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Results of an independent review of stage two

David Youldon


Response by ALERT to the paper “The rehabilitation of captive bred lions (Panthera leo) in a semi-wild environment for release into the wild: case study of Antelope Park, Zimbabwe” by Roseline L. Mandisodza, 2008, (unpublished).

In 2008 ALERT facilitated an independent review of our stage two release program at the Dollar Block reserve in central Zimbabwe. ALERT’s own research technicians were also present at this time conducting our own research on the released lions.

The aim of the study was to assess the role of captive breeding of lions in the context of the national management plan for the species, with emphasis on the behaviour of captive bred lions in a semi-wild environment. The research questions to be answered were therefore:

a. What is the contribution of captive breeding to the overall conservation of lion in Zimbabwe, in the context of the lion management strategy?
b. Do captive bred lions exhibit similar behaviour patterns to wild lions with regard to their response to the presence of humans and the killing of prey from known behaviour of wild lions in literature?
c. Do unrelated captive bred lions form prides when released into a semi-wild environment?

The author concluded that; “it is important to reintroduce captive bred lions into the wild”; “captive bred lions are able to kill and sustain themselves”; and the “response of captive bred lions to humans and vehicles gradually changed from positive to negative with time” [a negative response being when the lions actively moved away from the research vehicle]. The author concluded that a socially stable pride was not formed by the released lions however it is the opinion of ALERT that the data presented does not support this conclusion. This is further confirmed by using data collected by ALERT over the same time period and for many weeks subsequently that supports the conclusion that a socially stable pride exists.

The aim of stage two is for the released lions to become socially stable, self-sustaining and withdraw from the human contact that they have had in stage one in preparation for their release into stage three. Stage three is a secure natural environment of a size to permit a pride home range similar to that found in wild populations; where competitive species such as hyena exist; with the lions having no human contact; such that the offspring borne in this stage are raised as any wild cub would be. It is these cubs that will be released into the wild in appropriate locations and social groups.

The results of this independent study along with data collected by ALERT itself show that the released lions have met all conditions for success in stage two.

Contribution of captive breeding to conservation of the lion in Zimbabwe…

The author concluded that it is important to reintroduce captive bred lions into the wild and recommended a Captive Breeders Association be formed within Zimbabwe to provide advice in lion conservation in conjunction with the Wildlife Authority.


The author quoted from literature that hunting success is a function of parental investment yet confirmed that the released pride had indeed proven they are able to kill and sustain themselves without such investment. The author did state that the Night Encounter program conducted at Antelope Park whereby the young lions are taken out after dark to practice their hunting skills could not have assisted in the development of the hunting skill shown by the released lions because the conditions under which the program is conducted are not found in the wild, but could not attribute the hunting success of the released lions to any other factor.

ALERT believes that the natural instincts to hunt are present in all lions but without either parental investment or the opportunity for those instincts to develop through repeated exposure to prey prior to release the released pride would have needed to be supplementary fed until those instincts had time to develop. By providing pre-release training we believe the lions were able to hunt species large enough to sustain the whole pride immediately upon release with advantages to the chances of developing a stable pride social system – an important factor in the overall success of the release protocol.

The independent study provided the following results:

The lions spent 6 – 72 hours (average 30.9 hours) on each kill. For the duration of the study the lions made kills that provided an individual average consumption per day of 5.8kg. This is higher than the mean daily intake for lions aged between one and four years of 3.75kg (Power 2003) and was attributed to readily available prey, the lack of competitive species and the lack of reproductive activity in the pride.

ALERT’s own study over a longer time period concluded that the lions made a kill every 2.88 days with average daily meat intake per lion ranging between 5.1 – 5.6kg with the smaller lions of Nala & Narnia eating the least and the largest female, Athena, eating the most. Hunting was made easier during the time of study due to the high length of grass in the release area affording the pride greater cover. Competitive species are to be introduced in stage three of the program. ALERT’s expected mean daily intake per lioness of 4.3 kg/day, range 2.3 – 6.9kg is taken from a study conducted at Madjuma Lion Reserve of a pride of eight lions, which originally came from a reintroduced stock of three lionesses and a male lion from the Pilanesberg National Park (Power 2003).

Response to humans and vehicles…

No assessment of the lions’ response to humans was made nor presented within this paper as it was made clear to the author that ALERT would not permit such a study for safety reasons as well as being against the provisions of our release protocol.

An assessment was made of the response of captive bred lions to the research vehicle, however, no literature review on this topic was provided, neither was any study of wild lions in this regard conducted in order to provide comparison.

The independent study provided the following results:

“Eighty-nine (89) observations of response of lions to humans and vehicles were made at dawn, midday and dusk. The observation range is between -1(strong negative response) to 1 (strong positive response). Strong positive response is when the lions moved and followed vehicle, strong negative response is when the lions moved away from humans and vehicle and no response is when the lions ignored the vehicle and continue with their own activities.”

