RELEASE PROGRAM: STAGE ONE

Stage one of the program was developed at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe; expanding the operation to Lion Encounter (Zimbabwe) in Victoria Falls and to Lion Encounter (Zambia) in Livingstone.


Breeding Program

Males and females are separated before they reach sexual maturity to ensure no uncontrolled breeding takes place, and where possible (based on an individual lion’s aggression towards others) the lions are kept in single gender social groups of two or more lions.  Records are kept of the lions’ origin and parentage within a stud book using international standards.

One week prior to “cubbing down” the pregnant female is placed on her own in a specially designed cubbing enclosure, complete with a den. Here she will give birth and care for her cubs for the first three weeks of their life. This period allows the cubs the best start in life as they are able to take advantage of colostral secretions in the first few hours or days postpartum; gaining anti-bodies from the mother.

The cubs are removed so that they can bond to a human handler assigned to raise them such that they build enough confidence in their surrogate mother to follow them into the African Bush; a vital part of their pre-release training. The procedure is carried out by placing the mother, usually with food, back in her normal social group whilst the cubs are removed. The cubs are very quick to see a handler assigned to raise them as the dominant member of their pride and start suckling and playing with the handler in a completely relaxed way within a couple of hours; up to 18 hours if the cub is slow to accept a synthetic teat.  Removing cubs from their mother is standard practice for carnivores in most zoos and captive breeding centres.

Removing cubs from their mother does cause the mother to re-enter her oestrus cycle, which is a natural phenomenon in the wild when males take over a pride and kill all the offspring present.  This allows them to start producing their own cubs as soon as possible, therefore passing on their own genes.  However, the program does not take advantage of this natural event in order to produce higher numbers of cubs.  Females within the breeding centre are, as much as possible, maintained at a natural cubbing interval.

In the wild, when a litter is raised to maturity the mean litter interval is 601.5 (range 481.7 - 721.3) days at Phinda [1]; in Serengeti NP the mean was 600 days (range 330 - 750) [2] when a litter was raised to maturity and a range of 120 – 180 days if lost.  Antelope Park's breeding rate for females that have had more than one litter over the period 2004 – 2011 is 527 days for cubs that survived at least three weeks and 314 days if the previous litter was lost during the first three weeks.  The breeding interval is therefore slightly below the mean for wild lions, but well within the range of both quoted studies.

[1] Hunter LTB (1998) The behavioural ecology of reintroduced lions and cheetahs in the Phinda Resource Reserve. Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa Ph.D thesis, University of Pretoria.

[2] Packer C, Pusey AE (1987) Intrasexual cooperation and the sex ratio in African lions. Am. Nat 130: 636 – 642

The housing and care of the lions was assessed by the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and found to be excellent. The ZNSPCA further concluded that the lion breeding program was highly ethical and extremely well managed” (from a report compiled by Dr. R.D. Taylor, Conservation Programme Director for the WWF Southern African Regional Programme Office (SARPO) 10th January 2005).

Regular inspections are conducted by the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority and the Zambia Wildlife Authority to ensure standards are maintained. Antelope Park is also member of PAAZAB, the Pan-African Association of Zoos & Aquaria, which provides an ethical code to work by in the treatment of animals in captivity.


Lion Walks

Each set of cubs is cared for by an assigned handler who will spend four to five hours per day with the young cubs (the rest of the time the cubs sleep) helping them to; feed on a nutritional milk formula, assisting them learn to defecate, and most importantly providing a constant presence for them from which they gain security.

Cubs at this age will hide out in the same way that wild cubs will do, using the safe housing designed for them, and coming out to suckle and play when their surrogate mother returns.  It is through this constant interaction with the assigned guide that the cubs gain confidence in their “mother” meaning they will have the confidence to follow their “mother” into the African Bush to experience their natural habitat.

The cubs are taken out on their first walks around the age of six-weeks old; they are easily frightened and rely on the handler for a sense of safety.  Shortly after other handlers are introduced to the cubs to simulate a wild mother introducing her cubs to the rest of her pride, but the surrogate mother is always present to give the cubs the security they need.

As the cubs get older and gain in confidence they are taken on longer walks, covering greater distances and introduced to further members of the “pride”.  It is through this careful bonding technique that the cubs are able to experience their natural surroundings, necessary for their pre-release training.

