Lions in the cross hairs

Lions were shot out of the vast majority of South Africa by the early twentieth century. A species that once ranged across virtually the entire country was reduced to the areas now known as Kruger National Park and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

Since that low point, lions have returned to 47 South African reserves. Lions re-established themselves in two national parks, most recently in 2000 when they recolonised Mapungubwe National Park after crossing from Botswana, and man has reintroduced them to 45 other reserves. Even so, today South Africa has just 3,000 wild lions, twenty times fewer big cats than the spectator capacity of Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium, home of the Lions rugby team.

The lion at the back sniffs a biopsy dart, containing valuable genetic data. Copyright Susan Miller.

That is a startlingly low number, given how prominently the species features in the public imagination of the South African bush. With numbers so low, conservation efforts must be concentrated where they are needed most. I wondered, does this include captive breeding?

Captive breeding

There are currently more lions living in captivity in South Africa than there are in the wild. Captive breeders frequently claim to operate in the interests of lion conservation, with the “lion encounter” industry charging tourists to view, walk with and even pet lion cubs. With so much publicity raised by these encounters, there is good reason to believe that the captive breeding industry attracts considerable funds intended for lion conservation. But in reality, the lion encounter industry has more to do with the business of tourism than with conservation.

The Lion Park, located a short drive from Johannesburg, describes itself as “an eco-tourism destination that focuses on the well-being and regeneration of the various species [of predator]. We are neither a game reserve or a Zoo, but rather a breeding ground and sanctuary for important species”.

The Lion Park. Captive lions viewed by captive tourists.

I asked volunteer, Ursula Lorentz, why she volunteered to work at the Lion Park, “I’m passionate about conservation. I love lions. I thought this was the best way to help them” she told me. If Ursula’s sole motivation was to help lion conservation, I couldn’t help feeling she’d been duped. She paid €1 295 (around R18,000, US$1,750 or £1,100) for her two week experience, as well as the cost of her international flight.

Put bluntly, lion breeding programmes do not assist conservation. Here’s why: Many reserves in South Africa are currently forced to cull wild lions because they have too many lions for the size of their protected area. There is absolutely no demand for “rehabilitated” captive bred lions. Indeed, every one of the 46 reserves in South Africa where lions have been reintroduced to the wild have been stocked with lion originating from Kruger, the Kgalagadi, or Etosha National Park in Namibia. No captive bred lion has ever been reintroduced to a South Africa reserve.  

Dr. Luke Hunter, President of Panthera, the world's leading wild cat conservation organisation told me “Even though lions are declining and some populations are in trouble, captive breeding for reintroduction is simply not useful or necessary. […] Saving the lion hinges on protecting large, wilderness areas.”

So the real problem is a lack of space.

All wild South African lions are surrounded by fences. Copyright Rox Brummer.

Space, the real frontier

Other than the lions in Kruger and the Kgalagadi, the lions in the other South African reserves are, and need to be, intensively managed to ensure their long term survival. The reason is that these reserves, which by any ordinary measurement are massive, are still small in lion conservation terms where reserves under 1,000km2 are considered “smaller reserves”. South Africa’s “smaller reserves” are home to some 700 or so lions and because of their size they face an array of management issues as human intervention is required to simulate natural processes.

Unlike other countries on the continent, every South African lion lives behind fencing. This limits the chances of conflict with humans but has negative impacts too. For instance, the fencing prevents sub-adults from dispersing between reserves and is a factor increasing the risk of inbreeding.

So-called smaller reserves also have fewer prides and fewer large nomadic males, meaning reduced or absent competition between males for pride primacy. The reign of males in smaller reserves is substantially longer than in Kruger and the Kgalagadi, where frequent change of pride leader ends with the death of cubs sired by the previous male chief. The population growth rate of lions in smaller reserves is therefore unnaturally and unsustainably higher. If lion numbers are allowed to grow beyond ecological limits, there are obvious impacts for prey species and the long term biodiversity of entire reserves.

