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PredatorBiologist Dec 17th, 2007 02:08 PM

Lion Encounter/Walk with lions, etc. Update
Sorry but I could not find the most recent thread on this activity and the older one is call "Lurker No More" where it will be hard to find in the future.

In the past the Lion Encounter or Walk with Lions at Victoria Falls has been discussed numerous times as has their elaborate multi-phase 'reintroduction plan' that has been used as justification for the continued breeding of cubs who can serve the tourist industry for 18 months or so before they become too large for interaction.

I have spent a fair amount of time researching and examining their program and basically concluded with a skeptical view and a lot of doubt but I did withhold absolute condemnation of the overall program (operated by ALERT although it tends to run under a number of different names and marketed by Safari Par Excellence in Vic Falls) in case I was missing something. I have now learned that they are attempting to offer additional walking activities on the Zambia side of Vic Falls.

Somehow I never found this previously but on Safari Talk a poster has copied a public statement issued back in August 2006 by some of the foremost lion experts that completely discredits the entire ALERT program. See at this link.

These experts have confirmed many of my concerns and I would advise that no one support this program anymore. While I can appreciate the amazing feeling that must come from touching lions and having such close contact continued demand simply fuels a lion breeding mill that is expanding and a continuous cycle of wasted lion lives.

Patty Dec 17th, 2007 02:17 PM

Thanks for the update, PB!

cw Dec 17th, 2007 02:29 PM

Thanks for posting this. The program is so enticing, yet made me uncomfortable. I hope this helps in the decision others will make.


VeeR Dec 17th, 2007 02:31 PM

PB - thank you for posting the link. As the original "Lurker No More" and one who participated in the Walk with Lions in Victoria Falls I am glad this message is getting out. I am still heartsick that we contributed to this activity. My husband saw elephants in the training area as we were leaving and he thought the trainers were heavy handed with the canes. We went through Shearwaters.
The guide actually told us that when the cubs got to big, they were sold.

PredatorBiologist Dec 17th, 2007 02:52 PM

VeeR: please don't trouble yourself, virtually all of us animal lovers want to touch the lions and when they spin it under the guise of conservation it's even better. I know it sounds cool to me and I'm one who really should know better but they do a great job of marketing and clouding consumer understanding. I certainly understand why people have done this activity and don't fault them.

Since this is a good venue for people to become educated I just want to deliver facts and hopefully that will lead to people making good decisions for themselves. When reputable sources such as Africa's foremost lion researchers go on record I hope that will help, it definitely helped me cement my opinion. Sharing first hand experience helps with that too, so the addition of your thoughts here are doing a lot of good!

Momliz Dec 17th, 2007 03:02 PM

Thanks so much for sticking with this issue, PB! I was tempted by this as well, as you know, and am very glad that you have done this research so that we all now know the real scoop.

GreenDrake Dec 17th, 2007 04:15 PM

PB - thank you for keep on top of this issue. Any feeling if ALERT is simply misguided or unscrupulous?

My gut feeling is they are unscupulous, but they may have enticed some well meaning volunteers and leveraged their good intentions to line their pockets.

mkhonzo Dec 17th, 2007 04:41 PM

And that little program supports quite a number of otherwise destitute Zimbabweans....

May I suggest that you all climb aboard a real moral high horse and do something to unseat Mugabe before you try to close down a bone fide tax paying business that offers more than just a conservation promise.

PB, did your research reveal that the same operator had just released six rhino into the reserve? Or did you miss that?

Did your research show where the lions were sold? Perhaps a hunting outfit..... If so maybe a better end than having a Texan cowboy obliterate the wild dominant male don't you think? Or does being a biologist dictate that your follow preservationist doctrine rather than conservationist savvy, such as self sustaining....?

Just throwing that out there because it frustrates me when one time travellers, who do not comprehend completely the full story advocate sanctions, where frankly that is not really the answer to the issue. In the case of Zimbaweans, getting cash for bread is the difference between life and death and any legitimate enterprise that facilitates this should be supported and not scorned.

