Monday, June 04, 2007

The lion project people give their side of the story to Gill Staden...

The Lion Project

You probably remember that there was a scoping meeting for the proposed Lion Project in Dambwa Forest. As a quick rundown ...

The 'Walking with Lions' activity for tourists which operates in Vic Falls, Zimbabwe, is to be brought over to Livingstone. The lions can walk with tourists from a few weeks up to the age of 18 months, after which time the lions are replaced by other younger lion cubs. The 18-month old lions are taken to a sanctuary (in our case, Dambwa Forest) The sanctuary is securely fenced off by an electric fence. The lion sanctuary includes other game so that the lions can learn to hunt and feed themselves. They are given supplementary food to make sure that they are properly fed. The lions are allowed to breed and these cubs are brought up without human contact. The hope is that these cubs or their offspring can be released back into the wild.

I had a few concerns which I emailed Dave Youldan about, and here is his response: As I said at the meeting we have always, and will continue to invite concerns to be aired about our project. It is through these raised concerns that we have been able to hone our release protocols and policies.

Firstly, is walking with lions ethical?

We have received a lot of support for the aims of the project as well letters of approval for the “highly ethical and extremely well managed” methods employed in the raising & rehabilitation of lions from notable individuals and organizations including: Dr R D Taylor, Director of WWF’s Southern Africa region, the Zambian wildlife authority, the Zimbabwean National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority, Mr V Booth, independent ecologist, Dr Pieter Kat, consultant ecologist, Mr Norman Monks, Senior Warden for Zimbabwean Parks & Wildlife and Sarel van der Merwe, Chairman African Lion Working Group (IUCN / SSC). In addition, our program is registered with PAAZAB and last year we were invited to apply for IUCN membership.

Dr Pieter Kat – “...we can begin programs of lion reintroduction in a wide variety of depopulated areas. Such programs will not only be immediately positive, but will also place lions squarely in the category of animals like rhinos whose plight seems to be better appreciated by the international conservation community. This is why I am appreciative and excited to be involved by the initiatives taken by Andrew and Wendy Conolly. Through years of self-funded and determined effort, they have developed a program of re-introduction that has a very good chance of success. Predators of any description are notoriously difficult to reintroduce, but now we have at least a workable plan. As I said, the future of African lions is in African hands. Let us salute those who have been steadfast to ensure this future, and recognize that any action is better than the currently looming extinction of an African icon if we do nothing.”

Dr Sarel van der Merve – “Generally speaking, the feeling amongst scientists are that captive bred lions cannot survive in a natural environment. I beg to differ. I have reviewed too many reports to the contrary….I believe one can rehabilitate the lions”

Vernon Booth – “I have done some research regarding the re-introduction of lions in RSA and was pleasantly surprised to see that this was feasible and had been done successfully”

Norman Monks – “I am...exited about rehabilitation of lions back into the wild and I know that this can happen”

One issue here is whether removing the cubs from their mothers causes undue stress to the mother and cubs. In stage one the cubs born in our breeding centre are taken from their mother at 3 weeks old. We have observed over the years that cubs are very quick to see a handler assigned to raise them as the dominant member of the pride and start suckling and playing in a completely relaxed way within a couple of hours, and unusually up to 18 hours. The mothers are never overly stressed by this practice and we observe their behaviour returning to completely normal in their usual social groups within 24 hours. Removing the cubs at this age allows us to train the lions only to the point that they are safe for us to take out on walks from 6 weeks to 18 months old. This gives the lions the opportunity to experience their natural environment.

Inviting eco-tourists to join the walks serves three purposes. The principal one is that we are able to take the lions out for many more hours in a day. As a result our research has shown a dramatic increase in the lions’ hunting ability which improves their chances of success. The walks also increase awareness of the plight of the lion, as well as raising funding for the release sites.

Lion gene pool - how does this affect lion populations in general?

Our genetics policy has been put together with the assistance of Jean Dubach of the Chicago Zoological Society and author of the paper Molecular genetic variation across the southern and eastern geographic ranges of the African lion, as well as our consultant ecologist Dr Pieter Kat. Finally, we are following the IUCN / SSC Guidelines on reintroductions.

