Lion Release Program FAQs

Learn more about ALERTs lion release program

Lion Release Program FAQs

Here we present the answers to the most common questions about the African Lion Rehabilitation & Release into the Wild Program, operated as a partnership between ALERT, Antelope Park and Lion Encounter Zimbabwe & Zambia.

Is walking with lions good for conservation?

Walking with lions in and of itself is not good conservation, unless this activity is an integral element of a considered, scientifically based and genuine ex-situ conservation effort for lions.

The African lion is subject to increasing threats from human activities.  The species has evolved social and reproductive behaviours that require space, the greatest threat, therefore, being an increasing human population and the subsequent conflict with lions as a result of land conversion and prey base depletion to meet the needs of people.  Humans, however, have induced additional threats by introducing disease, unsustainable trophy hunting practices, and the impacts of climate change to lions, whose populations continue to decline.  African lion populations might still exist in theoretical numbers to support their conservation status as “vulnerable” by IUCN standards, but analyses of population structure, geographical fragmentation, risks from inbreeding depression and subsequent loss of evolutionary potential, and probable/actual disease threats, provide many additional causes for concern for the long-term viability of this species.

400,000 lions were believed to exist in Africa in the 1950s.  In 2013 it was estimated that 32,000 remain with “abundant evidence of widespread declines and local extinctions” even in protected areas.  In 2015 the IUCN stated, “we have greater confidence in the estimate of fewer than 20,000 lions in Africa than in a number over 30,000”.

Conservation efforts undertaken over the past decades have clearly failed the lion.  An academic journal article by ALERT in collaboration with Dr Jackie Abell, then of Lancaster University, expresses concern in the lack of scientific evidence that commonly used conservation solutions for lions are working, or can work, in the long term, and propose that ex-situ management (the process of protecting a species outside its natural habitat) should be considered.  

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, but given the speed of decline in lion populations (42% 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”.  ALERT recognizes the need to address the causes of the decline in wild populations before attempting population restoration, and that such actions should follow IUCN reintroduction guidelines.

Ex-situ management of lions can come in the form of moving wild lions from one population to another (translocation), or by using lions from a captive-origin (reintroduction). The choice of which management intervention to use will be dictated by the needs of a particular proposed release site.  Many areas in Africa have no suitable existing wild population close by from which a translocation programme can source lions. 

Reasons for their incompatibility can be related to the genetic and disease profiles of the available source population, as well as negative consequences that might arise in the population from which lions are being removed – these could include changes to local social systems, or even induce inbreeding problems.  There is also a lack of political will to permit translocation of lions from some areas, which will likely become a greater hindrance to translocation efforts as wild populations continue to decline.  In such situations, the use of lions from a captive origin is a logical course of action.

Captive breeding of lions is not the answer to saving Africa’s lions, nor is translocation, or indeed anyone of the current solutions proposed.  A variety of responses is needed, including new approaches.  ALERT believes, as a result of vigorous analysis of the chances of success of current conservation solutions, the increasing threats to lions, and that translocation on its own is not sufficient as a source for reintroduction, that captive breeding is a necessary addition to the armoury in our fight to ensure lions remain in viable numbers in Africa.

ALERT has no intention of releasing captive-bred, human imprinted lions into the wild.  Rather, captive-bred lions undertake pre-release training on lion walks that tourists may choose to join, to enable their release into fenced natural areas.  In these release sites, the pride raise cubs free of human contact.  It is these cubs that are intended for release into the wild.

Captive breeding doesn’t address the major threats currently facing lions!

Captive-bred or captive origin animals are not the solution to ensure viable populations of African lions are maintained as an integral part of functional ecosystems.  ALERT has never claimed that they are.  This can only be achieved by addressing the threats that have caused the decline of wild lion populations in the first place.

The most commonly cited threats to lion populations are summarized by the IUCN as “indiscriminate killing (primarily as a result of retaliatory or pre-emptive killing to protect life and livestock) and prey base depletion. Habitat loss and conversion have led to a number of populations becoming small and isolated.  Furthermore, trophy hunting has a net positive impact in a few areas in Zimbabwe but may have contributed to population declines in Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe ”.

There are many conservation efforts that seek to mitigate the conflict between people and livestock, often with notable success.  These include keeping livestock in predator-proof bomas or employing local people to track lions so they can advise communities on grazing areas to avoid.  However, it could be argued that such efforts are treating the symptom and not the cause of the principal threats facing lions. 

Habitat that could support lion populations is being converted to other land uses to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding human population.  In addition, lion habitat areas are becoming increasingly fragmented and more isolated.  This threat is coupled with prey base depletion as a rising human population, living with poverty and food insecurity, unsustainably hunt the species on which the lion relies, both for household use and commercial sale.  Lions and humans are therefore in direct competition for the same resources of space and food, and it is this competition that is the cause for the conflict between them; a conflict the lions will lose. 

Habitat fragmentation has a further consequence of limiting natural gene flow, leaving isolated lion populations open to the risks of inbreeding depression.  Looking forward, this isolation may also mean lions are unable to adapt to habitat changes as a result of climate change by moving from areas that are made unsuitable to areas that become suitable as a result of that same climate change.   The more frequent interface between humans and lions also allows for greater opportunities for disease to be transmitted between domestic animals and wildlife, with negative consequences for both. 

The underlying cause of the threats to lions are therefore a rapidly increasing human population that is living in poverty and subject to food insecurity; in competition with lions.  ALERT believes that any long term solutions for lions, therefore, must incorporate these issues, being complemented by programmes that increase the capacity of humans to live alongside lions. 