Do I agree with hand rearing lion, elephant or any other wild beast for the purpose of entertaining soft bellied tourist: No I don't. But I don't agree with one sided public pressure that cripples the hope of the hopeless. These men will be Zimbabwe's conservationists and field guides of the future. You will ruin them and force them to drive taxis or worse subsist through crime...

My 2 cents!

nyama Dec 17th, 2007 05:02 PM

mkhonzo -- thanks, exactly my thoughts.

matnikstym Dec 17th, 2007 07:50 PM

Thanks for the update PB and thanks for your viewpoint mkhonzo. Interesting topic as I'm one of the soft bellied tourists who did the Lion Encounter, still a highlight of my life. Would I do it again? Can't honestly say. Lions sold on one hand, keeping the Zimbabweans working on the other. Let's keep this thread civil so it won't get deleted. Thanks again to you both, it's a lot to think about!

Roccco Dec 17th, 2007 07:59 PM

I, for one, no longer know what the right answer is on this issue. I do thank PB for sharing his knowledge on the issue and do not profess to know more than others on this matter.

I do know, however, that the Lion Encounter was an amazing activity and one of the top highlights I have yet had in Africa. All the guests on my tour seemed to also enjoy it very much and the guides did go into great detail on the welfare and future plans for the lions, addressing concerns that anyone may have. Of course, whether or not that actually happens is anyone's guess, but at least they had their story straight, and like Mkhonzo pointed out, this was employing many Zimbabweans, and that is good enough for me.

I am sharing a photoalbum that I put together from that incredible morning. I would encourage anyone visiting Victoria Falls to enjoy the Lion Encounter as it really is amazing.

VeeR Dec 17th, 2007 08:07 PM

It is going to seem like I am a total flip-flop person on this issue and maybe I am at this point.

Mkhonzo - even as I wrote my post I could envision the number of people employed by Shearwaters to keep my soft belly enthralled by the beasts.

However I still stand by my gut reaction that selling the cubs that are too old for this activity to - and I quote "circuses, TV and movie production companies and game farms..." leaves little room for their promotion (on-line)of reintroduction to the wild. (I'm not even taking into account what those who really understand reintroduction and all it entails say about it). It is false advertising.

Mkhonzo - again I direct this to you. Tell me - exactly what I can do to help the political situation in Zimbabwe. Please feel free to write me at bajagueraathotmaildotcom
I would truly like to hear more of your thoughts on this - but this isn't the correct forum.

rickmck Dec 17th, 2007 08:15 PM

Due to time constraints, I never wrote up a proper, detailed trip report from my October 2007 mobile in Botswana (WS Migration Routes) coupled with a few days at Mala Mala. In between the two, I had arranged for a single day in Vic Falls, specifically to participate in the Lion Encounter operated on the Masuwe Estate, which is a partner operation to Antelope Park. The arrangement was made through SafPar. Seeing this topic come up again in this thread, I want to offer the complete detail of my experience there, as there are elements of both points of view here (one, perhaps, more than the other). What follows is excerpted from what I wrote in my safari journal for the day, and it’s long!

* * * * *

The morning begins with coffee and tea in a small pavilion where we are shown a video about the operation, the declining lion population in Africa, and the importance of the research mission at this facility -- and at its affiliate facility at Antelope Park – to assuring genetic diversity among lions and the future repopulation of areas where lions have now disappeared. We also get an introductory briefing and safety talk from Paul, who is the morning’s lead guide. He thanks us profusely for our presence and the support that our dollars provide to the program.

There are 14 guests, so we split up into two groups of 7 and head off in different directions to meet the lions. We come to a group of 3 or 4 staffers – all of whom are 20-something, female, and European, and all of whom are “self-funded” volunteers on board for periods of one to three months. (I asked two of them about their experiences here and got responses along the lines of “a dream come true”). With them are 3 young lions, two brothers aged 12 months and one female aged 14 months. The brothers are perched photogenically side-by side on a flat rock and the female is laying on the ground nearby. We’re introduced to the staff and the lions and asked “who would like to sit with the lions and pet them?” A man quickly steps forward and is positioned, sitting, next to one of the brothers and encouraged to pet the lion. One of the staffers takes pictures using the man’s camera. Next, he’s positioned between the two brothers for more petting and pictures. His wife joins him for more of the same. Then the wife, alone. Throughout, Paul or one of the staffers is using a plastic bottle on a string tied to the end of a stick as a “lure” to get the lions to look up and make for a better photo opportunity – as you might do when teasing your housecat. Alternatively, fist-sized rocks are dropped or rolled in front of the Lions to get their attention. I’m thinking “Hmmm...”