Firstly, let’s deal with the claim that our lions are a genetic Heinz variety cobbled together from zoos and other places across Africa. This simply is not the case and we are somewhat bewildered how such claims have been made from people with no knowledge of the origin of our lions or their DNA testing results. All the lions in our program were born in Zimbabwe. We have in the past had a male from Tanzania who bred with some of our Zimbabwean lions. The Tanzanian lion was of the same haplotype as the lions he was bred with and therefore follows sound genetic protocols.

We have taken a lot of advice on the issue of genetics, and that advice ranges from ignoring the issue entirely as the genetic difference between lions across the continent is so small as to not matter, up to no lion can ever be moved because even the most insignificant genetic difference is enough. With our consultants we have decided to take a cautionary stance on genetics with the policy “translocations to increase genetic diversity would mimic natural gene flow by moving only individuals from the nearest areas with similar haplotypes”

To date evidence shows that Zambian lions fall into the haplotype that categorizes Eastern & Southern African lions which includes much of Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and eastern South Africa. One study has suggested that Zimbabwean lions are more closely linked with the haplotype found in Botswana and Namibia. However, these studies are based on only 1 or 2 samples, and recent DNA testing of our lions by Jean Dubach contradicts those previous findings, placing our lions in the same haplotype as those found in the Eastern & Southern African grouping, and therefore compatible with Zambian lions. It has also been suggested that, in genetic terms, Zimbabwean lions were part of the same meta-population as those in Zambia until recently, in genetic terms.

How many lions are going to be bred and what are their final destinations?

The number of lions to be bred will depend on the demand for lions in stage four of our release program. At present we are being cautious and are only breeding sufficient to stock our initial stage three release plans, however with 2 sites confirmed and a further 9 having been asked of us, we are currently well behind the breeding level for these sites. This is a conscious decision to make sure we have the protocols for these first 2 stage three release sites correct. Once we are happy with that we can increase breeding to stock the remaining planned stage three sites. Breeding within our program at all stages of the program can and will be carefully controlled to breed lions only to meet the demand in stage four. We have a significant number of requests for stage four releases both from governments and from private reserves, however, we are again being cautious as we want to make sure stage three is working as expected before increasing breeding to meet this demand.

In practical terms, so far in 2007 only two females have been allowed to breed, one producing a litter of 5, the other a litter of 2. We have no breeding plans until later in the year when a further two lions will be allowed to breed.

How can you monitor the lions when they have left your control, the major concern being canned hunting?

All of our lions will be collared at release as well as micro-chipped for identification, and we will be conducting research on the released lions so they will be monitored closely. As we have done in the past, contracts will be drawn up that forbid hunting of our lions for any reason. It is clear that illegal hunting cannot be controlled and we will almost certainly lose some lions for this reason, also we will have to rely on the legal framework of the release country in order to enforce the no hunting clause in the contract, however we believe we are taking reasonable measures to ensure our lions do not end up in canned hunting.

With regards our export of lions to South Africa, some 37 lions were sold, in two groups, one in 1999 and the majority in 2002 to a captive centre in South Africa. All lions in the second sale were micro-chipped. The pertinent details are that the export permits and agreements drawn up for the sale by the Zimbabwean Parks & Wildlife Authority required that the lions could never be hunted in any form and that the South African wildlife authorities were responsible for monitoring the status of the lions after sale to ensure the agreements were upheld. As we became aware of the country-wide rise of canned hunting in South Africa a decision was made to cease any further exports to the country until the legal situation changed.

We support any move to make canned hunting illegal in all countries.

To bring in a few other points, the reintroduction of lions has proved unsuccessful to date for four reasons.
1. that the animals were given no pre-release training,
2. that their reliance on humans was not curtailed,
3. that lions were released as individuals with no natural pride social organization,
4. and that they had no experience of competitive and predatory species.

