains firmly committed to doing whatever we can to help save the lion, not only by conserving our own populations, but also by helping to diversify the surrounding gene pools with regular translocations. Through our successful lion conservation programme, many of our &Beyond lions have migrated, not only to neighbouring reserves, but also to neighbouring countries, all in an effort to ensure the king of the beasts maintains its stronghold in the African savanna.
Simon Naylor, Conservation Manager for &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, is an appointed trustee on the Lion Management Forum of South Africa. &Beyond Phinda has spearheaded and been involved in several critical lion translocations, all aimed at strengthening and diversifying the genetic makeup of current lion populations, not only in South Africa but across borders too.
Though the statistics may be disheartening, lots is being done to help save the lion and &Beyond remains an integral player in the field of lion conservation. Recent DNA results have proven that &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve is home to the country’s second most genetically diverse lion population in South Africa, second only to the Kruger National Park. &Beyond Phinda also helped to successfully reverse a 15-year local extinction of lions in Rwanda, and more recently, donated three healthy lions to the nearby Somkhanda Community Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
&Beyond Phinda has a long history of successful lion conservation. It was one of the first private game reserves in South Africa and the first in the province of KwaZulu-Natal to introduce lions, thereby extending the species’ historical range. Since the first 13 lions were introduced in 1992 and 1993, an impressive 70 litters of close to 250 lion cubs have been born on the reserve. &Beyond Phinda has also helped establish other lion populations in private game reserves in the Eastern Cape, Zululand, Mpumalanga, North West and the Limpopo Province, as well as neighbouring Mozambique, and now Rwanda too.
Post the initial introduction in 1992, the first male lions to be introduced to &Beyond Phinda were two brothers from Pilanesberg National Park in 2003. Both contributed to the injection of new blood. Since then, male lions have been introduced from Tswalu (two in 2009), Madikwe (two in 2010), Tembe Elephant Park (two in 2014 and two in 2017) and Shamwari (one in 2014). The result of simulating new pride male takeovers and injecting new blood into the small population of lions has resulted in a very genetically diverse and healthy population. The fact that the &Beyond Phinda lions are the second most genetically diverse populations in South Africa is a testament to the wise introduction of many unrelated lions in the beginning and regular introduction of new males over the years.
&Beyond Phinda is also proud to have been home to one of the oldest lions known outside of a zoo, the beloved Old North Pride Female. Born in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve around December 1990, she was introduced to &Beyond Phinda as an 18-month old with her sisters in May 1992. She became one of the longest-living free-roaming lions on record at the age of 18 years and 3 months. Sadly, she died in February 2009. Discovered by guides at Fossil Dam, she had been gravely injured by three young males and the difficult, yet humane, the decision was made to euthanise her. She left a legacy on the reserve, and indeed around the world among guests and wildlife lovers alike.
Turning back the hands of time
A brilliantly captioned billboard in Rwanda for Turbo King beer sums it up perfectly – a bug-eyed cartoon zebra looks startled, as the caption above boldly states, “The lions are back!” Sorry zebras, but it’s true, and we couldn’t be more proud to have been involved in this groundbreaking conservation project.
We cannot envision, nor do we accept the mere thought of a world without lions, yet this is what Rwanda’s Akagera National Park was faced with: a 15-year local extinction of these powerful predators that form an integral part of the African ecosystem. Nearly two decades ago, the big cats became extinct in Akagera as Rwanda experienced a period of intense upheaval following the 1994 genocide, resulting in the lack of management of its national parks and the subsequent poisoning of lions by cattle herders.
&Beyond, therefore, donated five lionesses from &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve to the country of Rwanda as part of an African Parks translocation project aimed at reversing the unnecessary local extinction.
The five lionesses were carefully selected based on the fact that they are all disease-free, genetically diverse and habituated to vehicles. Together with two males that were donated by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, they now form a suitable founder population for Akagera National Park.
The lionesses were tranquilised, placed into individual transport crates, carefully loaded onto trucks and driven to Johannesburg where they were immediately loaded onto a charter flight and flown directly to Kigali. There, they were transported by road to their new home at Akagera, accompanied and monitored throughout by an experienced veterinary team.
Upon arrival in Akagera, the lions were placed in a quarantine boma, where they could be closely monitored before their eventual and highly-anticipated release back into the wild. The predators settled nicely into this temporary home and were all observed feeding and interacting, as hoped.
At the time of official release, a waterbuck carcass was strategically placed just outside the boma gates to entice the newly formed pride. Within minutes, the first female ventured out to investigate and she was closely followed by another two curious females. Once they determined it was safe, the trio began to feast on the meat. The youngest of the five lionesses was the last female to leave the boma and she warily kept her distance in some nearby bushes. The two males were far more cautious, only exiting the boma after all of the park officials and onlookers had left.
Now, 15 years later, guests visiting Akagera National Park can witness the lion once again roaming free in the wild. All seven lions have been fitted with satellite collars, which will allow their movements to be tracked and their behaviour monitored post-release. We are so proud to have been part of this historic translocation, which involved the private sector, a non-governmental organisation and the government of Rwanda all working together for the good of conservation. Long live the lion!
Banner image courtesy of &Beyond private guide Daryl Dell.
Billboard image courtesy of Peter Hinz.
Translocation images courtesy of African Parks.