I’m up next, seated next to one of the brothers, and encouraged to stroke him along his back. Wow… The fur is thick and coarse… Paul suggests I reach under the lion’s chin and stroke his neck. He seems to like this, turns his head toward me, and licks my thigh 2 or 3 times (I’m wearing long pants). Cool… Then he applies the slightest bit of tooth, and Paul intervenes, gives the lion a smack across the snout and a verbal admonishment. I didn’t like that smacking bit. Paul smacks him again, not hard, but still… Suddenly, this experience doesn’t feel quite right, and the bottle at the end of the string and the rolling rocks are also starting to disturb me.

Once everyone who wants to has had their time and their pictures taken with the brothers and the female, we set off to “walk with the lions.” Each of the staff carry a thin stick, about a meter long, which they use to “herd” the lions along and keep them, as much as possible, to the defined path through the bush. I never saw them strike or poke a lion, but they were being herded like livestock. Disturbingly, guests were offered the opportunity to hold a lion’s tail – like a leash -- as they walk along, and one or two guests do this. Now I know for sure that I don’t like this...

We come to a picturesque spot of fallen logs for more photo opportunities with these lions. By now, I’ve had enough and decline the several invitations for petting and pictures…

We part company with these lions and go to meet a pair of younger cubs, a brother and sister aged 7 months. There is some posing for pictures, but not so much, as these cubs are more boisterous and playful and harder to control. So we then walk a bit with these cubs, one handler up front with a lure to entice the cubs forward, and one bringing up the rear as “herder.”

Throughout the program, Paul gives a talk on Lion behavior, hunting, reproduction, life cycle, and so forth. When the Lion Encounter is over, we are taken to a pavilion where a light breakfast is served. I’m seated next to Paul, and so have the opportunity to ask a lot of questions about the program, the process of Lion reintroduction from the program to the wild, and what successes have they had. Answers were not very satisfying. I learn that there are 70+ Lions in the program. The 5 we met plus 2 other younger cubs at this facility, 7 that have been released a few months ago to a 500-acre fenced enclosure in Zimbabwe (a sort of half-way house toward eventual release to the wild, as I understood it), and 60 or so being maintained at Antelope Park awaiting future release pending the availability of appropriate release sites and agreements. Despite these large numbers and the apparent tameness of the Lions we met, Paul insisted that the program does not suffer from a backed-up “pipeline” of Lions awaiting release and is committed to a long-term strategy for success.

While we eat, a videographer who accompanied the group is apparently busy editing the footage taken of the group during the activity. After breakfast, we are taken to watch the video, which features close-ups of all the Lion petting and walking action, including the guest walking the lion by the tail... Copies of the video are available, folks, for a $40 “contribution to the Lions.” T-shirts can be had for just $15. A tip box “for the Lions” is prominently displayed.

Twice during the morning’s activity, Paul had reminded us that these are wild animals and we must be careful and respectful as ”we [the program] haven’t taken anything from them,” but it seems clear to me that they have taken everything that is wild from these animals and they are as tame as housecats. I would like to believe that this operation is doing good things and, in the big picture, maybe they are, simply by promoting awareness and a degree of understanding of the need for research, genetic diversity, and preservation for the many threatened and endangered wildlife populations everywhere. I went to this activity and paid my money to participate in support of the principles and mission espoused on their website and in their promotional materials. At best, I came away uncomfortable with the manner in which these lions are brought forward to the public and the large numbers of animals that are in the program, and very skeptical of the prospects for long-term successful releases; and at worst, with the feeling that this is more of a tourist money making operation than a research and preservation operation. In the end, I would have preferred not to have been there at all…

