Will Captive Breeding Save Africa's King of Beasts?

Jerry Guo
Science Magazine
17 April 2009, Vol. 324. no. 5925, p. 331

"One nonprofit claims its lion reintroduction program will ensure a stable population of the iconic predator; many experts are dubious"

"...Some experts are unimpressed. They argue that ALERT’s program diverts donations and volunteer attention from efforts to stem what they say is the greatest threat facing lions: dwindling habitat. “There’s no sound science behind what they’re doing,” charges Paula White, a lion ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Tropical Research. “In most cases, lion reintroductions are poorly thought out, do little to benefit conservation, and use valuable resources that could be used to benefit existing populations desperately in need of protection,” adds Andrew Loveridge, a research fellow at the University of Oxford in the U.K. who studies lions in Zimbabwe. He doubts ALERT’s program is an exception. Youldon disagrees and says critics are missing the point. “We’re realists,” he says. “We think there has to be a commercial aspect”."

"...ALERT’s initial reintroduction foray met with mixed results. In August 2007, the center released seven lions into a 200-hectare enclosure near Gweru. Within 2 months, males had killed two females—uncharacteristically lethal aggression thought to be linked to a captive upbringing. ALERT removed the males and reconstituted an all-female pride that thrived for a year before the center was shuttered for renovations. The pride led a sheltered existence in the enclosure, says Roseline Mandisodza, a Zimbabwean ecologist who studied it for her master’s degree. The release site was too small and had too few competing predators such as hyenas, cheetahs, or leopards to simulate hunting conditions in the wild, she says. “There is very little or no chance of [their] survival in the wild”."

"...With some 23,000 lions in Africa, the most pressing need is habitat preservation, not adding to an ample population, argues Luke Hunter, executive director of New York City–based cat conservation nonprofit Panthera. “Reintroduction of captive-bred animals as a means to establish wild carnivores is probably the last resort,” he says... “Even if ALERT was going to succeed, so what?” Hunter asks. “It’s not an answer at any scale that’s going to matter”."

Download a PDF version of the full article here: www.panthera.org


Call to can captive breeding programme

David Youldon has previously stated:

“Once we have our Stage Two and Three release sites fully operational we will only be breeding at a level that our release sites can support, and if we have to shut down any part of Stage One such that we do not have lions retired from Stage One with nowhere to go, then we have always stated that we will do that.” (Facebook).

He has also added:

“Stage Three and Four are unproven as yet, and we still have work to do on making sure that our protocols for stage Two are perfected, but we are making huge progress on that front, and through much consultation we are confident that our plans for Stage Three and Four will work, but we will obviously have to review, as we do with everything, once we get to that point.” (Facebook).

We believe that to continue operating Stage One of the project, the captive breeding of lions and their commercial use in ‘Walking with Lions’, without suitable Stage Two and Three release sites secured, is irresponsible. They have used over 100 lions in this project since establishing their second Stage One lion walking operation in Victoria Falls (in 2005), and to claim that they will only limit Stage One once Stages Two and Three are 'fully operational' is just crazy. How many lions do they need for Stages Two and Three?? Stages Three and Four of their project are, by their own admission, as yet unproven (they haven't even started Stage Three yet!), but they are happy to continue to breed lions for use in Stage One... and now at three different sites (Antelope Park, Victoria Falls and now Livingstone, Zambia). If each site needs about 10 lion cubs every 12 months, that is a turnover of 30 cubs every year... come on guys, this is nothing more than commercial exploitation under the name of conservation!!

We call on ALERT to immediately halt all lion breeding in Stage One of their project, ‘Walking with Lions’, and associated 'voluntourism' programme until suitable Stage Two and Three sites have been identified and secured for the lions that have already been used in Stage One (and which are currently held in 'temporary' enclosures at the Antelope Park breeding facility). I believe that they should not restart such operations until all these lions are at least 'rehabilitated' into Stage Two, and that Stages Three and Four are fully tested.

Latest news from Stage 2

Meanwhile, latest news from this first site in Zimbabwe - the 'Dollar Block' (no, apparently not named after the sums of money their paying 'volunteers' have pumped into ALERT and all the business companies which Antelope Park owner Andy Conelly has built up around it) - is that they have given up on the site, taken down the fences and returned the lions to 'temporary' enclosures at Antelope Park. They will now be released into a new extension of the Park, but there have been rumours from ALERTs own volunteers that this 'Stage 2' release was undergoing problems and that the lions were "very thin and starving". This resulted in David Youldon, their Chief Operating Officer, having to do some 'rumour control' PR on their own group. I've asked David some direct questions about 'Stage 2', but as with my 'Open Letter' questions to ALERT and Antelope Park many months ago, they are currently left un-answered. ALERT still claim this stage to be a success, but as they had to remove the two male lions which they originally released (after the death of two females), they still haven’t re-integrated any males into this all female pride. And where is Luke, one of the males, who hasn't been mentioned since??

