ALERT recognizes that programmes directed towards protecting habitat for the remaining wild lions must continue to be the mainstay of conservation efforts, and that new multi-disciplinary and collaborative approaches are necessary to achieve this. Given the speed of decline in lion populations (43% between 1993 and 2014) and the IUCN’s Red List classification assessment that “… the reduction or its causes may not have ceased OR may not be understood OR may not be reversible”, we also recognize that ex situ management can complement those efforts.
IUCN technical guidelines include that ex situ management “may be critical in preventing species extinction when wild population decline is steep and the chance of sufficiently rapid reduction of primary threats is slim or uncertain or has been inadequately successful to date”. ALERT asserts that for the African lion these criteria do apply. Further, the IUCN states that “If the decision to bring a taxon under ex situ management is left until extinction is imminent, it is frequently too late to effectively implement, thus risking permanent loss of the taxon”.
There are, however, many complications and potential dangers inherent in reintroducing lions back into the wild, 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 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:
• 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 seeks to find a solution to these problems by using a staged programme.
Rehabilitation Phase: Cubs born to captive-bred parents are hand raised and taken on human-led walks into their natural environment. These walks enable the cubs to develop their natural instincts.
Release Phase: Lions are released, as prides, into fenced, managed reserves where they have the opportunity to function as a wild pride. Within these release areas the pride gives birth to cubs that are raised naturally, without human interference.
Reintroduction Phase: When old enough, the cubs born in the release phase are translocated for reintroduction into appropriate national parks and reserves that are seeking to restore lost, or augment declining, lion populations.
An academic journal article published by ALERT in collaboration with Dr. Jackie Abell, then of Lancaster University, discusses whether existing conservation efforts alone are capable of saving the African lion from extinction. The authors express concern in the lack of scientific evidence that current conservation solutions for lions are, or can work, in the long term. A second journal article by the same authors discusses the best modalities for ex situ reintroduction based on past experiences. You can read these two papers below:
The long-term viability of current lion conservation strategies: A role for ex situ reintroduction
A framework for the ex situ reintroduction of the African Lion