[My visit to the Lion Encounter so disturbed me that I did not even include any photos from the event with the albums posted for the rest of my safari)]

* * * *

What little I saw of Vic Falls town and environs looked rather forlorn and down-and-out. On the way to the Lion Encounter, my driver stopped by the curb for a few minutes to drop off some papers at the SafPar office, and a sad, skinny, 12- or 15-year old boy appeared at the windows of the van, looking in pleadingly. Is this an expression of real need, or a practiced con, I wondered? The others in the van studiously ignored the boy, but I stared at him wondering…

After the Lion Encounter, I was alone with the same driver for the 30-minute drive to VF airport. He looked to be in his twenties and I asked him where he came from (somewhere in the south, not far from the South Africa border), where he lived (nearby to VF), and if he had any family here (a wife and two kids – a girl aged 10 and a boy aged 5). How long had he worked for SafPar (about 6 years). And did the company treat him well – not so bad, but when the Government implemented the price controls, they also put a freeze on wages. The price controls, he said, haven’t worked. Prices keep going up, but wages stay the same. It’s hard. I was reluctant to bring up the current situation, but he volunteered it – although neither one of us ventured to any explicit political discussion. The official exchange rate, he said, was 30,000 Zim dollars to one USD but, on the street, he said the current rate is 700,000 Zim to one USD… “If I get Zim dollars in the morning, I spend them right away because they will be worth less in the afternoon. There is nothing in the shops, no basic necessities, no fuel… Everything must come in from Botswana and Zambia on the black market… Even basic foods, we buy them on the street, on the black market…” This driver was very candid and matter-of-fact about the situation. He wasn’t spinning a sob story, just reporting the facts as they affect him and his family daily. When we got to the airport, I tipped him double what I normally would have. He seemed truly grateful for the USD. I also gave him two friendship badges for his kids – enameled lapel pins, really – showing the crossed flags of Zimbabwe and the United States, which seemed to delight him and really provoked a feeling of fellowship…

* * *

So, my opinions from my admittedly very limited exposure to Zimbabwe: I am sure that everybody in this forum would like to see Mugabe unseated and real political change come to Zimbabwe. In the meantime, the Zimbabwean people do need support – economically as well as politically but, for myself, I’m not comfortable with supporting programs like the Lion Encounter… I would seek other mechanisms.


afrigalah Dec 17th, 2007 08:18 PM

Thanks for the update, Bill, and for your view, too, mkhonzo. I'm never frustrated by revelations, welcome or otherwise, which make people think.


HariS Dec 17th, 2007 09:03 PM


Thanks for your honest impressions ..... any idea where the lions that participate in this activity, were coming from?


PredatorBiologist Dec 17th, 2007 11:13 PM

Thanks to those acknowledging my posting of this info but I want to emphasize that this latest bit of info came from where a poster named Quentin provided it and I'm just passing along the link for everyone to see what the lion experts said in their statement.

Mkhonzo: I appreciate your 2 cents, it doesn't bother me if everyone does not agree with my views on this issue. Everyone has their own morality and lines to draw.

It does seem though that you think I've hastily jumped to an unfair conclusion and are characterizing me as a one visit traveller, basically not fit to have an opinion here. There's a fairly long history of posts on this subject that demonstrate that I have put in the effort to communicate directly with the ALERT program allowing them to address my questions and that I have read every single word of their documents for their lion programs. Based on that I had opinions that I guardedly shared and to be cautious of making a mistake and unfairly hurting their business I have been careful not to overstep my bounds and thus I don't believe I ever told anyone not to do their activity until today. What changed today? I came upon the statement by 3 of the world's foremost lion researchers that discredited the program confirming many views that I already had formed.

Secondly, I understand your concern for the dire straights that many people in Zimbabwe are in. However, that focus has deflected one of the crucial points of my Update -- that ALERT is trying to replicate the walking activity in Zambia. Note that one of the lion experts on the statement is Dr. Paula White, Director of the Zambia Lion program and the top advisor to ZAWA on lions. This will mean even more lion cubs being bred simply to gain tourist dollars. My morality on that issue forces me to post the facts for others to consider and my advice to oppose the Lion Encounter project. I do not plan to chase down anyone on a message board who has other beleifs and goes on the walks but I will show the facts and state my opinion on it.