So where have all the lions gone?

I've been doing some math on the lions which have been used in the project over the years, using data from their own newsletters, and I'm actually surprised myself as to how many lions are going through the project (and so far only a handful have made it into the only 'Stage 2' release at the Dollar Block). If all these lions are currently at Antelope Park then those enclosures that David so proudly told us about a few months ago in their newsletter must be full to the brim!!

I really think its time that this project openly answered the questions put to them about the lions they have used in this programme (listed by name, sex and age), and what’s happened to the rest of them?? Don’t forget, Antelope Park has been 'Walking with Lions' since the 1990s, way before they came up with the ALERT 'rehabilitation' and 'reintroduction' concept.

Change of plans in Stage Two - again!

From Facebook (6 Dec):

"The six girls [Ashanti, Athena, Phyre, Kenge, Nala & Narnia] returned to a new holding enclosure at Antelope Park yesterday. The previous day Mickey, Milo and Puma were moved from breeding program to a second holding enclosure next to where the girls have been put. While we complete building of the site over the next couple of months (progress will be weather dependant due to the rainy season) a study will be undertaken to see which of our three prime males the female pride take to. Think of it as a lion Blind Date. The results of this study looking at a number of behavioural factors will assist in selecting the best choice amongst the three to be released with the girls."

Still no mention of Luke, who was originally released with this group at the Dollar Block site. Meanwhile Maxwell, cause of much concern regarding the first release and the deaths of two lionesses, is now being lined up to be released with the next group of lions to be released into Stage Two...

At last a website for ALERT!

The good news though is that after nearly five years in operation, ALERT have found a volunteer who will create a website for them... which up until now has been a holding page. We watch and wait in anticipation of some real information on this project instead of the spin which ALERT so carefully post in their newsletters and internet blogs. As far as the volunteers are concerned it is all about cuddly cubs and exciting details of 'first kills'...


ALERT import lions to Zambia - from South Africa!

Latest news from the ALERT Facebook site is that 10 lion cubs have been imported into Livingstone, Zambia, for use in its expanded 'Walking with Lions' project. The new location, which has been developed with facilities and extensively fenced, lies within a supposedly protected National Park - the Mosi-oa-Tunya NP - and is also part of the Victoria Falls UNESCO World Heritage Site. We believe ALERTs actions threaten the long-term status of the land as part of the national park, and also threatens the listing of the whole area as a World Heritage Site (see The Independent - Victoria Falls 'at risk' - UN Warns).

This is also two more lions than were previously claimed as necessary in the project's Environmental Impact Assessment, and again raises questions over the actions of the organisation. African Impact, part of the Antelope Park / African Encounter portfolio of businesses, hope to be accepting paying 'conservation volunteers' on the project in the New Year.

We understand all the cubs come from a breeding facility in Orange Free State, South Africa, raising concerns over their suitability for use in the 'Walking with Lions' interactive experience and also ALERTs own captive breeding programme, as well as reaffirming Antelope Park and ALERTs links to suspected canned hunting breeding facilities in South Africa. Presumably the project has taken the decision use these lion cubs to short-cut the delay in getting export permits for its lions from Zimbabwe (and I guess to keep the income coming in from the volunteers, which have been few and far between in Zimbabwe this year). Free State in SA is home to over 80 captive lion breeding facilities, and has a long association as a centre of the canned hunting industry. I've been investigating lion breeding facilities in SA for some time now, and I honestly dont think there are any that don't have links to the canned hunting industry in one way or another - perhaps ALERT will correct me on this and openly name the source of these new lions? And what of the genetic pedigree of these lions?

The project is still waiting authorisation to export a group of Stage Two lions to the site - authorisation which is being delayed by the political problems Zimbabwe is currently experiencing. Lets hope they have more luck with this release than with their first Stage Two release, in Zimbabwe, which resulted in the death of two lionesses (see below).

Transfrontier Parks stocked with lions from ALERT? No Thanks

From David Youldon's blog on Safaitalk:

"Andrew Conolly recently attended a conference in Johannesburg discussing the trans-frontier parks being put in place in southern Africa. He was approached by a number of people showing interest in repopulating these areas with lions from the ALERT program. Also, we were recently contacted by a reserve in southern Ethiopia who is also very interested in restocking the area with lion."

I honestly cannot believe that conservationists would seriously be considering reintroducing lions from ALERTs project into transfrontier park initiatives - for the many reasons highlighted under our Conservation Angle section. But if Conelly and Youldon say it is so then it must be true. Obviously we need to try harder to share our message...


Stage Two lions on the move again...

ALERT have recently stated on their Facebook group that they are to close their only operating Stage Two site (known as the Dollar Block) and relocate the lions back to Antelope Park. This is the same group of lions which suffered two deaths on their release at the site... we still wonder what has happend to Luke, one of the two males initially released with this group but removed sometime after the deaths of two lionesses...

