Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Irish lion blarney...

Lion kings
Irish efforts to bring the 'King of the Jungle' back

By Jay Mwamba

Across Africa's vast savanna grasslands a dark cloud hangs over the "King of the Jungle." The continent's lion population -- once numbering 250,000 -- has fallen to an alarming 20,000, decimated by hunting, disease and human encroachment on their habitat.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists lions a "vulnerable" species.
"Unless something is done real soon it is very possible that the species will become extinct within 20 years or less," Cork native Roy Penney warned from the Zambian capital, Lusaka.

Penney, a long-time Zambian resident; his fellow Cork exile in Zimbabwe, Steve McCormick and Andrew Conolly, an Irish-Zimbabwean who calls Bandon his ancestral home, may just be the last best hope for the fearsome beasts.
The three Corkmen, along with Conolly's wife Wendy, are working in the African bush to save the lion through a program developed by African Encounter, a safari company founded by the Conollys. The Conollys have been breeding and rehabilitating lions in Zimbabwe, south of Zambia, since 1982 with remarkable devotion considering that Andrew lost his left arm to a lion. Operating out of Gweru and Victoria Falls town, the "African Encounter Lion Rehabilitation/Reintroduction Program" comprises three stages.

Over the three stages, volunteers, guides and handlers walk cubs into game areas to allow them to develop hunting skills; then the young lions are placed in prides and closely monitored in huge game-stocked 500 acre enclosures before they are trans-located, in select breeding groups, to fenced 25,000 acre mini-ecosystems devoid of other lions and humans. "Up to 100 lions have been coming out of (this) program every year," said Penney.

The plan is to reintroduce the big cats in game reserves, conservancies and national parks across the continent. Outside India's Sasan-Gir National Park, where the World Wildlife Fund estimates 300 lions live, Africa is the last free-range habitat for a species that once roamed throughout Asia and Europe. Across the raging Zambezi River, Penney oversaw the expansion of the program to Zambia last year, a country slightly larger than Texas, with 20 cubs from the Conollys.

McCormick, a tourism entrepreneur, will run the venture in Livingstone, Zambia's tourist capital and the site of the Victoria Falls -- one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Penney and Xen Vlahakis, a former top Ministry of Tourism official, will serve as its Zambian directors while Englishman David Youldon, executive director of African Lion & Environmental Research Trust (ALERT), will manage the lions and lead the walks.
"I was approached by Steve (McCormick) to set up this company. I went to Gweru and was taken in by it," said Penney. "If we don't make a stand now with 1,000 lions left in Zambia, it will be a tragedy."

The real tragedy, though, may be why lions are in such peril. According to Penney, hunting, both legal and by poachers, has taken a heavy toll. "In Zambia you can shoot lions for $80,000," he noted soberly. "So what are we going to tell our children and grandchildren? That we shot all of the lion population but got paid between $80,000 and $120,000 for each one?"

Yet even as efforts are being made to curtail hunting by big game hunters -- Americans among them -- other threats exist. "Lions are also dying of inbreeding and disease," added Penney, while in other parts of Africa, the human encroachment on wildlife habitat has had dire consequences. Still, he's upbeat over African Encounter's mission.

It has piqued the interest of a couple of Wild Geese Society members in Zambia, both conservationists, and has the backing of the government. "This project is making a huge (effort) to save lions," said Penney. "There's a lot of support."

Funding for the project will mainly come from private sources, although Penney expects the walking program to generate some revenue, too. For $50, tourists and other individuals will be able to join Youldon and the cubs on walks.

A successful accountant, philanthropist and Irish trade consultant who apart from brief spells in the UK and the U.S. has spent the last 39 years in Zambia, Penney is no stranger to good causes in his adopted home. He is the founder and trustee of the Kenneth Kaunda Children of Africa Foundation -- set up by him and Kaunda, Zambia's first president, to care for AIDS orphans. Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds is a board member. As Wild Geese Society chairman in the 1980s, and later captain of the Lusaka Golf Club, Penney spearheaded fundraisers for different charities, rural projects and mission hospitals. The Cork City product has over the years been involved in business ventures with Irish companies, mainly through the Irish Enterprise Board (formally CTT), including Irish Cement, Bord Bainne, Clonmel Chemicals and Masstock International.

Penney works with the accountancy firm of Moores Rowland International and manages its consulting company.

For more information, contact Penney at or, or visit African Encounter at:

This story appeared in the issue of March 14-20, 2007