Lion breeding in Zimbabwe

Mary Ball Howkins on a walk with Damisi.
During August, I volunteered at a lion-breeding project at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe, the largest project of its kind in Africa. My interest in protecting and enhancing numbers of distressed African animal populations led me there to do some of the work that the permanent staff had no time to do.

We volunteers (there were 14 of us all together, primarily British, Dutch and Italian) shoveled lion poop, cleaned out old bones from enclosures, scrubbed water troughs and refilled them, lit back fires to stave off the large savannah fires that often threaten the preserve, helped cut up whole cows to feed lions every three to five days, and gave young growing lions vitamins.

The most enjoyable part of the volunteer work, though, was walking three six-month- or two 11-month-old lions every morning at 6:30 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. for an hour and a half each time.

We humans, about six or seven of us together in one group, simulated a lion pride for the youngsters as they trooped out into the savannah, sharpened their claws on tree trunks, experimented with putting their paws in a stream and practiced stalking zebras, impala, or kudu, whichever turned up ahead.

We were always accompanied on our walks by two professional lion handlers who taught us strict rules for lion interaction to keep us safe. We weren’t in danger of antagonistic lion aggression, but we were in danger of potential lion assault as part of the playful antics and stalking practice of youngsters experimenting, wielding sharp claws and teeth, and with paws larger than my hands.

I learned the first day out on a walk that my quilted red jacket (it’s winter in southern Africa during our summer here) was a lion lure, and didn’t wear the jacket again. Damisi, a large affectionate 11-month-old male, bumped my legs on my right side and then sat down on my feet, to my dismay and confusion.

Three six-month-old cubs, all siblings – Tsavo, Thulani and Meggie
At the time I had no idea how to interpret the behavior and followed the lion handler’s instruction to back away slowly so that Damisi couldn’t turn over in my direction and grab a hold. The gesture would have been friendly had he done so, but physically damaging to me to say the least, owing to the claws and teeth with which he was used to showing his affection to his sibling.

On some nights we rode out on a large jeep accompanied by two or more lions old enough to begin to hunt. When temperatures were cool, our jeep would race after them when they took off after prey, and we would cheer them on when they made a kill. A lion eventually released into a preserve must know how to hunt to feed its pride.

Each night hunt was recorded in detail on paper regarding the time and direction of the stalk, the leading hunting lion, the success of the stalk, the size of the animal killed, etc., in order to create accurate data about each lion’s unfolding abilities.

Lion breeding is a controversial undertaking in the international conservation community. The majority of the scientific community is against it, and some of that opposition is linked to sales of lions for “canned” lion hunting.

Lion handlers at work with three-month-old cubs.
Most of the opposition, however, is a result of the fact that lion breeding produces semi-tame lions. In a joint statement made in 2006, Drs. Paula A White, Craig Packer and Luke Hunter, all experienced researchers in the areas of wildlife behavior and conservation, urged the public interested in African animal conservation to work toward “the restoration and protection” of wild lands and animals through established programs and organizations rather than through lion breeding. They are opposed to the release of semi-tame lions, which can be a danger to villagers and their livestock.

Perhaps as a response to scientific opposition, the breeding program at Antelope Park plans to release only the second-generation offspring of semi-tame lions so that no human contact will have “tainted” those lions’ release potential. But those subsequent generations have yet to be produced, owing mostly to difficulties in procuring acreage large enough to receive a human-constructed and hunting lion pride.

This August, Antelope Park received a lease for an adjacent 2,500 hectares for lion pride release and for pride breeding independent of human contact, so that stage of the project can move forward. Yet the potential success of lion breeding as a means of enhancing the numbers of a decimated lion population (estimates can range from 50-85 percent) has not been established, and years will elapse before results are evident.

Antelope Park does have academic support in Dr. Pieter Kat, who has been working on conservation projects in Africa for the past 18 years, most recently in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. In 2000, he published Prides: the Lions of Moremi with Chris Harvey, and he is an outspoken critic of the lack of action by many conservationists in the face of the dramatic decline of the number of lions in Africa over the past 30 years.

Three-and-a-half-month-old cub, not yet named.
I suspect that many lion breeding projects are, in fact, commercial enterprises, to the detriment of lions. Yet the Antelope project, under the tutelage of Pieter Kat, seems genuine in its efforts to regulate breeding to ensure healthy genetic strains, to collect accurate behavioral and physical data about the lions bred, and to structure its project to the advantage of the lions themselves over time and over lion generations.

Andrew Connolly, the owner of the private park, dramatizes his commitment to lions by calling attention to his absent left arm, lost years ago when mauled through a fence by a female lion.

Time will tell whether there is a right or wrong side to the debate about how to enhance lion populations in the African landscape. If lion breeding does prove useful in years to come, as Andrew Connolly and Pieter Kat hope, no doubt the restoration and protection efforts of the traditional conservation community will prove essential for lion well being as well. The two approaches don’t have to be antithetical, and could yet prove to be collaborative. ITV, the British television network that begins filming a 30-hour series on the first stage of lion breeding at the park in September, plans to air the series (possibly on “Animal Planet”) and give the project a more public face.