Without repeating the information about each stage of the program, you can see that we have tried to tackle each of these issues within our first three stages of the program to ensure that the lions born in stage three and released into stage four are as prepared as possible. Most people focus on the stage three release as being our end goal. It is not, and try as I might to get this message across in film, print and by talking to people, the message does not seem to be getting through – we must do better at this. Our goal is to rehabilitate captive bred lions so they can survive without human intervention in an artificially created eco-system, as close as possible to their wild environment such that they can teach their cubs in a natural way. Those cubs will essentially be wild cubs with no experience of humans, born and raised in a natural pride social group, within as wild an environment as we are able to create for them. We believe that these cubs will grow up with all the skills necessary to survive in the wild in stage four, without any of the problems faced by previous attempts to release lions which were from a purely captive environment to a wild one. So the only question is whether our program sufficiently prepares our lions to be able to survive in stage three such that they can teach their cubs to survive in stage four. Evidence from our program to date suggests that we are getting it right, and as you will have read in the quotes from letters and emails we have received from notable ecologists and experts, others believe we have gotten it right as well.

As for our broader program, and the claim that our goals of community involvement and conservation of the broader eco-system were unachievable, I would make one point. The concern was raised without any reference to the context within which these benefits could be achieved. The concern assumed that we are responsible for all of those programs that we mentioned that could benefit the community. Many of those programs are already in action through the Joint Management Plan between Forestry and the communities surrounding Dambwa. We believe, as a stakeholder in Dambwa that we should play our part in assisting in that existing program, and by bringing additional funding and manpower that we can help make those existing programs more effective and bring results quicker than is currently expected. This point, even though I made it verbally and visually in the presentation was ignored by the person raising the concern, in my opinion, in favour of grandstanding. We are already doing a huge amount for the local communities within Livingstone through our eco-tourism program working in a number of schools, medical clinics, orphanages, home help programs and with the elephant pepper project. We have already started our community program in advance of bringing the lions and have invested large amounts of money in building new classrooms, providing medical supplies, teaching aids etc etc. Our next plan is to extend our community programs to assist the communities specifically surrounding Dambwa. Our conservation and research programs are already underway in Zimbabwe in a number of the National Parks and covering a range of species. We will be copying this already successful program within Zambia when the lions move across. So, I find it difficult to understand how a claim can be made that we cannot achieve our goals without first looking at what they are and finding out how we intend to achieve them through funding and manpower, a model that we have already shown is successful in Zimbabwe.

The final point that I am going to raise in this email is that of why are we bothering with this program at all? Why not just put the money into beefing up legal protection of the species and its habitat. There is a simple answer to this and that is that the millions of dollars already spent by far more influential organizations than ours over many years have failed almost completely in this regard. For all the money poured into such programs the populations of lion as well as other species are still declining. We believe that we should not make the same mistakes of the past. Why wait for the inevitable to happen – the last few remaining lions with a very small gene pool, protected, but inevitably heading towards extinction. We believe that we can create a release program that can work, and can be one of a number of solutions to the problems faced by the lion. And we want to do this now so the plan is already in place and known to work before the number of lions gets down to critical level – is there anyone who does not believe that this will happen?

I do hope that I have helped to inform you better about our program, and have covered your concerns in enough detail. If I have not, please believe it is not intended as a way of hiding something. I would gladly expand on any point raised as well as any others that may arise.

In response to this email I wrote:

I just have one more question for you:

The lions which are used for the 'Walking with Lions' walk with clients for 18 months, and I believe that there are 10 of them. So that means that every 18 months 'Walking with Lions' requires 10 lions, and 10 lions have to be 're-homed'. A lion lives for between 15 and 24 years. So, by my estimate, you will have about 100 lions which have been walking with people and need to be looked after in captivity. The concern is that these lions are looked after properly and not sold on to zoos, canned hunting, etc. So what happens to them?

With regards to what happens with the lions once no longer walking in stage one…at that age, as is the case now while we build our release areas, if there is no stage two release site ready, the lions are returned to holding enclosures where the animals can be held in suitable enclosures awaiting release. As is the situation now, lions up to 2 years and 4 months old can be taken out to hone their hunting skills. This is done by vehicle. We are able to do this at the Park as we are an enclosed area, and one of the areas in Dambwa is being built for this purpose. Once we have our stage two and three release sites fully operational we will only be breeding at a level that our release sites can support, and if we have to shut down any part of stage one such that we do not have lions retired from stage one with nowhere to go, then we have always stated that we will do that.

If anyone has questions that need answers about the project, let me have them, and I will pass them on.

I have been invited to go and have a look at their lion project in Gweru which I intend to do, so will tell you more after the visit.