Finally, these people appear to have many business arms -- 'pay to volunteer' program known as AfricanImpact, Antelope Park private game area, lion encounter and probably others. I do not claim to know about all of their businesses, nor have I researched all of them, they may well do some good things, I have only focused on their lion program. Thus, I am not calling for a boycott of all their businesses, nor do I have any interest in putting them out of business. Do I want to stop their lion mill for tourist purposes though, your damn right I do! You seem to know a lot more about their businesses and perhaps even know some of the people personally. Please do share if that's the case, I'm all for a balanced approach and I'd love to see that they have some well conceived program that is ethical and can support locals with jobs but continuing to breed lions in this manner is unethical to me. I guess that's where we differ -- I don't view the Lion Encounter as a legitimate enterprise.

Greendrake: I can only speculate but they have been breeding lions at Antelope Park for about 25 years I believe and have never released one to the wild. I believe this used to be the kind of tourist practice that was standard operating procedure back in the day and really just a case of not knowing any better. Today consumers are much more concerned about this kind of thing so to keep their revenue business it needed to have a higher purpose and thus their ill-conceived reintroduction plan. I can't say that it was done for unscrupulous purposes, it may have been an attempt to evolve with the times and just missed the mark on the science but it is clear that it is used as justification to continue the breeding for the tourist activity and the experts clearly don't believe the conservation program has any value. You are right though that between the tourist dollars and the paying volunteers they are bringing it a very large amount of coin.

Dennis, Rocco, and Rick: thanks for your thoughts from your firsthand experiences.

LionALERT Dec 18th, 2007 01:26 AM

Thank you for everyone's comments on the Lion Encounter at Victoria Falls. My name is David Youldon, Chief Operating Officer of ALERT.

I would recommend that anyone with questions regarding the lion walk visit our web site where you can download an information pack about the project which also answers many of the questions raised in the posts on this site.

Additional information is available on the Facebook group African Lion & Environmental Research Trust at, on the ALERT blog at or by emailing us at [email protected]

Here I would like to respond to the statement referred to by PredatorBiologist and can be viewed in the discussion forum at

Lions are a highly evocative species and prompt reactions from people that do not necessarily come when talking about other species in the same context. For example, there are reintroduction programs across Africa for cheetah, black rhino, buffalo, vervet monkeys, elephant and many, many other species. Many of the issues that apply to the reintroduction of lions, such as genetic integrity and human imprinting, also apply to these others species reintroductions, yet the response from people is very different. People have been moving other species around Africa for years with no negative reactions, but as soon as the lion is mentioned, things tend to heat up. That is one reason why ALERT is so proud to work with the lion, as see it as an ambassador towards the other elements of the ALERT program, those of conservation for the broader ecosystem, research and community development, for long term sustainable conservation; the lion can bring awareness and funding for other less impressive species that otherwise find it difficult to get the attention that they also need.

Before I respond to the statement specifically, from my understanding the quoted statement is not written by the three lion experts mentioned, although I am sure it is written with comments from them in mind. It is I believe written by Ian Manning, a respected conservationist based in Livingstone, Zambia; a man who works tirelessly for the benefit of many species and for that ALERT applauds the work that he does.

And so to the points raised in this post.

1. The project has not spawned a copy-cat operation in Victoria Falls. The operation at Antelope Park and the one in Victoria Falls are the same project, run by the same people with the same aims and hopes for the future of the African lion. When the operation also opens up in Zambia, again, it is the same operation.

2. In order to commence stages one two and three of the lion release program in Zambia, which is our intention, and with full co-operation from the Zambian government, we have followed every step as given to us by the relevant authorities in that country and have been through several routine investigations to ensure that no corruption was involved in obtaining any necessary permits. If anyone has issues with the legal framework prescribed by the Zambian authorities I believe it is a matter that should be taken up with them.

