A new scientific journal article by the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust in collaboration with Dr. Jackie Abell of Lancaster University discusses contributing factors to failed and successful captive-bred species reintroductions and revisits previous ex situ efforts to release the African lion into the wild. Whilst past attempts to release captive-bred lions into the wild are largely undocumented in the scientific literature, they have valuable lessons to offer future attempts. A framework is proposed for the ex situ reintroduction of the lion based on scientific guidance and previous undertakings.
Estimates of lion populations published at the end of 2012 by a team at the Nicholas School of the Environment suggested that between 32,000 and 35,000 lions remain in Africa and that there is “abundant evidence of widespread decline and local extinctions” even in protected areas. The UK-based charity Lion Aid estimate numbers may be as low 15,000.
Ex situ management for threatened species is common in conservation, yet the use of lions from a captive origin is not currently recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Regarded as a last resort method, the IUCN recommend the strategy is used when either one or both of the following Red List criteria are fulfilled: “When the taxa/population is prone to effects of human activities or stochastic events or When the taxa/population is likely to become Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, or Extinct in a very short time. Additional criteria may need to be considered in some cases where taxa or populations of cultural importance, and significant economic or scientific importance, are threatened”. With specific reference to lions the IUCN notes “The lion is a flagship species for Africa in terms of research, tourism and trophy-hunting….the lion is a powerful and omnipresent symbol, and its disappearance would represent a great loss for the traditional culture of Africa (it is used in coats of arms, heroic names of former kings, frescos, names of football teams, tales, proverbs, sayings, etc.) -- even if to live with the lion poses serious challenges for many African communities, especially those bordering conservation areas which protect lion populations”
Concerns are raised that captive-bred lions have modified temperament traits and behaviours as a consequence of captivity and human imprinting, an inability to respond adequately to competitive species and predation and that the focus is on genetic variation at the expense of social traits and behaviours by offering impoverished environmental enrichment. As such, captive-bred lions are considered a potential risk to the safety of communities and their livestock in areas where these lions may be released.
Dr. Abell, lead author of the new report notes that previous efforts in ex situ reintroduction for the lion have not typically been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Consequently it is easy to dismiss the evidence as anecdotal. However, she argues that these efforts provide useful insights for the provision of an ex situ reintroduction programme as a conservational tool for the African lion. The report proposes that an ex situ reintroduction programme, that meets IUCN and AZA recommendations and heeds lessons from previous captive-source reintroduction attempts, can achieve the objective of producing self-sustaining wild lion populations in areas where it has been extirpated or where numbers are dwindling. Moreover, the report proposes that this should now be seriously considered for the African lion.
David Youldon, co-author and Chief Operating Officer of the Zambian based African Lion & Environmental Research Trust says “in situ conservation efforts for lions are central to the species’ survival, and our charity is using a responsible development approach that encourages African solutions to these African challenges. However such efforts will take time and funding to achieve on a scale relevant to the species’ survival and so ALERT is also investigating how previous problems of using captive origin lions for reintroduction can be addressed. As part of this effort, ALERT, and our conservation partners, released a pride of captive-bred lions into a fenced natural environment in 2010 that are self-sustaining and now have cubs that will be old enough to be considered for release into the wild in 2014. A second pride was released in 2011 that have just given birth to their first cubs. Studies undertaken by ALERT, and by independent researchers, suggests that both the released captive-bred pride and their semi-wild borne cubs are behaving and developing exactly as you would see in a free-ranging lion pride. Our intention is to publish the results to date from this pilot program over the coming year”.
The African Lion & Environmental Research Trust, a registered charity in the UK, USA, Zambia and Zimbabwe, works with communities, policy makers, conservation managers, researchers and business leaders to implement locally conceived and relevant solutions that create sustainable motivation to conserve lions. ALERT also works with communities to meet the challenges of living alongside a dangerous predator, whilst conducting research to improve our understanding of the lion’s behaviour in Africa’s ecosystems to better inform decision making.