Cubs do need discipline to prevent them from injuring human handlers during their walks. The most effective and humane method is to administer a flick to the side of the muzzle whilst using the word "no" in an authoritative tone.  Through this method the young cubs learn the limits of acceptable play behaviour with humans and soon understand the word "no" such that they will cease their play if the command is used.  This is the only training that the cubs are given; all other behaviours are encouraged to develop through constant interaction with their environment, prey species that they encounter and through social bonding and play within their cub kin group.  

Tourists are permitted to join the lion walks when the cubs are between six and eighteen months old and again are treated by the lions as dominant members of the pride.  In allowing this participation the program raises awareness and generates funding to operate stage one of the program, as well as helping to raise finance for the later release stages. 

An assessment was undertaken jointly by a team comprising an independent consultant biologist and two members of the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority. The team reported favourably on this rather unique and specialised activity and their assessment was generally supportive of "Walk with Lions"… WWF SARPO has no objections to operations of this nature, provided the principles and practices as developed and implemented by Antelope Park are adhered to.”  (from a report compiled by Dr. R.D. Taylor, Conservation Programme Director for the WWF Southern African Regional Programme Office (SARPO) 10 January 2005) 


Developing the Cubs’ Natural Hunting Instincts

The cubs will often encounter game on their walks including small antelope such as duiker or steenbok, and larger species such as wildebeest, zebra or buffalo.  It is through repeated exposure to these prey species that the lions are given the opportunity to hone their natural hunting instincts.  When the cubs are very young they will do little more than watch the prey.  Around the age of six-months old they make tentative steps towards the animals they encounter, and even make their first real efforts at stalking.  Much of the practice needed for this hunting development comes from the play in which the young cubs constantly engage.  Needless to say these early attempts are unsuccessful.  By one-year old the cubs have enough confidence to give chase, and their stalking techniques are developing well.  Around 12-15 months old many of the cubs are making their first kills, often birds, monitor lizards or small and young antelope although larger prey are sometimes taken if the individual is old or weakened in some way. 

Success at hunting is difficult for the young, inexperienced lions, especially during the day, however over the last three years the cubs have managed to make contact with many different animal species from guinea fowl to buffalo.  Often the reason a kill is not made is that the cub is too small to bring down the size of prey it has jumped on; or lets its grip on the animal falter through lack of experience.  The cubs on walks learn quickly from these experiences and have managed to kill many different species before the age of 18 months including warthog, baboon, wildebeest and even buffalo and giraffe.

At around 18-months old the lions begin to take part in the Night Encounter program.  This was added to the program in July 2005 in order to give the cubs further opportunities to practice their hunting and group co-operative hunting techniques, and therefore give them a higher chance of survival in the release stages of the program. A red filtered spotlight is used from a vehicle to monitor the lions' progress to reduce our impact on predator / prey interactions.  The night encounter program is currently only operational at Antelope Park.  Land has been secured for a similar area at the project site in Livingstone and ALERT with Lion Encounter Zambia is currently trying to raise finance to develop this site.  At present lions at the operation in Victoria Falls are returned to Antelope Park to take part in the Night Encounter program, but plans are underway to secure and finance a night encounter area within the environs of Victoria Falls.

In the wild, cubs before the age of 24 months old will follow their mother and other dominant members of the pride and are led to game. Mostly they will watch the hunt from the sidelines, but gradually they will start to take part, usually unsuccessfully, as they practice their hunting techniques.  As such, the younger lions often follow the vehicle and are led to areas where prey is known to be. The lions then take over and try to hunt. As the lions approach two-years old, where, in the wild, they are now starting to separate from their mother's side, the lions more commonly lead the Night Encounter; using scent trails to find prey, displaying co-operative hunting strategies more often and are able to take larger game species. 

The Night Encounter takes place in large fenced areas giving the prey species as much chance to escape as any wild animal.  Groups of up to four lions are taken out after between three and seven days of fasting as is best suited to the individual lions in question.

Although it is accepted that lions can learn to hunt without the pre-release training used in this release protocol, typically, this takes place over time with the lions hunting individually at first as they are only able to capture prey of a size that would sustain that individual.  The African Lion Rehabilitation & Release into the Wild Program's release protocol is based on releasing prides and therefore it is felt that this method of pre-release training allows the lions to learn to hunt prey of a size that can sustain the whole pride immediately upon release, thus allowing for a greater chance of social bonding of that pride.

Continue on to the next page: Stage Two.