From the first to the fifth observation there was a strong positive response to the vehicles. From the fifth to the ninth observation there was a strong negative response. From the ninth observation onwards the lions did not respond to the presence of the vehicle except on occasion when a slight positive or negative response was observed.

These conclusions concur with ALERT’s own findings.

Pride formation…

The independent study concluded that no pride was formed based on the time the pride was observed together during the seven week period of the study. References within the literature review of the paper on the behaviour of wild lions and the data collected during the study however support the opposite conclusion that the released pride are behaving socially as would be expected. ALERT’s own study showed a similar split in the pride in the initial weeks but found that the pride was increasingly observed together in the subsequent weeks following the end of the independent study, and it is on these results that ALERT feels confident to refute the conclusion drawn by the author. This pattern of dispersal and re-establishment of the pride was also observed following the first release in August 2007. On each release such split was observed on the basis of kinship but also differing familiarity of the release areas between the individual lions is considered a factor in the observed split after the second release.

Both the independent study and ALERT’s own research concluded that there was closer kinship between Ashanti, Phyre and Kenge and with Athena, Nala and Narnia with Ashanti and Athena taking the role of alpha female in their respective kin groups. This is to be expected due to the nature of their upbringing and housing prior to release and is not contrary to the behaviour of wild lions. Research not undertaken in the independent study but implemented only by ALERT looked at the relationship between Athena and Ashanti. Such study concluded that on a pride level Ashanti takes the alpha female role.

ALERT also makes the following comments regarding the content of the independent study…

Title. “The rehabilitation of captive bred lions (Panthera leo) in a semi-wild environment for release into the wild”It is not the intention of the African Lion Rehabilitation & Release into the Wild Program to release captive bred lions into a semi-wild environment for later release into the wild. Captive bred lions will be released only into a semi-wild environment. Within this release area (stage three) the lions will give birth to cubs, which having been raised in the semi-wild environment and within a natural social group will, we believe, be able to be released into the wild at an appropriate age and under appropriate circumstances.

Page 4, line 5, “captive breeding operations breed lions with different strains from those in the wild, but are a cause for concern as these animals do not make any genetic contribution to wild populations.”No information was requested on the genetic history of the lions in the study from the researcher and as such no comment of their genetic background or of their genetic contribution to wild populations can be made.

Page 4, line 7, “nor can they be introduced into the wild because of human imprinting”
Captive bred lions with human imprinting can be released into the wild and such action has been both successfully and unsuccessfully implemented by other organizations and individuals. It is ALERT’s opinion however that such a release poses a greater threat to communities bordering a release area and as such this type of release does not form part of the release protocol.

Page 4, line 9, “if captive bred lions are introduced in the wild, there is a problem of cooperation with other lions in hunting and hunting skills…and fitting in wild territories”
Such problems also occur when using wild-caught lions for reintroduction and reinforcement of existing prides; however these can be overcome by the use of proven boma-bonding techniques in wild lions (Van Dyk 1997; Hunter et al. 2007). ALERT is not aware of any example where an attempt to similarly bond captive bred lions to wild lions has occurred in order to compare success against a wild-caught lion reintroduction and bonding on hunting success, cooperation and skill. Given that the research conducted by ALERT and also from this independent study both confirm hunting ability and hunting co-operation within the released pride it is ALERT’s opinion that the boma bonding techniques to overcome the apparent problem cited in this paper are the same for both wild-caught and captive sources of lions for reintroduction and reinforcement of existing prides and can therefore both be similarly overcome.

For new prides, careful selection of the release site to provide suitable land on which a released pride can establish a territory is possible, however it should be noted that it is commonplace for wild prides to establish territories next to, overlapping and within existing pride territories (Pusey & Packer 1986). Such issues are the same for both captive origin and wild-caught lions for reintroduction.

Page 8. Whole Page and Page 9, Lines 1 - 5. “The information as downloaded from http://lionencounter.com/about.htm”
The information presented here is a previous version of the release protocol which is constantly reviewed and updated in response to data collected on the progress of each stage. Although the page is still currently accessible it is no longer available from www.lionencounter.com. The most accurate and up to date information on the release protocol was provided to the author of this paper but such information was not used, instead this previous version has been used and thus a misrepresentation of the release protocol in use and under which this research study was undertaken is apparent, including confusion by the author on which stage of the program they were studying.

Page 29, Line 4, “At three weeks, the cubs are kept in baskets in a room with constant temperature”. And Line 7, “At two months the lions are moved from the room to enclosures” (quote relates to husbandry techniques used at Antelope Park)
This is not the case and no information was provided that would have suggested that this is so. Accurate information was provided but not used that the cubs are kept outside, however a kennel is provided for the cubs to sleep in, and, if necessary during winter, a well insulated water bottle is provided to replace any body heat that the cubs might enjoy if their mother were to rest alongside them. On occasion, where a cub has been ill, it has been brought inside to recover before being placed back outside.

