Written by: African Impact
AFRICA’S LIONS IN STEEP DECLINE
Over the past 40 years, the African lion population has decreased by a devastating 80 – 90% with an estimated number of lions in Africa today as low as 32,000. Lion populations have continued to decline, with up to 18 sub-populations believed to have existed in 2002 having now been confirmed as extinct.
Our volunteer projects form part of the ground-breaking Lion Rehabilitation Program, which stemmed from a conservation group started by Andrew Conolly at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe. You can read Andrew’s story here on Medium.com.
We have partnered with The African Lion & Environmental Research Trust (ALERT – www.lionalert.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the African Lion. In an attempt to offset the rapid decline of lion populations, the group initiated a staged lion rehabilitation program that aims to release cubs of captive bred lions into appropriate national parks and reserves across Africa where they can one day have their own wild-born offspring.
ALERT works with communities and policy makers, with conservation managers, researchers and business leaders, to propose locally conceived and relevant solutions that create sustainable motivation to conserve lions amongst these stakeholder groups. ALERT also works with communities to meet the challenges of living alongside a dangerous predator, whilst conducting research to improve our understanding of the lion’s behaviour in Africa’s ecosystems to better inform decision making.
The release program has so far successfully released two prides into fenced-wild areas, and these prides are having wild-born cubs of their own. The two prides are located at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe and Livingstone, Zambia.
THE LION RELEASE PROGRAM
The aim of the Lion Rehabilitation Program is to restore lion populations within Eastern and Southern Africa through an initiative that will also provide social benefits to surrounding communities.
Since the launch of the Hands-on Lion Conservation Volunteer Project at Antelope Park, we have made amazing progress with the help of dedicated staff, persistent visionaries, and passionate international volunteers. The rehabilitation program has expanded across two more locations, and we now have a total of three lion conservation projects working hard to raise captive-bred lion cubs to be released into the wild.
Cubs are born to captive-bred mothers and remain in her care for the first three weeks of their life to take advantage of the more nutritious milk that mother’s provide in the first days post-partum. Thereafter they are removed so that they can bond to a human handler assigned to raise them so 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 mother of the cubs is captive and therefore does not have the skills that the cubs need to learn to survive when given the opportunity to fend for themselves. Much of the issues people have regarding the ethics of breeding lions in captivity come from the images they see of people holding cubs and bottle feeding them in their arms, with no time to rest and partake in species specific behaviours necessary for their proper development. This is not permitted at any of our lion projects and the development of the cubs’ natural instincts is priority.
In the pre-release stage handlers take the place of dominant members of the pride and train the cubs only to the point that they are safe for us to walk with. The lions are given every opportunity to build their confidence in their natural environment both during the day and at night. As their experience grows they start to take an interest in the wildlife they encounter on the walks, and by the age of eighteen months are able to hunt small antelope. By two years old the lions are already seasoned hunters, and we give them plenty of opportunity to practice their natural hunting skills.
In the Release Stages, the lions are given the chance to develop a natural pride social system in a semi-wild enclosure of up to 10,000 acres. They have sufficient prey species to hunt and their progress is monitored closely by researchers, although all human contact and influence is removed. The release program has so far successfully released two prides into fenced-wild areas, and these prides are having wild-born cubs of their own.
This is when lions that have been born in the Release Stages can be released into the wild in natural social groups. Through these stages, we aim to preserve the African Lion by producing quality, disease-free gene pools, rebuilding the diminishing numbers of lions, and introducing the offspring back into wild environments. You can read more about these release stages on the ALERT website.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Get involved in hands-on help through volunteer projects designed around the needs of the rehabilitation and release program, and ensuring volunteers have a fun, rewarding and amazing time. Volunteering in Africa can be an eye-opening experience, teach you valuable skills and will undoubtedly change your life.