Lion Release Program

Introduction to the African Lion Rehabilitation & Release into the Wild Program

Welcome to ALERT’s lion rehabilitation and release into the wild program

ALERT recognizes that programs 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 compliment 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”. 

With the lion population facing a threat that now exceeds those of rhino and elephant (in terms of the percentage of the population disappearing), the criteria that the IUCN technical guidelines provide may now be applicable and the model that ALERT has worked on to put lion back into the wild may apply.

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 program.

Rehabilitation Phase:

  • Captive-bred lion cubs are taken on walks into a national park or game reserve from 6 weeks of age with trained handlers, interns, volunteers and guests. Cubs are retired from this phase at approximately 18 months of age
  • On these walks, cubs develop a natural play, social and hunting behaviours. The interaction with a complex natural environment also facilitates cognitive development.
  • Natural hunting behaviours are developed and tested on walks, with cubs being able to hunt small (warthog, kudu, duiker, steenbok, impala) and large (wildebeest, zebra, other game species).
  • Phase 1 is currently taking place at Fuller Forest (Victoria Falls) and Antelope Park  (Gweru)

Read more about the Rehabilitation Phase

Captive-bred cubs are cared for by a human handler from three weeks old.  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 their handler 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.  Natural 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 the release programme. 

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) 

Developing the Cubs’ Natural Hunting Instincts

The cubs will often encounter natural prey species 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 species that the young lions are given the opportunity to hone their natural hunting instincts.  When the cubs are very young they will do little more than watching 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 is 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, the young lions manage to make contact with many different animal species from guinea fowl to buffalo.  Often the reason a kill is not made is that the lion 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 which gives the growing lions further opportunities to practice their hunting and co-operative hunting techniques.  A red filtered spotlight is used from a vehicle to monitor the lions’ progress to reduce our impact on predator/prey interactions.  

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 prey.  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. 

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.

Release Phase

  • Lions are released as a constructed pride into a large fenced and managed wild area. The intention is that a socially stable and self-sustainable pride is formed within which cubs are born and raised without human contact
  • ALERT currently has 2 prides at this phase: the Dambwa Pride (Livingstone, Zambia) and the Ngamo Pride (Antelope Park, Zimbabwe)
  • Cubs born into these prides are candidates for the reintroduction into the wild phase as they are not habituated or reliant on humans

Read more about the Release Phase

In the release phase of the programme a pride of Non-related individual lions that have developed hunting behaviour and show independence are released into a large fenced and managed wild environment with wildlife.  Scavenge feeds are also given.

These animals are never handled again.  This group then forms a stable and self-sustaining pride and produce cubs that will never be handled.  

The cubs which now display all of the characteristics of wild lions (human avoidance, hunting success, pride cohesiveness) are destined for a release in areas needing lions.

Two release areas are currently operational and are home to our two prides- The Ngamo Pride (Gweru, Zimbabwe) and the Dambwa Pride (Livingstone, Zambia)

Reintroduction Phase

  • Second generation lions born and raised by the Release Phase prides will be translocated using well-practised techniques to appropriate national parks and reserves
  • The purpose of this is to supplement or re-establish lion populations within these protected areas
  • ALERT is now evaluating potential sites for the reintroduction phase for the offspring of the Dambwa and Ngamo prides. Chizarira National Park has been identified as a suitable location.

Read more about the Reintroduction Phase

Data collection

Behaviour needs documenting such that when decisions are made for further semi-wild prides, we know which lions are bonded or act as the social glue keeping the pride together, and who can get dinner!  It also informs the field about behaviour in lions – which is surprisingly scarce in the literature as researchers seldom get sufficient time with wild lions to document them to the extent we do.

Volunteers and interns help us collect this data. Data collection is a very important job and needs to be treated that way, care is taken to ensure that it is done properly, capturing only natural behaviour and all the necessary information is recorded.

After collection, all datasheets are brought back to the researcher in charge.  All this behavioural information is then entered carefully into our databases to be sent to the ALERT team for analysis and comparison across our project sites.

1. Activity Budgets

Why?

This is the most regular form of data collection we do. The aim is to assess lion behaviour, personality and monitor health and development. This information is also used for comparisons with lions at our other project sites and sometimes with wild lions too.