3. I am not quite sure what is implied in the fourth paragraph. It seems to suggest that our program may be the cause of the near extinction of wild lions. At the IUCN led lion strategy meetings held in Cameroon and South Africa in 2005 and 2006 over 100 problems facing the African lion were noted, the greatest of those being habitat destruction. The IUCN states “a species population reduction of 30 - 50% is suspected over the past two decades (three lion generations). The causes of this reduction are not well understood, are unlikely to have ceased and may not be reversible”.

Myers (1975) wrote, "Since 1950, their numbers may well have been cut in half, perhaps to as low as 200,000 in all or even less". Later, Myers (1984) wrote, "In light of evidence from all the main countries of its range, the lion has been undergoing decline in both range and numbers, often an accelerating decline, during the past two decades". In the early 1990s, IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group members made educated "guesstimates" of 30,000 to 100,000 for the African lion population (Nowell and Jackson 1996).

“Two surveys have provided the first current estimates of the African lion population, with some ground-truthing. The African Lion Working Group, a network of lion specialists affiliated with the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group, conducted a mail survey and compiled estimates of 100 known African lion populations. Not included were lion populations of known existence but unknown or un-estimated size. The ALWG African lion population estimate is 23,000, with a range of 16,500 - 30,000.

The second survey was carried out by Philippe Chardonnet and sponsored by the International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife and Conservation Force. He also compiled estimates for 144 individual African lion populations, grouped into 36 largely isolated subpopulations. His methodology included extrapolation of estimates of known populations into areas where lion status was unknown, and his total figure is larger: 39,000 lions in Africa, with a range of 29,000 - 47,000” (IUCN Red List)

Now different people ascribe to the different studies, but if we take Myers 1975 figure of 200,000 lions then we are looking at an 80 – 90% population drop in 30 years (the difference in % based on which estimate – ALWG or Chardonnet that you take).

“There is probably no other species whose distribution range has shrunk over historical times to the extent shown by the lion” (Smithers, 1983)

Over the last few decades millions has been spent on habitat conservation, and ALERT supports every effort towards that aim, however the statistics show clearly that these programs have failed the lion, and indeed many other species. It is ALERT’s belief that an answer must be found to improve the effectiveness and sustainability of habitat conservation methods and you can read more about how we believe that can happen with community involvement on our web site,, or in our blog on this site. However, we do not believe that the wild lion population can wait for all of us to get habitat conservation right. The species is being exterminated and we believe we should act now if we are to ensure that the lion is a presence at sustainable levels in Africa’s eco-systems in 20 years time. Already, the lion that there are present are spread thinly and only a handful of the populations are in numbers that can ensure long term natural sustainability.

It is not our intention to open up hundreds of release sites all over Africa. There is no need. What we want to do is to come up with a solution, and by no means do we claim that our solution is the only one, nor can it work in isolation, but a solution that can, when it becomes necessary, help to at least reverse the horrifying trend in lion populations. We do not adhere to any notion that Africa should be segmented off into small private reserves – this is not in the interest of the wildlife species of Africa who need large spaces and natural gene flow, however given funding available to governments for wildlife across the continent, we do acknowledge the work of these private reserves in finding a way, through tourism, to protect their wildlife.

And so to the statement…

1. At the time this statement was written we had yet to make our first release and therefore it is appreciated that the conservation value of the program had not been demonstrated. I do not believe however that because something hasn’t been proven yet that that can be used as a justification not to try. In August of 2007 we made our first release into stage two. The pride killed an eland on day 4 and have gone on to make other kills including warthog, impala, and most recently an adult giraffe. This is a remarkable achievement for the lions that were once captive. On our blog page on this site you can read more about successful hunts that our lions have made, from rabbits to buffalo. What we have shown is that under the right conditions the lions can hunt and become self-sustaining. From our first release we have seen that we have more to learn about the sociability within release prides, but with consultation with experts we are working hard to resolve these issues.