Page 29, Line 23, “the lions feed on the offals and the rest of the meat is taken away for later feeding of the other lions when back at the cages at stipulated feeding times. (quote relates to Night Encounters conducted at Antelope Park)
This is not the case and no information was provided that would have suggested that this is the case. Accurate information was provided but not used that if the kill was large the lions would be permitted to eat a portion of the kill in situ after which they would be chased off it with the remaining carcass collected and provided to them on return to their enclosure.

Page 31, Line 4, “The initial release was six females and two males. Unfortunately the male lions killed three female lions”.
This is not the case and no information was provided that would have suggested that this is the case. Accurate information was provided but not used that five females and two males were introduced and two of those females died.

The use of language to describe the death of the two females is irresponsible in respect of the actual events, the details of which cannot be fully known nor understood. The following statement was provided to the author but not used directly nor the meaning of the statement referenced. “On the morning of 23rd October 2007 our research team discovered the body of Muti….The two co-introduced males, Maxwell and Luke, were in the vicinity, and we presume that Muti's death might have been caused by an aggressive encounter. On the 28th of October Maxwell and Luke were witnessed attacking Mampara, another of the females.

During the fight she seemed to have sustained only a single puncture wound to one of her back legs. Her subsequent death suggests that possible internal injuries might also have occurred.”

Page 32, Line 15, “the released lions were monitored for a period of seven weeks”
It is the opinion of ALERT that sufficient monitoring of the lions was undertaken to meet the requirements of the Master’s thesis only. As such the results presented in this paper reflect only a small snap-shot of the behaviours of the released lions and do not adequately reflect the long term behaviour of these lions. ALERT’s release protocol intends that stage two of the program lasts approximately one year before the lions are moved to stage three. ALERT continued to collect data after the author left the site and such data contradicts some of the conclusions presented in this paper.

Page 36 - 38, Whole Page
Accurate information was provided to the author as regards the success of each individual lion during night encounters at Antelope Park and this is presented in Appendix C within the paper, however the data analysis and therefore any conclusions drawn from such analysis is subject to error as indicated on the contradiction in data figures given on page 36 to the data sets in Appendix C. No information is contained within this paper on how the expected kills during night encounters was established as reported in these results.

Page 39 - 41. Whole Page
Reference has been made to how many lions made kills together and in which groups, however, as no kill was ever observed by the author these results are no more than conjecture and are only the opinion of the author with no scientific evidence to support either this data or any conclusions drawn from it.

The estimated weights of the kills made to calculate average daily meat intake do not take into account the edible biomass of the animal nor the carcass utilization rate; and calculations of average consumption per day by the pride and each individual do not follow from the data results shown within the paper nor take into account which animals were present at each kill site to establish the meat intake of individual lions.

Data collected and analyzed by ALERT research technicians do take into account edible biomass, carcass utilization and which lions were present at each kill in order to establish an average daily intake for each individual lioness. Such results produce a figure slightly lower than the result presented in this paper but still within the expected range for average daily meat intake.

Page 55, Line 6, “No record of costs of breeding or sale of live lions were provided”
No such information was ever requested by the author.

Page 56, Line 15, “detecting and blinding the prey”This statement contradicts the description of a night encounter as given on page 29 and does not accurately describe the protocols used on night encounters. Therefore this should not be considered a factor in the hunting success of the lions.

Page 56, Line 18, “when the lions do night encounters they hunt with different partners. The lions do not stay together; they will be coming from different cages. The set up will be strangers hunting together who only meet at meal times a situation that is different from the wild.”
The given description of night encounters is not accurate as not once have lions from different cages ever been sent on a night encounter together, nor have any groups of lions including lions that are “strangers” ever been taken on a night encounter together. It is not known how the author came about such a description of night encounters. As such, making a comparison to wild lion behaviour using this information is invalid in reference to this program.

Page 60, Line 10 “emotional attachment between lions & humans affects survival and success of captive bred lions into the wild.”This conclusion is related to the previous discussion in this paper on the lions released by the Adamson’s and does not follow the conclusions drawn within this paper as to the response to the released lions in this study to vehicles. Further, it is repeated that the release protocol does not include the release of human-imprinted lions into the wild.


• Hunter, L.T.B., K. Pretorius, L.C. Carlisle, M. Rickelton, C. Walker, R. Slotow & J.D. Skinner. 2007. Restoring lions Panthera leo to northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: short-term biological and technical success but equivocal long-term conservation. Oryx Vol 41 No 2.
• Packer, C. 1986. The ecology of sociality in felids. In: Ecological aspects of social evolution (D.I. Rubenstein & R.W. Wrangham, eds), p. 429 – 451. Princeton Press, Princetown.
• Pusey, A.E. & C. Packer. 1986. The evolution of sex-biased dispersal in lions. Behaviour 101:44, 275-310
• Schaller, G.B. 1972. The Serengeti Lion. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
• Van Dyk, G. 1997. Re-introduction techniques for lion (Panthera leo) In: P.J Kilian & J. du P. Bothma. Notes on the social dynamics and behavior of reintroduced lions in the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 33(2): 119-124 (October 2003).


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