This coming Monday, seven lions are to be tranquillized and placed in steel crates for the purpose of flying them from South Africa to Akagera National Park in Rwanda. Due to the 1994 genocide, the predators have not been in the park – the largest protected wetland in central Africa – for 15 years. Conservationist group African Parks are spearheading the project, hoping to restore the natural balance of the local ecosystem.
Following the ’94 Rwandan tragedy, various parks were left exposed with no management, leading to cattle herders poisoning the last remaining lions. Now, The International Union for Conservation of Nature is listing the lion as ‘vulnerable’ in its latest ‘red list’ of species facing survival threats. There has been some conservation success in southern Africa according to the union, however lion populations in east Africa are rapidly declining and in west Africa the species is ‘critically endangered’. Moreover, African Parks said human intrusion in the lions’ habitats and a general decrease in lion prey are also large factors, as well as the growing practice in Africa and Asia of making traditional medicine from lion bones and other body parts.
The seven lions – varying in age and genetic makeup – consists of five females and two males, and were chosen based on ‘future reproductive potential’ and their ability to cooperate with other members of their species. Donated by %Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the lions were considered excess as the parks were holding them in “relatively small, confined reserves”.
The trip will span 26 hours, with the big cats being transferred to the national park by truck and plane.
“They will be continually monitored by a veterinary team with experience in translocations. They will be kept tranquillised to reduce any stress and will have access to fresh water throughout their journey.” stated African Parks.
After they arrive, before they can be released into the wild they will be kept in a specially made 1,000m² enclosure surrounded by an electric fence for two weeks. During this time the lions will be suited with satellite collars to lower the possibility of the animals wandering into inhabited areas. “The collars have a two-year life,” noted African Parks. “By which time the park team will have evaluated the pride dynamics and only the dominant individuals in each pride will be re-collared.”
Head of tourism at the Rwanda Development Board, Yamina Karitanyi expressed his joy for this project, saying: “It is a breakthrough in the rehabilitation of the park … Their return will encourage the natural balance of the ecosystem and enhance the tourism product to further contribute to Rwanda’s status as an all-in-one safari destination.” With chief executive of African Parks Peter Fearnhead adding: “The return of lions to Akagera is a conservation milestone for the park and the country.”
Let’s hope this conservation venture is a success and that not too much has changed in the 15 years since these creatures disappeared. Fortunately, the team has already prepared the area for the reintroduction, running a ‘sensitisation’ programme in the communities around the park in order to promote a balanced co-existence with the lions.