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.
Last month, &Beyond donated five lionesses from Phinda Private Game Reserve to the country of Rwanda as part of an African Parks project aimed at reversing the local extinction of the species in Akagera National Park. Lions became extinct in Akagera 15 years ago, 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 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 62 litters of 204 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.
&Beyond 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.
The five lionesses that &Beyond donated 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 will form a suitable founder population for Akagera National Park. Studies have shown that Phinda’s lions are the second most genetically diverse population in South Africa.
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 end of July, 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.
Translocation images courtesy of African Parks.