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Does “Walking with Lions” Help Big Cat Conservation?

Does “Walking with Lions” Help Big Cat Conservation?

Africa is known for its big cats. For many visitors the dream of seeing these fierce felines, and in particular lion, is one of the main reasons they come to this wild continent. Fortunately lion are quite cooperative in this regard, and if you set off on a Big 5 safari you’re almost certain to return with photos of a pride or two - even if they are just napping in the shade of a tree (they are cats after all and sleep on average 15 to 20 hours a day!)

But what about the opportunity to interact with these top predators? Instead of observing how about walking alongside juvenile lion as their handlers take them out into the African bush, watching these overgrown cubs playfully bound about and wrestle each other, or giving their bellies a good scratch when they flop down in the shade. 

Walking with lions
A lion handler and paying tourists walking with a lion at Victoria Falls (photo: Lion Encounter)

All of this is offered through “walking with lions”, a popular activity available on both the Zimbabwe and Zambia sides of Victoria Falls. For many visitors this experience, along with the accompanying video footage and wow-your-friends photos, stands out as a highlight of their trip. 

But does the money spent on this activity really play a significant role in big cat conservation?

Why Lion Conservation is a Critical Issue

ALERT (African Lion & Environmental Research Trust) is a non-profit organisation that works throughout Africa to promote the development of sustainable conservation management plans for lions. One of the projects under the ALERT umbrella is Lion Encounter, a commercial operation that offers “walking with lions” to generate funds for their African lion rehabilitation and release program.

Let me just say that lion conservation certainly warrants serious attention. Don’t be fooled by those lions you see on safari, they know they’re top of the food chain – they don’t even try to hide! The fact is that lions are far less prevalent than you might think: a survey published in 2012 indicates that in the past 50 years lion numbers have dropped alarmingly from 100,000 to around 32,000. We need to do something soon or, in the words of award-winning wildlife film maker Dereck Joubert, “we will lose these animals in the next 10 to 15 years.”

Map of lions
Lion numbers and distribution around the African continent (image: ALERT)

ALERT’s Rehabilitation and Release Program

ALERT is confident that a viable way to reverse this steep decline is by introducing captive-bred lions into the wild via their four-step rehabilitation and release program. Here is how it works: 

Stage 1: Lions are bred in captivity in a wildlife sanctuary in Antelope Park, a game reserve in Zimbabwe. The cubs are taken from their mother at 3 weeks old, and trained to the point where they are safe to be taken out on walks. From the age of 6 weeks to 18 months these lion are walked by their handler and accompanied by paying tourists (whose money helps to fund the program). These walks are seen as an opportunity for the lions to get comfortable in the wild and hone their hunting skills. 

Stage 2: A pride of captive-bred lion, each 18 months or older, is released into a small managed-wild environment where overt human contact is removed. There are currently two “Stage 2” release sites: the Dambwa Forest outside Livingstone in Zambia (707 acres) and Ngamo next to Antelope Park in Zimbabwe (403 acres).

Lion and cubs
Rusha, a lioness from the released Dambwa pride, and her cubs born at the release site.

Stage 3: A mature pride from “Stage 2” is moved into a larger area (minimum of 1,000 acres) where there is a greater variety of prey, as well as competitive species such as hyena. Here the pride can live out a near-wild existence in a managed ecosystem. ALERT has secured their first “Stage 3” area, but no release has happened yet due to a lack of funds.

Stage 4: Cubs born to the “Stage 3” lions are raised within the pride without any human contact. Once old enough, they will be released into the wild in a self-sustaining pride.

Criticisms Against the Captive Breeding Program 

Conservation organisations such as Panthera (an NGO devoted to preserving big cats and their ecosystems around the world) feel that there is no need for such captive breeding programs, and that they are not making a contribution towards re-establishing wild lion populations. According to Dr. Luke Hunter, the president of Panthera, this project has been going on since 1999 (with ALERT being established in 2005) but they have yet to release a single lion into the wild.

In a report co-authored by Panthera, the conclusion reached was that: “captive-bred lions and their offspring are poorly-suited for survival and release in such reintroduction projects compared to their wild-born counterparts, and are unnecessary given the widespread success of wild-wild lion re-establishment programs.” These programs use wild lion captured from one population to establish a new population, and over the past 20 years have created at least 40 populations that did not exist before 1990 – mostly in new reserves in South and Southern Africa.

Relocating lion
Relocation wild lion to Malawi’s Majete Game Reserve - around 500 wild lion have been relocated to date (photo: Africa Geographic)

Another concern raised by many organisations is the number of lions that, since they have been exposed to sustained human contact, can never be released into the wild. All lions that have been part of “walking with lions” program can only ever reach “Stage 3” of the ALERT rehabilitation, and as more lions reach 18 months and are replaced by younger cubs, the number of semi-contained lions will continue to grow. What is going to happen to these lions?

ALERT and Lion Encounter’s Successes to Date

According to ALERT the lions currently released to “Stage 2” – Dambwa and Ngamo – appear to be doing well, have formed self-sustaining prides and are successfully hunting prey including wildebeest, puku and impala. These prides are being closely monitored, and although all direct human contact has been removed they are still occasionally given scavenge feeds – a carcass placed well away from the lions, where it can be discovered by scent or the presence of vultures. 

Both prides have also had cubs, which the program intended should only occur in “Stage 3”, however, these lion were older and ready for reproduction. Initially there was a high cub fatality, which ALERT explains as common with new lion mothers in the wild too, but now the prides seem socially stable and ALERT believes that the Ngamo pride in particular is ready for “Stage 3” – which will happen once funds become available.

The first-born cub in the Ngamo pride stalks, and successfully kills, an impala. 

African Lions and Land

Another benefit of “walking with lions” is that it increases awareness of the plight of the African lion, and one of the biggest threats to lion numbers is the loss of their natural habitat and rising human-predator conflict. Which leads me to another direct way that travellers can help lion conservation: by going on safari. Because it is the safari lodges and tented camps that fund the conservation of vast tracts of land and the big cats and other wild animals that live there. 

And even if that pride of lion is napping under a tree while the “walking with lions” cubs are bounding about, there is still that deep thrill that runs through you when you come across a wild lion out in the African bush or on the savannah plains. Because, after all, isn’t that what attracts us to Africa’s lions? The fact that they are truly wild!

Lion cub
One of the cubs currently in the "Walking with Lions" program (photo: Lion Encounter)

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