In the release phase of the programme a pride of lions is released into a fenced and managed wild environment. The intention is that the lions form a socially stable and self-sustaining pride within which cubs are successfully raised, without human contact.
Two release areas are currently operational and land has been secured for further sites. ALERT and its operational partners are attempting to raise funds to proceed with the development of these sites.
The Dambwa Forest Release Site
The land is leased to ALERT (Zambia) through a Forestry Concession Agreement, signed on 10th August, 2006. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was conducted following public consultation meetings at which local communities and other stakeholders were able to suggest areas of concern that should be considered during the EIA process. The completed EIA was submitted to the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ) in November 2007 for its consideration. ECZ gave approval for the program on 30th May 2008 and the Forestry Department confirmed that construction of the site could commence in May 2009. The site was used as a night encounter area for some months after its completion in July 2010 with modifications made between June and August 2011 to convert its use to release area. This site has been fully funded by Lion Encounter Zambia at a cost of US$550,000.
In June 2013 the pride gave birth to their first cubs when Rusha had two females and a male cub. A second litter born in January 2014 to Leya was two males and one female.
For the full story of the pride's adventures, please take a look at their own blog
The Ngamo Release Site
On September 1st, 2010 Francis Nhema, Zimbabwe’s Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, opened the 403 acre Ngamo release site next to Antelope Park in central Zimbabwe. The land has been leased from local government authorities. Whilst ALERT has developed and maintains the site, the fence of the site itself has been provided by Antelope Park at a cost of c. US$250,000.
Ngamo became the new home of the six Dollar Block veterans (see later in the text for details of Dollar Block); females Ashanti, Phyre, Kenge, Nala, Narnia and Athena as well as new additions to the pride; Milo (male) and Kwali (female).
The females were released first, and within 24 hours they had made two kills on a juvenile zebra and a juvenile wildebeest. Within the first couple of days they had started to show similar behaviour to what we had observed at Dollar Block; whilst they spend a lot of time together, the nature of a dynamic pride sees sub-groups break off from time to time, whether it’s for hunting or just exploring.
Two weeks after the release it was agreed that the females had created a stable pride environment and proved they were capable of being self-sufficient. We took the decision that it was time to introduce a seven year old male, Milo, who had been held in a neighbouring enclosure to the females for many months prior to release to instigate the bonding process. Whilst, there was some anxiety over whether some of the females, mainly Phyre, would submit to Milo’s dominance; our worries were quickly subdued as each female acknowledged his presence and submitted accordingly.
The pride has had cubs (five surviving) that were born and are being raised within the release site.
For the full story of the pride's adventures, please take a look at their own blog
The Dollar Block Release Site
The first ever release took place on 29th August 2007 on the Dollar Block reserve in central Zimbabwe, fully funded by Antelope Park. A pride of two males (Luke & Maxwell) and five females (Ashanti, Kenge, Mampara, Muti and Phyre) were released into the 385 acre site.
In the initial weeks the pride successfully hunted, however some conflict was observed between the two males and the five females. Common to any unique and pioneering programme, our first release was tainted by an unforeseen event; the death of two females, Muti and Mampara. The following statement was issued in response to these events:
On the morning of 23rd October 2007 our research team discovered the body of Muti, one of our females at the Dollar Block reserve in Zimbabwe. The two co-introduced males, Maxwell and Luke, were in the vicinity, and we presume that Muti's death might have been caused by an aggressive encounter.
On the 28th of October Maxwell and Luke were witnessed attacking Mampara, another of the females. During the fight she seemed to have sustained only a single puncture wound to one of her back legs. Her subsequent death suggests that fatal internal injuries also occurred.
This is a very sad moment for all the staff on the project who had worked with Muti and Mampara to prepare them for release, as early indications suggested they were doing very well at hunting and bonding with the other released lions.
We have extensively discussed this event with expert consultants ; Dr. Don Heath and Dr. Pieter Kat, to try and understand what may have caused this to happen. Although all seven lions seemed to be well bonded in the first weeks after release, the males had been seen starting to chase the females around. Such interactions also occur among wild lions; often after a pride takeover the new males will engage in such activity, but this rarely results in injury as the young females are faster than the males and can get out of the way. When a male can isolate a female however he will attempt to dominate, and such aggression in this case might have resulted in the death of two of the females. We, as well as many lion breeding programs, have experienced such mortality, although the causes of such events are often difficult to determine.
The principal objective was to release captive born lions back into a natural situation where they could entirely fend for themselves. This was achieved and the lions had started to successfully hunt prey species at the release site and could be considered competent hunters. This should be considered remarkable progress from the captive born cubs that they were. Our careful and dedicated programs have made this a reality.
Early indications were that the released pride was bonding well and behaving in a manner akin to a wild pride. As a result of these recent events we will give even more focus to research into sociality within release prides to ensure that males and females are socially compatible.
Reintroduction of intelligent animals with complex sociality is always difficult. We do the best we can with the information we have available. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the USA in 1995 was a similarly complex issue and not without problems and setbacks, although the introduced wolves were wild-caught in Canada. Lions are a species with a solitary heritage in an uncomfortable group situation. They are all individuals attempting to make their best way in a group.
We can only make assumptions as to why Muti and Mampara died - there are many complexities to this occurrence that might not involve male aggression per se. We continually review and refine our release protocols, and will do so again in continued consultation with Dr. Don Heath and Dr. Pieter Kat.
We have acknowledged from the start that this innovative, original and complex program would encounter setbacks. We have no ability to incorporate advice from concurrent or past programs. We are pioneers, and accept all responsibilities associated with that designation. As the lions attain their skills, so will we. ALERT is ultimately dedicated to the conservation of this magnificent species. All beginnings are difficult, but we will dedicate our adaptive and considered energies to succeed.
Following these events it was determined that female only prides should be released initially, and only once they are settled and have proven they can co-exist as a pride will a male of no less than 5 years be introduced to them.
The two males, Luke and Maxwell were removed from the Dollar Block site and placed into holding enclosures before being returned to Antelope in March 2008 (the onset of the rainy season made it impossible to move them sooner). The three remaining females continued to live in the release site, successfully hunting, during this period.
In April 2008 three further females, Athena, Nala & Narnia were introduced to the three females of the Dollar Block pride. The pride settled well. All the selected individuals proved they were able to form a self-sufficient pride capable of hunting and feeding itself, bringing down the likes of wildebeest, eland and giraffe. On average the Dollar Block lions achieved an average of 7.4 kilos of meat consumed per lion per day; a figure that sits comfortably within the range defined by a number of wild lion researchers. This behaviour led to an independent researcher from the University of Zimbabwe concluding that ‘captive-bred lions are able to kill and sustain themselves’ (Mandisodza 2008).
In January 2009 ALERT was forced to close the Dollar Block release area. Extreme deterioration of the economic situation in Zimbabwe, coupled with the site’s remote location, had severe negative impacts on our ability to service the monitoring programme adequately and provide land security to the release area. The difficult decision was made to bring the lions back to Antelope Park and re-release in the Ngamo Release site after a period in a holding enclosure.
Continuing financial difficulties within the country delayed this re-release beyond the ideal although this did give opportunity to bond an additional female to the pride as well as introduce a pride male.
Although the Dollar Block program, which commenced in August 2007 had some early problems and was halted prematurely, we have great reason to believe that it was a resounding success; the lions achieved something that many believed would not be possible, a self-sustaining pride of captive-bred lions. This is the first time this sort of solution has been implemented, and with no other methodologies or results to compare against we believe that Dollar Block achieved more than was expected and we will take the lessons we have learnt and implement them in future releases.