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AFRICAN LION PROJECT

Nature Conservator Tim Dale (click here to email him), is in charge of Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Reserve in S. Africa. This report was submitted by Rob Slotow (click here to email him)

History of HUP's lion population:
The Hluhluwe Umfolozi lion population originated from a small founder population of just three individuals. As a result, our current lion population of approximately 120 individuals is exceptionally inbred. It is believed that this level of inbreeding has resulted in individuals becoming more susceptible to disease and has also led them to experience lower fertility. This is evident in the increased number of tuberculosis-positive lions, lions in poor condition, as well as a decrease in the proportion of cubs in the population.

The aims of the project:
The ultimate aim of the lion research project that was established in HUP in August 1999 is to introduce new genes into an inbred population. This is being achieved in three ways:

The first was to introduce a disease-free pride into the northern section of Hluhluwe. This would serve to boost tourism in a previously lion-free area, and, more importantly, to establish a healthy pride in this region, with the intent being that once these animals breed, their offspring would filter into established prides in the south. This would result in a gradual influx of 'outside' genes into the local population. However, the results of this aspect of the project would only become apparent over a number of years, that is, once the northern section reaches its lion carrying capacity and individuals or prides are forced to move into less populated areas in the south.

The second approach is a more direct one, and involves bonding three sets of two disease-free females into local prides. This will be achieved by releasing the introduced females into a boma along with local pride females. By being in a confined space together, and thus being forced to feed, drink and lie in the shade together, a bond should form between the individuals. Upon release, the theory is that the local females will take the introduced females back with them into their original pride, and because a bond exits between them, that they will subsequently be accepted into the pride. It is hoped that these healthy lionesses will breed with local pride males, which will result in a rapid influx of new genes in the population.

The third aspect of the project is to determine the current disease status of the existing pride members. This will serve as baseline data which will allow us to assess whether any improvement in their condition has been achieved following the genetic boost. This also incorporates the re-testing of both the introduced animals, in order to determine whether they have picked up diseases through interacting with local animals, and the local animals, to ascertain whether or not they are improving and over what time period this is occurring.

Update and present status of the project:

First introduction: Six disease-free animals were introduced from Madikwe Game Reserve and Pilanesberg National Park in the North West province to Hluhluwe in August 1999. The group comprised two Pilanesberg males (one is collared), two Pilanesberg females (one is collared), one Madikwe male (collared) and one Madikwe female (collared). It was hoped that these animals would bond with each other sufficiently while in the boma so that they would move as a pride upon release. However, following their release they split into three groups: the Pilanesberg males, the Pilanesberg females, and the Madikwe pair.

One of the Pilanesberg females was killed when her skull was crushed by a buffalo that the two lionesses were attempting to kill. This left the one female, known as 'One-eye' (her right eye became infected and was removed in Pilanesberg) on her own. She has remained in the northern region of Hluhluwe, and has only been seen to be interacting with the Pilanesberg males when she is in estrous. She has given birth to two cubs, which are now about two months old (fathered by the uncollared Pilanesberg male), and all three are in excellent condition.

The Pilanesberg males are a strong coalition which has moved throughout Hluhluwe. They joined up with a local pride female for three weeks in April 2001, and the collared male was seen to be mating with her. This was the first time that they were recorded interacting with a female other than One-eye. They have not yet established a territory, but are nomadic in their movements, having covered most of the Hluhluwe area.

The Madikwe male and female have moved together for the most part, although about every two months they split up for a week or two. The female is lactating, and thus we believe that she has also given birth to cubs, fathered by the Madikwe male, although this has not yet been confirmed.

Second introduction: Two lionesses, one from Pilanesberg (referred to as 75, in accordance with her collar frequency) and one from Madikwe (referred to as 79, in accordance with her collar frequency) were released into a boma in Umfolozi in June 2000. They were joined by two Mpila pride (a local pride of sixteen animals in the western region of Umfolozi) females. However, they broke out of the boma on the second day that they were all together. It is suspected that one of the Mpila females had a young cub, and that this initiated the break-out. The two Mpila females returned to their pride, while 75 and 79 split up. 75 broke out of the park, and had to be shot since she was in a highly populated rural area and had killed eight head of cattle. 79 joined up with a local pride of eight animals for one month. She then split from the pride with one of the two year old females, and they have been moving together since then. They have recently joined up with two local pride males, and 79 has been seen mating with them.

Third introduction: Two lionesses, one from Pilanesberg (referred to as 32, in accordance with her collar frequency) and one from Madikwe (referred to as 08, in accordance with her collar frequency) were released into the Umfolozi boma in August 2000. They were joined by one Mpila pride female, and all three were in the boma for six weeks. However, they split up on their release, with the Mpila female returning to her pride and 08 and 32 moving together.

08 and 32 then split from each other in November, possibly when trying to cross the Black Umfolozi River that was in flood. 08 was recaptured and put into the Umfolozi boma, and 32 was recaptured and put into a boma in Hluhluwe. This was done in order to re-attempt the bonding process. Two Mpila females were put into the Umfolozi boma with 08 and 32 was moved down to join them a month later. Thus at present we have four females in the Umfolozi boma, and intensive monitoring is taking place to assess the degree of bonding between them, which will enable us to decide when they should be released.

Disease analysis:

We are taking blood and tissue samples from as many individuals as possible in order to determine their disease status. The samples will also be used to give us a genetic identification of each animal, so that we can plot family trees within prides and trace each animal's history. This will also give us an idea as to the extent of the inbreeding in the population.

Thus far, 29 individuals from nine prides (including male coalitions) have been sampled. Of the 24 test results that we have received, all of the animals are TB positive. These do not include any relocated animals, whose test results we are still waiting for. These results indicate that we can expect a high prevalence of TB throughout the reserve, and this emphasises the fact that without intervention, the sustainability of the lion population in HUP is unlikely.

It would be greatly appreciated if you would contribute funding towards this project. A lot of time and effort has gone into making it work, both from the research and management side. Even though we have already obtained a substantial amount of data, it would be unfortunate to be forced to restrict the level of research that we are attaining at present due to a lack of funding.