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More about stage two of the release program


David Youldon

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In August 2007 we felt we had enough experience and a group of lions that were ready for our first ever stage two release. The aim of stage two is to provide a bridging opportunity for the lions between the human contact and captive environment of stage one and the wild situation in stage three. The lions are released into an area of no less than 500 acres where they have to become self-sustaining with no human contact except a monitoring team and to build a socially stable pride.

On the morning of 29th August 2007 in the presence of our invited guest and now patron of ALERT UK, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a pride of 2 males and 5 females were released into a 620 acre site at the Dollar Block reserve in central Zimbabwe.

In the first days following release the lions explored their new home and made some first attempts to capture the game inside the site. There were some initial squabbles between the pride, but all seemed calm and going well. On the fourth morning the pride made their first kill, taking an eland, Africa's largest antelope. A few days later the pride males took a warthog. The lions have gone on to make a number of successful hunts are are well on their way to becoming fully self-sustaining.

However, after 6 weeks of appearing to be well bonded, the two males attacked and killed two of the females. ALERT released the following statement about these events:

"On the morning of 23rd October our research team discovered the body of Muti, one of our females in stage two of the reintroduction program at the Dollar Block reserve in Zimbabwe. 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 & 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.

This is a very sad moment for all the staff on the project who had worked with Muti & Mampara to prepare them for release, as early indications suggested they were doing very well at hunting and bonding with the other released lions.

We have extensively discussed this event with our expert consultants; Dr. Don Heath and Dr. Pieter Kat, to try and understand what may have caused this to happen. Although all seven lions seemed to be well bonded in the first weeks after release, the males had been seen starting to chase the females around. Such interactions also occur among wild lions; often after a pride takeover the new males will engage in such activity, but this rarely results in injury as the young females are faster than the males and can get out of the way. When a male can isolate a female however he will attempt to dominate, and such aggression in this case might have resulted in the death of two of the females. We, as well as other lion breeding programs, have experienced such mortality, although the causes of such events are often difficult to determine.

The principal objective of stage two was to release captive born lions back into a natural situation where they could entirely feed for themselves. This was achieved and the lions had started to successfully hunt prey species at the release site and could be considered competent hunters. This should be considered remarkable progress from the captive born cubs that they were. Our careful and dedicated programs have made this a reality.

Early indications were that the released pride was bonding well and behaving in a manner akin to a wild pride. As a result of these recent events we will give even more focus to research into sociality within release prides to ensure that males and females are socially compatible.

Reintroduction of intelligent animals with complex sociality is always difficult. We do the best we can with the information we have available. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the USA in 1995 was a similarly complex issue and not without problems and setbacks, although the introduced wolves were wild-caught in Canada. Lions are a species with a solitary heritage in an uncomfortable group situation. They are all individuals attempting to make their best way in a group.

We can only make assumptions at this stage as to why Muti & Mampara died - there are many complexities to this occurrence that might not involve male aggression per se. We continually review and refine our release protocols, and will do so again in continued consultation with Dr. Don Heath and Dr. Pieter Kat.

We have acknowledged from the start that this innovative, original, and complex program would encounter setbacks. We have no ability to incorporate advice from concurrent or past programs. We are pioneers, and accept all responsibilities associated with that designation. As the lions attain their skills, so will we. ALERT is ultimately dedicated to the conservation of this magnificent species. All beginnings are difficult, but we will dedicate our adaptive and considered energies to succeed."

ALERT has received many messages of support in response to our statement, including the following:

"A sad end for two great lionesses but an end that becomes many in the wild. It must be awful for those who 'knew' them, however it is not like a finger of blame can ever be pointed. A unique, ground breaking and magnificent project is unfolding in front of our very eyes and unfortunately this kind of scenario can (and will) happen.... and over & over again the animals will make 'their' choice as they are essentially wild, as they should be. A sad interim period.... but hope remains because of the constant continual work. It's great that an organization can be so upfront and truthful about happenings.... and it's great to be part of such a magnificent cause.... .... long may it continue." Karin McKivitt

ALERT is committed to understanding sociality in lions better in order to make the most effective decisions about which lions to release together. As part of this we have instigated a research program that looks at character traits in young lions as a predictor of the role that that lion may play in a pride upon release. We are looking at dominance behaviours, aggressiveness, leadership, sociableness and playfulness as just some of the traits under observation.

For now, the remaining females at the Dollar Block site are well bonded and hunting. We have elected to remove the males for the time being to give the females a chance to cement their social group and hunt without the complexity of having boys around. We are also considering supplementing the female pride, and once we are happy that this female pride is bonded and self-sustaining then we will consider the best methods to introduce males back in to the group.

ALERT has a number of other stage two locations in Zimbabwe and Zambia either confirmed or under discussion. We are looking to implement these further releases in 2008 and are currently looking for additional funding for these.

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