One commonly suggested solution is to simply create a permanent barrier between human and lion populations and thereby reduce competition between them, by the use of fences.  However, for this to work, the human population needs to support the annexing of land for wildlife, effectively cutting them off from natural resources on which they rely, and increasingly so as human populations continue to rise.  Fortress conservation has not been successful in the past as laws to alienate people from land in favour of wildlife do not engender support, and African governments have insufficient resources to enforce these laws.  Fortress conservation alone is another example of treating a symptom rather than the underlying cause.

ALERT believes that for lions to survive, we must approach conservation by looking at each area in which Africans are seeking to conserve lions as a complex system that incorporates the needs of both lions and people.  Further, if support for conservation is to be built, conservation efforts must generate positive benefits to stakeholders.  To this end, ALERT has developed a multi-disciplinary approach to conservation we term responsible development.  By uniting community and policymakers with non-governmental organizations, scientists and business leaders we believe that the best solutions can be proposed that can deal with both the underlying causes of the threats to lions, as well as the challenges those causes create.

ALERT, therefore, has four programme focus areas to implement the responsible development approach; in situ lion conservation, education, social development and conserving biodiversity.  The complexity and scale of the issues to be addressed before we can claim that sufficient habitat is truly protected for lions, such that they can exist in viable numbers, across a continent, is huge and will take a long time.  Whilst this work is undertaken the number of lions in the wild will continue to fall with many sub-populations becoming extinct and needing re-establishment. 

ALERT believes that despite lions’ ability to recover quickly under protected conditions, the remnant population in the majority of areas, that will be the founders of this recovery, will likely have limited genetic variation and therefore an unhealthy population may be created.  Additionally, removing some of these lions to re-establish lost populations will also be subject to the political will of governments unlikely to be keen on supporting lion conservation, and the tourism that lions generate, in other countries – a response we are already seeing in Africa to current attempts to re-establish lost populations through translocation.  As such, ALERT has a fifth programme focus, which is for the ex situ management of lions to create an additional source to compliment species recovery.

What happens to lions that are too old to walk?

ALERT’s ex-situ conservation project, the African Lion Rehabilitation & Release into the Wild Programme, aims to breed lions in captivity and give cubs opportunities to develop their natural instincts such that they can be released into fenced natural areas.  In these release sites, the prides raise cubs free of human contact.  It is these cubs that are intended for release into the wild.  On that basis, all lions that are born into the Programme are retained by the Programme for this purpose.  Lions too old to walk (the first stage in the Programme) are not sold for canned hunting or otherwise, but retained at one of our three project sites awaiting release, or for future use inbreeding.

From what has been reported, lions in breeding facilities in South Africa are almost all destined for the canned hunting industry.  Those operators seek to make additional income from the lions before they are shot by allowing people to interact with young cubs and take them on walks.  Bones from lions that have been shot are being sent off to the Far-East to feed the growing demand for lion parts for traditional medicines.  ALERT nor its partners, Antelope Park and Lion Encounter, are involved in this type of operation.

Firstly, ALERT, nor Lion Encounter, has ever sold a lion.  Antelope Park has but not into the canned hunting industry, and these sales occurred prior to ALERT’s formation or the establishment of the African Lion Rehabilitation & Release into the Wild Programme.

Allegations that ALERT, Antelope Park and Lion Encounter are selling lions for canned hunting first took hold in February 2008 when the UK’s Sunday Times Newspaper featured an article entitled “African Lion Encounters: A Bloody Con”.  The article claimed that “as many as 59 lion cubs raised at Antelope Park have been sold to big-game-hunting operations to be shot for sport.”  There were many additional inaccuracies in the article, but focus on the claims of selling lions into canned hunts, Antelope Park approached the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).  The PCC undertook an independent investigation that included reviewing records provided by Antelope Park, the buyers in South Africa and the permits issued by the Zimbabwean Parks & Wildlife Management Authority.  The investigation confirmed that regulations were in place, as a primary requirement of the sale, that the lions could not be used for hunting.  In light of this investigation, the newspaper was required to retract the story and issue a public apology in which it stated that “We accept that the owners of the park never have and never will intentionally sell lions for “canned” hunting.  We regret any impression that Antelope Park co-operated in the supply of animals for hunting.

But the damage was done.  The article was prominently placed in the newspaper and the retraction is hidden away on an inside page.  Those wishing to discredit ALERT and our partners’ work continue to raise concerns that lions from the Programme are ending up in canned hunts, whilst providing no evidence of such.  It is easy to damage a reputation by suggesting something might be true (and thus avoiding libel action), but much harder to restore that reputation when the negative headlines get the most press, whilst the truth is of little interest in the modern media world.  More recently some detractors have openly published that indeed ALERT and its partners do not sell lions into the canned hunting industry.

Additionally, these records are submitted to the two wildlife authorities in Zambia and Zimbabwe as part of the regulatory system under which the Programme operates.

Over the years the welfare of the lions at Antelope Park and Lion Encounter have been regularly assessed as positive by WWF, various independent veterinarians, the SPCA, Sarel van der Merwe (who is Chairman of the African Lion Working Group),  the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) and the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA).  In addition, ALERT has actively worked with Zimbabwe Parks Wildlife Management Authority, and others, to tighten controls within the country to ensure that captive lions born in Zimbabwe cannot be used for hunting of any kind.  

We shall continue to be transparent in reporting the whereabouts of all lions in the Programme.  And we shall continue to openly support the closure of canned hunting operations.

My investigation found no evidence that ALERT was partaking in Canned Hunting or “Put and take” activities and the adult lions I saw are well looked after and fed at considerable expense.” 

Sarel van der Merwe (Chairman of the African Lion Working Group)

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