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Cap­tive lion rein­tro­duc­tion pro­grams in Africa oper­ate under ‘con­ser­va­tion myth’, say biologists

pub­lished 31 July 2012 | mod­i­fied 05 Decem­ber 2012

A new report pub­lished in the inter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion jour­nal Oryx con­cludes that com­mer­cial ‘wildlife encounter’ oper­a­tions across Africa pro­mot­ing the rein­tro­duc­tion of cap­tive lions do lit­tle to fur­ther the con­ser­va­tion of African lions in the wild.

The sim­ple fact is, ‘lion encounter’ type pro­grams do lit­tle to help con­serve wild lions. We show that any sin­cere effort to re-​establish lions sim­ply has no rea­son to resort to cap­tive ani­mals; wild lions are already much bet­ter equipped to be wild. Releas­ing cap­tive ani­mals unnec­es­sar­ily increases the costs, risks of fail­ure and the dan­ger — to both lions and humans
Dr Luke Hunter, senior author and Panthera’s President »

Released ‘Early Online’ on July 31, ‘Walk­ing with lions: Why there is no role for captive-​origin lions (Pan­thera leo) in species restora­tion’, was authored by a blue-​ribbon panel of lion con­ser­va­tion­ists and wild cat biol­o­gists from Pan­thera, the IUCN Cat Spe­cial­ist Group and a team of university-​based lion researchers. Demon­strat­ing that no lions have been suc­cess­fully released as a result of this process, the report deter­mines that com­mer­cial cap­tive lion rein­tro­duc­tion pro­grams oper­ate largely under a ‘con­ser­va­tion myth’.

The last two decades has seen a rapid growth of such oper­a­tions espe­cially across South­ern Africa. Adver­tised as ‘wildlife encoun­ters’, the pro­grams typ­i­cally charge tourists and pay­ing vol­un­teers to pet, feed and walk with hand-​raised and so-​called tame lions. To the pay­ing pub­lic, the stated objec­tive is the even­tual release to the wild of lions.

Lioness OkonjimaThe Oryx paper assesses the poten­tial of these pro­grams to assist wild lion con­ser­va­tion by eval­u­at­ing the role and suit­abil­ity of cap­tive lions for release. The report con­cludes that captive-​bred lions are sim­ply unnec­es­sary for rein­tro­duc­tion projects. For more than two decades, wild lions have been translo­cated and rig­or­ously mon­i­tored in over 40 parks across south­ern Africa with high suc­cess rates. Over 500 wild lions have been re-​established by this process. More impor­tantly, the eval­u­a­tion shows that captive-​bred lions and their off­spring are poorly suited for sur­vival and release com­pared to their wild-​born counterparts.

These oper­a­tions charge the pub­lic to spend time with tame lions claim­ing that it con­tributes mean­ing­fully to lion con­ser­va­tion. Imag­ine if that fund­ing, and the sin­cere inter­est of the peo­ple pay­ing it, was devoted to address­ing the real rea­sons that wild lions are declin­ing and threat­ened. Spend­ing money to breed lions behind fences is not helping
« Dr Paula White, co-​author and Direc­tor of the Zam­bia Lion Project at the Uni­ver­sity of California

The report also claims that captive-​lion enter­prises divert crit­i­cal resources and atten­tion from projects mak­ing a real impact on declin­ing wild lion populations.

While per­haps more than 200,000 wild lions lived in Africa over a cen­tury ago, their num­bers are now thought to be fewer than 30,000. Listed as ‘Vul­ner­a­ble’ by the Inter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Nature and extir­pated from over 80% of its nat­ural range, the lion is now on track to share the fate of its dis­tant cousin, the Endan­gered tiger.

Dr. Matthew Becker, CEO of the Zam­bian Car­ni­vore Pro­gramme (and not an author on the report) notes “Cer­tainly inter­act­ing with tame lions is a unique expe­ri­ence, but it’s not con­ser­va­tion. We have such ‘Walk­ing with Lions’ pro­grams in Zam­bia and they require a con­tin­ual stream of young imported lions, which live out their days in cap­tiv­ity because they are not suit­able for release. Zam­bia doesn’t need captive-​bred lions ver­sus increased pro­tec­tion of its wild pop­u­la­tions and ecosys­tems. Help lions by sup­port­ing the clas­sic walk­ing safaris that occur in our mag­nif­i­cent pro­tected areas — that’s the real walk­ing with lions.”

A pro­mo­tion video of one such ‘walk­ing with lions’ oper­a­tions to be seen here:

Along with Panthera’s team of lion experts and Paula White, the Oryx pub­li­ca­tion was co-​authored by Cole Bur­ton (Uni­ver­sity of Alberta), Andrew Loveridge (Oxford Uni­ver­sity), and Panthera’s Cat Advi­sory Coun­cil Member’s Lau­rence Frank, and Chris­tine and Urs Bre­it­en­moser, who addi­tion­ally chair the Inter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Nature/​Species Sur­vival Commission’s Cat Spe­cial­ist Group.

The above news item is reprinted from mate­ri­als avail­able at Pan­thera. Orig­i­nal text may be edited for con­tent and length.

(Source: Pan­thera, 31.07.2012)

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