"Ashanti, Athena, Phyre, Kenge, Nala & Narnia have proven that they are a socially stable and self-sustaining pride. So the next step in their rehabilitation is to be introduced to a male. In this case Milo."

"Land has been agreed neighbouring Antelope Park which is large enough for two release areas. At present it is our intention to use one for stage two and one for our soft-release program. Given a number of huge challenges in this current economic climate operating the stage two release area at Dollar Block, we have decided to move the release site onto one of these new tracts of land. There are many advantages for us in doing this; we will be able to service the release area and research program better, enlarge the area of the release site incorporating improvements from lessons learnt at Dollar Block as well as increasing revenues to the site which will not only ensure its long term future, but also raise funds towards fencing the soft release area. As such the pride has been moved into the holding enclosure and already the majority of the fence and poles have been returned to Antelope Park. In the next month new management enclosures will be erected and the pride moved. Milo will be put in a neighbouring enclosure to begin the bonding process. Once complete we will start erecting the new release area which we hope to complete by the end of 2008 or early in 2009 depending on the extent of the upcoming rainy season."

The statement also gives details of a new stage to the ALERT programme:

"Soft release pride: The second release site will be for a pride of lions from those that are retiring from breeding in the near future. They will be given the opportunity to live out their days in a free-ranging natural environment, with prey species to hunt. Given their time in captivity it is likely that we will need to supplement feed them, at least at the beginning. The females will be spayed to ensure no uncontrolled breeding. The pride is expected to consist of Big Boy, Anna, Mafuta, Alice, Nadia, Ezulu and Zuva."

And also an update of their Zambia plans:

"The political uncertainty in Zimbabwe has delayed the signing of the export permit to Zambia for our release pride of Amy, Melanie, Elsa, Cleo, Ariel, Paka, Kwali and Puma. The land is secure, loan finance has been confirmed to build the two stage two and stage three release areas and agreement for the import permit has been confirmed, however despite obtaining the fifteen necessary signatures from the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority for the export permit we also need either the Minister of Environment and Tourism, or his deputy to add his final signature. We await confirmation of who will fulfill this role and will then proceed as planned."

"In the meantime we are entering a partnership with the Zambian Wildlife Authority to extend the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park to incorporate much, if not all of the Dambwa Forest. As such our release areas will now be within the National Park boundaries. This partnership will bring greater protection to the habitat in the Forest and will include a joint education program with local communities as well as the introduction of ACT development programs to improve the livelihoods of communities bordering the Park. CCWA will also be heavily involved within the extended Park that will bring regeneration to the Dambwa Forest in all aspects of the eco-system."

As well as information on their next 'Stage Two' group of lions:

"The next release group is bonding well. Acacia, Amghela, Nandi, Mana, Msasa and Lina have been together a few weeks now and are settling down together nicely. They will remain in stage one taking part in the Night Encounter program for the next year before they are released together into stage two. Eventually they will be introduced to a male, but not for a couple more years; the male is likely to be Maxwell."

And a plea for funding:

"To date ALERT has been able to fund the vast majority of its programs through its corporate partnership with African Encounter. The speed at which we can achieve all of our project plans is now only subject to how quickly we can raise additional donor funding to set up each project. Ongoing costs will be met by the commercial enterprises established during the set up process, but the initial outlay for the projects is significant, especially in this economic climate."

Further evidence, if needed, that their project is financially unsustainable, and that they have too many lions in Stage One, and not enough funds to achieve Stage Two, let alone Stage Three - whilst they still dream of Stage Four!


African Impact develop island on Zambezi - inside National Park

We understand that African Impact (part of the Antelope Park portfolio of companies) has secured the rights to develop a lodge facility on Chundu Island in the Zambezi National Park (Zimbabwe) for use with its paying volunteer programme. In another example of the strings that this organisation is apparently able to pull, the annual rent payable to National Parks is reported to be a grand total of US$500 - and the island, which used to be an unspoilt stop-over for canoe safaris, is to become home to a large complex of buildings and facilities - hardly a positive impact for a self-claimed conservation organisation. The island sits opposite a previously popular fishing and camping site within the National Park, which will presumably now come accompanied with the sort of noise and visual pollution associated with a backpackers lodge.

Again we ask the question - are these the actions of a ecologically minded conservation organisation or a private business out to maximise profits in the name of conservation?

JULY 2008

Local environment campaigner abducted by officials and deported from Zambia!