A lion being translocated. Copyright Susan Miller
 

Not enough land in South Africa is dedicated to lion conservation to enable a wild population much above the 3,000 we already have. In recent years few new reserves have been established, causing a collapse in the market for lion translocations between reserves. While this remains the case, culling wild lions that exceed the carrying capacity of the reserve is a sad necessity.  In such a case, it is often sub-adults that are culled, simulating emigration that would have occurred naturally if lions had space to migrate away from their pride.

A far more controversial but conservation-appropriate method of controlling lion numbers is culling part of a litter of cubs. In smaller reserves, cubs have an unnaturally high survival rate. This form of culling could therefore simulate natural levels of cub mortality. There would also be a positive knock-on effect that the lioness will not come back into oestrus whilst at least one cub survives, thereby further slowing birth rates. Culling cubs would be a shocking and ethically challenging intervention, but given the limited space dedicated to conservation, drastic interventions such as this are being considered.

South African lions, outside Kruger and the Kgalagadi, live a kind of Truman Show existence. Like Jim Carrey’s character in the famous film, the lions (and most people watching them on game drives) are unaware that their lives in the wild are partially contrived. Each reserve manager knows how many lion the reserve can support, females may be on contraception, and when populations reach certain thresholds individuals will be earmarked for removal.

A lion translocation. Copyright Susan Miller.

Around 200 wild lions were culled in South Africa between 2010 and 2012. These were not lions bred for hunting but lions on reserves known for photographic tourism. In 2011, at one reserve in the North West, 70 lions were culled. The reserve is over 700km2, but even so it lacked the carrying capacity for the number of lions which had bred.

Real conservation

There is much talk about large scale expansion of reserves and the establishment of wildlife corridors suitable for lions to migrate between reserves. The designation of a third reserve the size of Kruger or the Kgalagadi, which would not require the kind of interventions I’ve discussed above, would be the ideal. But it is exceptionally unlikely to happen. Human population numbers are rising and the demand for land for agriculture and housing is ever increasing, not to mention physical human barriers such as roads. So what other options are there?

Susan Miller, of the Tshwane University of Technology, researches the growth factors and genetics of lion in smaller reserves. She spoke to me about what she regards as the only realistic short to medium term intervention to aid lion conservation. Susan believes the next step is to properly regulate the management of lions outside Kruger and the Kgalagadi as one single population - a metapopulation. Individual reserves would not make lion management decisions alone but as part of a coordinated national scheme for the 47 smaller reserves. As Susan explained, part of the metapopulation approach would be, for instance, to “have four or five regional nodes within which translocations occur more regularly, with less frequent translocation between the nodes.” It would aid the genetic integrity of the metapopulation and also be closer what would happen naturally, with lions migrating to neighbouring areas rather than randomly across the country. The plan is not merely an academic idea; it is being developed by the Lion Management Forum, comprised of both managers of the smaller reserves and scientists. This approach therefore benefits from the input of those with practical on the ground conservation knowledge as well as academics.

While this does not take away the need for intense human intervention, the metapopulation approach advocated by Susan and the Lion Management Forum would assist with lion conservation far better than any captive breeding program.

The extent to which South Africa’s wild lion population is managed might be surprising but it is the only option whilst human land uses mean land set aside for conservation is so limited and fragmented. Anyone uneasy with the extent to which we must manage our lion populations should be clear about the real issue in South African lion conservation: we certainly do not need to breed more lions, we need to monopolise less land.

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A lion being translocated. Copyright Susan Miller.

NOTE: Ursula Lorentz is not the volunteer’s real name.

SOURCES: Biodiversity Management Plan for the Lion (Panthera lio) in South Africa. Background information for the Stakeholders Workshop, 18 June 2013, Jointly developed by Dr Paul Funston (PANTHERA), the CSIR and DEA. Note: As at 21 November 2013 the BMP-S itself has not been drafted.

Management of reintroduced lions in small, fenced reserves in South Africa: an assessment and guidelines. S.M. Miller et al, South African Journal of Wildlife Research 43(2): 138–154 (October 2013). Note: This article forms part of Susan Millers’ PhD which has not yet been published, some statistics come from unpublished components of the PhD provided in correspondence and an interview conducted with Susan.

Walking with lions: why there is no role for captive-origin lions Panthera leo in species restoration Luke T. B. Hunter et al, 2012 Fauna & Flora International, Oryx, 1–6.