How?

Record what each lion is doing every 2 minutes for a total of 60 minutes. If the budgets don’t run to 60 minutes, there isn’t much we can do with them.  As lions are generally quite lazy cats then 60 minutes is really the minimum for capturing this kind of behaviour.  Activity codes are provided on the datasheets.

2. Play Behaviour

Why?

The reason we collect play behaviour is that lions only play when free from physiological and environmental stress.  Play is a safe environment in which lions learn behaviours, such as hunting, bonding, fighting, which they will need as adults.  We have found that as lions age, play behaviours reduce in frequency as things get more serious!  Moreover when the number of people on a lion walk increases plays behaviour decreases as lions (especially young ones) come under increasing stress. We’ve also found that males play very differently to females.  Male play behaviour tends to focus on fighting and bonding.  Females also engage in bonding, but typically more hunting play behaviours.  This makes sense if we consider the role the lions will fulfil as adults.

How? 

This is collected on a walk, and only records play behaviour that is spontaneous – i.e. it must NOT be stimulated by a volunteer, guest or member of staff.  So if someone throws a stick, or dung for the lions to play with, those collected data must ignore it.  Induced play behaviour tells us nothing about the lion’s natural behaviour.  As a rule, they simply classify a play behaviour when it occurs – not duration – the data becomes very unreliable if you attempt this!).  There must be at least 30 seconds gap between one bout of play behaviour and another bout of the same behaviour (e.g. chasing) for it to count as two separate behaviours.  Anything less than 30 seconds is simply a continuation of the same behaviour.

3. Hunting Behaviour

Why?

Hunting/kills behaviour is very important.  It gives us an indication of which lions can successfully hunt and despatch prey (and the age at which this is possible, and progression from small to large prey), but also tracks the development of hunting skills.  Some lions get it very quickly, others take time to get it right!

How?

One or two volunteers collect this data.  They only record data if any hunting behaviour happens – which could be as simple as chasing birds.  Often they will come back with nothing written on the sheet because nothing happened, which is fine.  Should a chase occur, it’s advisable to confirm the details (ID of the lion, distance etc) with the handlers that are on the walk as they know the lions well.

4. Behavioural Enrichment

Why?

The aim of the enrichment program is not to simply mimic the natural environment for each lion in detail, but to provide a step-by-step program designed to give the animal variety and choice and to promote a wide range of species-appropriate behaviours.

In captivity, big cats have been known to exhibit stereotypical behaviour, which is repetitive or ritualistic behaviour that are thought to be caused ultimately by artificial environments that do not allow animals to satisfy their normal behavioural needs and can actually cause harm to the animals. Enrichment and training programs in captivity are intended to limit the stereotypical behaviour by providing the variety and choice mentioned and to encourage documented observation techniques to ward off problems early on. There are different types of enrichment:

How?

Our walking lions get most of their enrichment needs to be satisfied while out on walks. This is unique to our program as at most other captive lion facilities the lions do not leave their enclosures. However, we still want to ensure that the lion enclosures are as interesting as possible to enhance development. Take a look at our enrichment manual for ideas.

For behaviour enrichment, the intern/volunteer doesn’t just sit at the enclosure fence and interact with the lions.  They need to be patient, wait for the lions to habituate to them being there (until they ignore the vol/intern).  None of the data mentioned above is of value if humans are interacting with the lions at the time.  ALL behaviour collected must be spontaneous and not induced by a human.

Our behavioural enrichment sessions involve creating “toys” for the lions and recording how they respond. See the” Sensory Enrichment” section of the Enrichment Manual for toy making ideas. Often we create toys that resemble prey animals such as impala, kudu, ostriches etc out of natural materials (elephant dung, sticks, grass etc).

Whatever toy you choose to use, this is then placed inside the enclosure and the lions’ responses to it closely observed and recorded on the behaviour enrichment datasheet. Each volunteer needs to focus on a toy (not a lion) and record ‘who’ interacts with it and how.

Understand our lion release program in more detail

Research

Rehabilitation

Release

2 to 4 Month old cubs

Husbandry & Veterinary

Lions in the program

Frequently Asked Questions

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