Stage one starts with the breeding lions. At present we have a total of 19 that are currently of breeding age or are being kept as future breeding stock, representing 13 different patriarchal and 13 different matriarchal blood lines. These blood lines, except one from Tanzania originate within Zimbabwe. It has taken time to develop this strong gene pool but we are confident that this time has been well spent so that we can release genetically strong and diverse prides. We only breed our females as far as possible using the same cubbing interval as wild lions, which is around 530 days.
The cubs are taken away from their mothers at three weeks old. This allows the cubs to take advantage of colostrum in the mother's milk in the first few days after birth and help development of natural anti-bodies. The cubs are taken away from their mothers at this age as to leave them with the mother in a captive environment would not allow them the neccesary experience of the African Bush and to be able to practice hunting which is vital if they are to have a chance of survival when they are released. We have observed over the years that cubs are very quick to see a handler assigned to raise them as the dominant member of their pride and start suckling and playing with the handler in a completely relaxed way within a couple of hours, 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.
From six weeks old the cubs are taken out for walks and view the handlers with them as dominant members of the pride. The only thing we teach the cubs is the limits of acceptable play with humans to ensure it is safe for us to walk with them, but everything else they learn simply by having the opportunity to experience their natural environment and to practice stalking the game species they encounter on walks.
The cubs are walked until they are around 18 months old, after which we allow them out at night, followed by a vehicle which gives them the opportunity to hone their already burgeoning hunting skills. Over the last two years we have seen the cubs achieve a hunting success rate of 47% on these Night Encounters, taking a variety of prey from birds and mongoose to larger prey such as impala, wildebeest and zebra.
By two and a half years old the lions are ready for release into stage two of the program.