Following prominent campaigns against corruption and the expansion of the ALERT Lion Encounter project in Zambia, Ian Manning (see Ian's blogspot LIONSCAM!) was unceremoniously abducted and deported from Zambia, being dumped in Botswana with no personal possessions or paperwork. Ian went missing for several days, much to the concern of his family and many friends, but has since turned up safe and sound. Could Ian's abduction and deportation be related to his high profile campaign against the ALERT lion encounter project? You decide…

JUNE 2008

Green light in Zambia for lion exploitation

Despite huge local opposition, and substantial conservation and environmental evidence against the merits of their project, ALERT Lion Encounter have been given the go-ahead to expand their 'Walking with Lions' experience in Livingstone, Zambia. Already another copy-cat operation has established itself in the town, without the necessary permits or paperwork, exploiting captive lions from an owner who has many reported links to the canned hunting industry.

MAY 2008

No reply...

…still waiting a response from ALERT to the questions raised in my open letter. (To date we have still not received any response.)

APRIL 2008

‘27 Questions for 37 lions’


In an attempt to clarify some of the confusion regarding the project, we openly invited Antelope Park and the ALERT project to answer the following questions, arising from discussions with David Youldon (ALERT Chief Operating Officer) in internet forums such as Facebook, Safaritalk and TripAdvisor.

Please email us if you would like a copy of this document.

APRIL 2008

Call for comments and invitation to public meeting, 12 April 2008:



"The overall objective of the project is to reverse the declining trends in African Lion populations through a breeding and release into the wild program. The program will aim at producing 8 lion cubs per year that will be subjected to a controlled breeding programme to produce cubs raised in the natural ecosystem."

For full details see Zambia Expansion

MARCH 2008

ALERT censor their own support group!

ALERT have deleted all negative discussions about the project from their Facebook support group, including their own justifications of their project.

Please email us for a copy of this discussion.


Lion walker seriously injured in incident at Antelope Park

A British teacher participating in the 'Walking with Lions' experience has been seriously injured in an attack from one of the captive lions used in the interactive tourist activity. See Daily Telegraph - British teacher attacked by lion on safari (04/02/08).

"A young primary school teacher has told how she narrowly escaped with her life after she was savagely mauled by a lion on an African safari trip. Kate Drew, 28, was pounced on from behind by the 28st animal as she walked through an enclosed area of the Zimbabwe game reserve and knocked over. She was pinned to the ground as the lion sank its huge teeth into the back of her head, leaving her screaming in terror."

Previous attacks at another lion walking centre in Zimbabwe, the Harare Lion & Cheetah Park, highlights the potential dangers and apparent lack of health and safety procedures and regulation at these centres. See The Earth Times - Australian diplomat mauled by lions in Zimbabwe (03/05/07) and Newzimbabwe - Lion kills Japanese diplomat in Zimbabwe (11/03/06).


Chairman of African Lion Working Group says ALERT project has "no conservation value"

Dr Sarel van der Merwe, Chairman of the African Lion Work Group, affiliated with the Cat Specialist Group and also the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, has made the following statement:

"The ALERT Project has no conservation value at all. Wild, free-ranging lion populations cannot be saved from extinction through this method. We should rather spend our money and expertise to find ways of protecting existing wild lion populations."

See LIONSCAM! Statement by Dr Sarel van der Merwe.


Volunteer agency drops lion breeding and re-introduction project

Travellers Worldwide, a web-based volunteer placement agent, have dropped their support for a lion breeding and re-introduction project in South Africa and which claims to be operating a programme remarkably similar to the ALERT project, supposedly "for ethical and humane reasons". However the same agency continues to offer the Antelope Park / ALERT project to volunteers...

See their website for more information here.


Two lions die in the first release of human-reared captive bred lions into Stage Two of the ALERT project

Text from ALERT Press Statement (taken from TripAdvisor travel forum):

"On the morning of 23rd October 2007 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."

The two lionesses which died had been separated from the other lions for use in lion walks in Victoria Falls - the remaining lions had been kept together at Antelope Park. Despite ALERTs claims to be able to form stable prides with these lions, it appears they have a lot to learn about lion social structure.

One of the males, Maxwell, was removed from the release enclosure soon after and held in a 'holding' enclosure (apparently because they "felt it right to even the balance of males to females", and nothing to do with his agression to the other females). The fate of the other, Luke, is unknown - although he remained with the release group until the end of 2007, by March 2008 he was no longer there. A new male, Milo, was moved to the site, but is still being held in a separate 'management' enclosure, presumably replacing Maxwell, who is believed to be now held at Antelope Park.


Leading lion researchers condemn ALERT project

Dr Craig Packer, Dr Luke Hunter and Dr Paula White, all expert researchers on lion ecology, put their names to a joint statement against the aims of the ALERT captive breeding and 'reintroduction' programme:

"It is emphasized here that 'Walking with Lions' has no conservation value."

To see their full statement visit LIONSCAM!.

Can you help?

If you have any comments, advice or information which can help us in our work to highlight the issues relating to the ALERT project, please email - emailquentinjones[at]yahoo.co.uk



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