2. The statement does completely miss the point regarding a corner stone of our release protocols when it states that the lions will have no human avoidance behaviours as a result of human imprinting. This is the issue that previous release programs had – released captive bred lions are more likely to have issues integrating with wild lions, they are more likely to end up in someone’s village and kill livestock, or worse, people. That is why this type of release is not part of the ALERT lion release program and never has been. The captive bred lions are released ultimately into stage three of the program, a large, managed, wild environment with a variety of species, including competitive ones, completely free of humans, but fenced so that they cannot interact with humans. Within that area the pride will give birth to cubs. These cubs will grow up in a wild environment, raised naturally by their pride and will have no contact whatsoever with humans, and will therefore have natural avoidance behaviours. It is these wild-borne cubs that can be released into stage four, which is a release into National Parks or reserves that need them. I think it should also be noted that the statement discusses the high chances of wild lions killing livestock and goats. Wild lions with no experience of humans are becoming a problem as their habitat shrinks and they are forced into community areas to find sufficient prey. So it must be understood the issues related to the release of captive bred lions are already present in wild ones, but I repeat, this does not form part of our release protocols.

3. ALERT has stated many times that the control of breeding in all stages of the program is possible in response to fluctuations in demand for lions in stage four, and we have also stated that we will shut down any stage if necessary to ensure that over-production is not a feature of the program. In years to come when we have several stage three locations producing sufficient cubs, we can shut down stages one and two completely, but we will have proved a method which can be restarted should it become necessary to do so. ALERT is 100% against canned hunting and will support any move to ban this vile industry.

4. Genetic issues are complex. ALERT works with Jean Dubach of the Chicago Zoological Society and co-author of the research paper “Molecular genetic variation across the southern and eastern geographic ranges of the African lion, Panthera leo”. With her assistance ALERT has published the following statement:

“Lions are most commonly described using 7 or 8 subspecies classifications, although 24 have been suggested, however these descriptions have been based not on substantial genetic diversity but on external morphological differences of lions in different geographical regions, such as body size, coat thickness & colour, retention of juvenile spots, mane size, density and colouration.

Recent studies have shown that external factors influence morphological differences such as nutrition and physiological stress. For example, West and Packer (2002) scientifically demonstrated a strong positive correlation between mane size and cooler temperatures. A lion translocated to a European zoo for example would have a larger mane than a lion from its warmer home region.

In the 1980s advancements in molecular phylogenetics proposed that modern lions share a common ancestor in the recent past, estimated at between 55,000 and 200,000 years ago. A question arose therefore about the status of lion subspecies. Genetic studies have shown that European cave lions differed far more from modern populations in East and South Africa than those modern populations do from one another (5% sequence divergence vs. ca. 1%). Since the late 1980s the main trend has been towards sorting all previous lion subspecies into two, African and Asiatic.

Two studies of extracted mitochondrial DNA by Dubach et al (2005) and Barnett et al (2006) have produced genetic distinctions between lions of different geographical regions. The former study, concentrating on samples from more southern regions of the lions range shows 6 haplotypes within two distinct clades of lions; those in south western Africa and those to the east, extending from eastern Kenya south to KwaZulu-Natal. The eastern lions can be further subdivided along each side of the Great African Rift Valley that stretches into South Africa. A similar east-southwest dichotomy among genetic haplotypes was observed in seven African bovid.

The latter study produced similar results, but with DNA samples from a wider geographical range identified 11 haplotypes (including Asia and West Africa, areas not included in the former study). The results are consistent with previously determined phylogeographic patterns in Eastern–Southern African lions in which two major clades were identified.

These recent findings have implications for lion conservation. As lion populations are increasingly confined to reserves that are closed to gene flow, management of these populations must balance the need to maintain stable densities at or below the carrying capacity of the reserve and, at the same time, minimize loss of genetic variability through drift or inbreeding. Ideally, translocations to increase genetic diversity would mimic natural gene flow by moving only individuals from the nearest areas with similar haplotypes.

