May 3 2016

We are deeply saddened to advise supporters that ALERT made the decision to euthanize the 10½ year old lioness known as Narnia, a former member of the Ngamo pride.  In discussion with two independent vets, including one from the Zimbabwe Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services’ Wildlife Veterinary Unit, it was agreed that Narnia’s quality of life was sufficiently poor, with no hope of improvement, such that this decision was the right, moral and humane thing to do.

Both vets were present on the 30th of April 2016 when ALERT CEO Dr. Norman Monks darted and immobilised Narnia. The Government veterinarian then euthanized Narnia in the presence of an official from the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority.  An autopsy was undertaken by the vets that indicated that Narnia had been living with multiple issues that would have caused considerable pain.  The body was cremated in the presence of the Government officials.

Narnia made a huge contribution to the African Lion Rehabilitation and Release into the Wild Programme, and we relate her story, and the events that have led to this difficult decision, in brief here.

Two lion cubs, presumed to be brother and sister, were found by a private individual on Hwange airstrip in western Zimbabwe, and were raised to adulthood.  These lions were allowed to breed four litters of cubs, and, in November 2005, Narnia and her sister Nala were born.   In 2006 all of the lions were under threat of being shot, as the individual was not able to maintain the lions in his care.  ALERT’s partners, Antelope Park and Lion Encounter, provided the lions with sanctuary, with Narnia and Nala being moved to Victoria Falls. 

Where possible, it is our policy to integrate sanctuary lions into the Release Programme.  The 2Ns, as they became known, were healthy, and it was felt that they could contribute to the Programme, however they were spayed to prevent them ever breeding due to the likelihood of them being inbred.  Later, the 2Ns were moved to Antelope Park where they became one of the most successful groups ever on night encounters, where lions are let out of their enclosures and allowed to hunt prey species at night on the fenced, private game reserve; achieving a 52% hunting success rate between them.  Given their hunting prowess it was decided that both Narnia and Nala would be an asset to a release pride and were released into the Dollar Block site in April 2008.  Narnia and her sister flourished under the tutelage of the older females of the pride, staying with them when the pride was relocated and re-released into the Ngamo site in September 2010.

However, on the morning of 25th June 2013, the Ngamo research team discovered Narnia with her back legs seemingly paralyzed.  She was sedated and removed to the release site’s management enclosure, and a vet called.  Spinal problems are difficult to fully diagnose without access to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which was not feasible for Narnia.  Initial diagnosis suggested a prolapsed (or slipped) disc between vertebrae C-12 and C-13, with some degeneration on other vertebrae.

A prolapsed disc occurs when the circle of connective tissue surrounding the disc breaks down. This allows the soft, gel-like part of the disc to swell and protrude out.  It is not always clear what causes the connective tissue to break down, however, slipped discs are often the result of increasing age.  As the lion gets older the spinal discs start to lose their water content, making them less flexible and more likely to rupture.  There are a number of other factors that can put increased pressure and strain on the spine including bending awkwardly or an injury to the back (such as being kicked by a zebra during a hunt).

Later, as Narnia gained some movement in her hind legs a possible alternative diagnosis was suggested by vets.  Generally, disc problems affect both legs equally, although they can, in 10% or less of cases, affect only one side if the disc has moved only in that direction.  In Narnia’s case, movement in her back right leg was much worse than in her back left.  With x-rays showing a narrowing of the disc space at vertebrae T-12 and T-13 it was considered that a fibrocartilagenous embolism (FCE) could be the cause.

Also known as a spinal cord stroke, FCE is a blockage in a blood vessel in the spinal cord.  The bones of the vertebral column are joined together by intervertebral discs, which function as cushions between the vertebrae, allowing the spine to flex. They are round in shape, fibrous on the outside, and contain a gel-like substance on the inside, called the nucleus pulposus.  Typically, as a result of trauma, such as landing awkwardly after jumping, a rupture in the disc can cause the nucleus pulposus to escape into the blood vessel of the spinal cord, causing an obstruction.

Despite the two potential diagnoses, the treatment options are much the same.

Since the incident, Nala has continued to thrive in the release site, and Narnia made some improvement, but also has had many relapses.  Further investigation indicated that the natural process of repair resulted in some nerves having regenerated, but with aberrant connections.  Vets advised that there is nothing we could do to resolve this situation.  Narnia was introduced to two other lions, for company, however she continued to have significant mobility issues, and had been involved in a number of fights with her enclosure mates, minor injuries from which she struggled to heal.  Recently her behaviour suggested that she was living with significant discomfort, with restricted mobility, and had experienced periods of appetite loss.  Her demeanour also suggested that her quality of life was now sufficiently poor for ALERT, in consultation with a vet, to determine that euthanasia was the best course of action, no matter how difficult this decision.

The Ngamo release pride have achieved everything we hoped for, and their success can in no small part be attributed to Narnia; by putting her formidable hunting skills to good use to help feed the pride.  When the pride’s numbers swelled following the birth of the cubs, Narnia again played a core role.  She spent many hours playing with the pride’s cubs, and through that play the cubs were able to practice skills they now rely on as adults.  No doubt they also learned a great deal by watching Narnia hunt.  Whilst we mourn the loss of this lion, we are able to celebrate the huge contribution she has made to her pride, and to her species, through helping raise the first offspring in the Programme destined for release into the wild.


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