As you read this, three li­ons are ex­plor­ing their new home in KZN. Here’s why this is great news

Getaway (South Africa) - - Contents -

New begin­nings for a trio of li­ons, and one of SA’s best-value sa­faris

In May this year, a male and two fe­male li­ons were trans­ferred – asleep, on the back of vet Dr Mike Toft’s spe­cial trailer – from Phinda to Somkhanda Game Re­serve in north­ern KZN, which is owned and run by the lo­cal Gumbi com­mu­nity. The trio have spent the past two months ac­cli­ma­tis­ing in a boma, and are ready to stretch their legs. ‘ We feel priv­i­leged that the re­serve is go­ing to be a Big Five re­serve – our dream is now a re­al­ity,’ says Nathi Gumbi, a key player in this com­mu­nity that, af­ter suc­cess­ful process of land claims in 1998, turned what were cat­tle and game farms into a con­ser­va­tion suc­cess. The li­ons are the first in the area in 100 years. This means that bio­di­ver­sity and eco­log­i­cal bal­ance in the re­serve is now re­stored. But the trans­fer is also part of a lion con­ser­va­tion strat­egy that aims to ex­pand their range and ge­netic pool. Li­ons were rein­tro­duced at Phinda in 1992, and they’ve thrived to the ex­tent that the num­bers of­ten ex­ceed the ca­pac­ity of the re­serve. Find­ing a place to translo­cate them to is the tricky part, as habi­tat loss is one of the great­est per­ils fac­ing our planet’s wildlife. It’s no sur­prise that one of the peo­ple be­hind this ini­tia­tive was also a pro­ducer on Blood Li­ons, the re­cent doc­u­men­tary that ex­posed the canned­hunt­ing and cap­tive-breed­ing in­dus­try. Dr An­drew Ven­ter, CEO of Wild­lands, has been in­volved with Somkhanda since 2013, help­ing to up­grade in­fras­truc­ture and train lo­cal peo­ple in hos­pi­tal­ity and re­serve man­age­ment. ‘ There is no way cap­tive-bred li­ons could ever have been used in an ex­er­cise like this as they have no con­ser­va­tion value,’ says Ian Mich­ler, who was also in­volved in Blood Li­ons. ‘ This is about ex­pand­ing habi­tat us­ing wild li­ons, and the project be­ing man­aged by the recog­nised con­ser­va­tion com­mu­nity.’ Somkhanda’s cre­den­tials are golden – it has also been in­volved in the Black Rhino Range Ex­pan­sion Project, so do­ing the same for li­ons is just part of a day’s work. The re­serve’s eco­tourism ap­proach is also laud­able – here vis­i­tors are en­cour­aged to learn and con­trib­ute. Guests are in­volved in gath­er­ing data on game drives and bush walks, they can help with cat­tle dip­ping in neigh­bour­ing vil­lages, or sign up for a wildlife con­ser­va­tion ex­pe­ri­ence that in­cludes help­ing to de­horn rhi­nos and re­place their track­ing col­lars. Back to the li­ons: ‘ They’re bond­ing nicely and have been feed­ing well,’ David Gil­roy, Wild­lands Strate­gic Man­ager, told us at the end of June. ‘ We an­tic­i­pate a smooth re­lease into the re­serve at the end of July.’

Youth For Li­ons is the lat­est global aware­ness ini­tia­tive. Find out why it ’s not cool to pet cubs, and how kids can spread the word, on blood­ Somkhanda Game Re­serve is sit­u­ated in the far north­ern wilds of KZN, be­tween Pon­gola and Mkuze.

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