ALERT is committed to research for a better understanding of genetic diversity in lions and maintaining such diversity within wild populations. As such, we have provided lion DNA to extend the research of Dr. Jean Dubach at the Chicago Zoological Society and will continue to provide support to this valuable project as and when we are able”

I hope that I have adequately commented on all the issues raised in this last post, but I am happy to provide further clarification on this or indeed any other issue.
With kind regards

PredatorBiologist Dec 18th, 2007 09:46 AM

David: thanks for taking time to post more details about your program and to respond to the statement issued by the lion researchers. I can appreciate that it is often a necessary approach to use a 'sexy megafauna' flagship species to attract attention and funding in support of other conservation initiatives. I also appreciate the attention you are bringing to declining lion populations which are certainly in sharp decline and in need of public support. I agree that the biggest issue/cause for decline is habitat loss. Based on that framework here are my questions/concerns.

1) With habitat dwindling do you think there is going to be a lot of protected locations available that need lions to be introduced? The trend seems to be that in protected areas lions do very well but that leads to full capacity and forces lions into unprotected areas where they are often destroyed. In some locations their densities even begin to crowd out other predators and in smaller, more managed areas it is often that problem of too many lions for their carrying capacity. Are you predicting great increases in protected areas that are void of lions and are not adjacent to where stable populations could expand to fill? Unfortunately it seems that most places devoid of lions have lost them because they can no longer support them due to habitat change by humans and livestock and those places can no longer support lions without wholesale changes. Please share your vision of where these lions will need to be reintroduced.

2) To follow that point. If there are suitable areas needing lions why not first fill them by translocating some of the thousands of lions that are living in danger, frequenting areas where they are regularly in conflict with livestock and likely to be killed. Additionally as mentioned above smaller managed areas are likely to need to 'trade out' lions from time to time as well to maintain a proper carrying capacity. Some of the issues will be the same that you have with genetics, etc. but history would suggest that survival rates of moving wild carnivores from one location to another will far exceed those coming via captive breeding populations, plus it saves the need for all of the lion production in your first few phases -- lions that can never be free.

3) Do you have set goals for numbers needed for the program? How much cub production is going to be enough to form the base for your 4 phase breeding stock? I will admit this is the part that makes me very skeptical when I consider it with point number 1. With the difficulty that I expect in finding suitable sites for relocation it seems that you already have a large breeding stock that is continuously being fueled by additional generations being consistently produced for use in Phase I walking activities and thus sentanced to a life of captivity. With your planned addition of the activity in Zambia I assume you are raising cub production even higher. I do not understand the rationale to continue to produce young for exposure to tourists when those young could instead remain unimprinted and help grow your potential release groups faster. It would appear that the choice to expose them to humans is a necessary fundraiser to pay for the rest of the project as it does not appear to serve any scientific purpose at this point.

4) To keep genetic lines healthy I assume that you must occassionally bring in new breeding stock and also would guess that you probably have to remove lions from your program as well, particularly those who do not show the disposition to advance up within your phases. What is the process for the lions that do not continue to advance, where do they go, how do they live? If you do bring lions in and send lions out how does that process work?

5) Is ALERT playing an active role in creating new protected areas or have a plan for conserving additional land for wildlife, especially lions or is your role focused only on breeding and preparing animals for introduction?

Thanks again for your time in providing clarifications on these issues.

QuentinJones Dec 20th, 2007 08:48 AM

Hiya all, just saying thanks to those who are discussing this issue...

David is, I believe, on holidays at the moment and will no doubt reply to the questions above in due course.

I found the research statement by Dr C Packer etc all on a website called LIONSCAM ( where you will see details of other issues surrounding this project.

I confirmed with Dr C Packer and Dr P White that they were associated with the statement - it is their statement and they are in full knowledge and agreement with their names being on it. I have put David's reply to them and hopefully we will have a response from them soon also.

In order to manage the discussion, David and I are talking in a Forum called SafariTalk ( - please check this if you want to follow this issue!


PS To rickmck - your description of your lion walk is very interesting - can I use this text as an example elsewhere?

rickmck Dec 20th, 2007 12:43 PM


No, I would not be happy to see my comments posted somewhere else, as they might appear in a different context which could alter the intent of the original comment. I am capable of posting directly myself in other venues, if you wish to suggest futher reading.


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