A brilliantly captioned billboard in Rwanda for Turbo King beer summed it up perfectly: a bug-eyed cartoon zebra looked startled, as the caption boldly stated, “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 collaboration six years ago.
Back in 2015, &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve joined forces with African Parks and the Rwanda Development Board to successfully reverse the (then) 15-year local extinction of lions in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park. Sadly, the big cats had become locally extinct 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.
The Phinda lineage
&Beyond Phinda donated five healthy lionesses to the country of Rwanda as part of this historic African Parks project. The females were carefully selected based on the fact that they were all disease-free, genetically diverse and habituated to safari vehicles. Together with two males that were donated by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, they formed a suitable founder population for Akagera National Park.
The decision to diversify Phinda’s lion gene pool was not haphazard; studies have shown that Phinda’s lions are the second most genetically diverse population in South Africa and Phinda has a longstanding history of successful lion conservation and translocation.
Phinda 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 that were introduced in 1992 and 1993, an impressive 233 lion cubs have been born on the reserve.
Phinda has also helped establish other thriving lion populations in private game reserves in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo provinces, as well as in neighbouring Mozambique.
Phinda is also proud to have been home to one of the oldest lions known outside of a zoo, a female that was introduced as an 18-month-old in May 1992 and died of fight-related injuries at the age of almost 20 in September 2009.
When countries collaborate
On translocation day, the lions 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. All in all, it was a 26-hour journey and the precious cargo were accompanied and monitored throughout by a highly experienced veterinary team.
Upon arrival in Akagera, the lions were all placed together in a quarantine boma, where they could be closely monitored before their eventual and highly-anticipated release back into the wild. The seven predators settled nicely into this temporary home and were all observed feeding and interacting, as hoped.
When it was time for the big cats to be officially released from their holding boma, 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.
A species restored
The seven lions in this founder population were all fitted with satellite collars to enable their movements to be tracked and their behaviour monitored post-release. According to Akagera park officials, the population more than doubled in the first year with the birth of 11 cubs. To further bolster the pride’s genetic diversity, two additional males were later translocated from South Africa to Akagera in 2017.
Now, two decades following the local extinction, guests visiting Akagera National Park are once again witnessing lions roaming free in the wild, as nature intended. 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 greater good of conservation.
Translocation images courtesy of African Parks; billboard image courtesy of Peter Hinz.
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