I have spent seven years learning and thinking about lion conservation, and it began with my joining, as volunteer, a young project born upon Zimbabwean farmland. In those first years, that project was able to inspire cautious, growing confidence on its ability to see through the formidable challenge it had set itself on tackling the wild release of previously captive lions; in these years since, it has failed to address key concerns from within and without, contorted itself, and continued to grow on only one side of a wall it appears unable to breach.
From that sunrise promise, through a bright morning and a wearying, long, frustrating afternoon, it has fallen to a sighing at dusk, and a lingering on despite valid and concerned criticism biding unanswered.
Dawn Chorus at Sunrise
Based in Livingstone in Zambia, and Victoria Falls and Antelope Park in Zimbabwe, the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) and Lion Encounter (LE) is, originally and at heart, an organisation for the conservation of the African lion based upon a four-stage programme of inter-generational rehabilitation and training for eventual release – in theory spanning human interaction, semi-wild sites, and the wild of national parks. Though they do not seem to be set on this exact structure any longer, it used to be the case that their project was laid out as four stages, the endgame being supplying national parks with functioning prides of lions (or coalitions of males) descended from lions born into a captive breeding programme. Seeing themselves as complimentary to other types of lion conservation projects, their programme would introduce new genes to a savanna gene pool, as well as the more obvious boosting of population numbers. I volunteered three times at the cradle of the whole enterprise, Antelope Park, just out of Gweru in Zim, and the ALERT/LE structure across those trips (2009, 2010, 2011) remained thus:
Stage 1 – Lion cubs are born within a breeding programme and taken away from the mother at three weeks and into the care of the park’s lion handlers and lions manager. The park being home to many free-roaming species of game, as they grow the cubs are increasingly taken out into the park to explore, bond socially, play, and attempt to hunt. Lion handlers and volunteers accompany, until the cubs reach the age of 18 months, when they are still taken out into the park (now during both daytime and nighttime) in order to develop and hone their natural instincts, but any human company is now consigned within a vehicle. Many of these lions are put into new groupings as young adults in enclosures – and may be bred when sexually mature – in the space and time between Stages 1 and 2.
Stage 2 – From bonds formed on early forays into the park, and from those developed in larger enclosures as young adults, prides are put together and spend time as a group before release. The site for Stage 2 is semi-wild and essentially a massive, self-sustaining fenced enclosure. Along with the ex-Stage 1 lions, it contains several types of game – the kind of prey a natural pride will target, such as zebra and wildebeest – and any birds, snakes, and smaller mammals that naturally occupy that space. Having released first the females as a group and shortly following that the male, the pride is left largely to itself. Studied from a vehicle, there is the intention of minimal management or assistance, regarding health or food, going forward. Occasionally, carcasses are dropped somewhere within the site far from the pride’s location at that particular time, with the purpose of simulating the scavenger element of the wild, and the pride will hopefully begin to breed, raising their cubs in a far more natural environment, physically and socially, than the usual captivity. These new cubs will never have interaction with any humans.
Stage 3 (as yet unreached) – Prides or coalitions borne of the second stage would be released into another semi-wild situation of much greater size. The key difference, beyond the increase in potential range of the pride themselves and of their prey, would be the presence of competing predator species, such as the hyena.
Stage 4 (as yet unreached) – Prides or coalitions from the third stage would be released into areas within national parks and, while studied and their success and failures followed, left to be as wild as any lions naturally occurring within those or any other parks.
As I mentioned in passing above, ALERT/LE seem to have modified this idea recently. Buried deep within their now numerous other projects, it is today called the ‘Rehabilitation and Release Into The Wild Programme’. There are now only three phases, named rather than numbered: Rehabilitation; Release; Reintroduction. They match the stages described above, though lack the nuance of having Stage 2 and 3 as separate and graduating. The page for what used to be the sole and central mission even states, as justification for the staged rehabilitation before release, that experience of predatory and competitive species is valuable: yet that seems to no longer be a part of the release phase with the doing away of a separate 2 and 3. However, the ALERT/LE project for the reintroduction and release, and thus conservation, of the African lion as I knew it at the time is described above, and this is still an accurate description of the framework and central idea.
Progress, Pride, and Promise
Over the consecutive three-year course of my visits to Antelope Park it was very easy to believe in the programme, to believe in its potential and ability to meet its impressive aims. In the last days of my first trip, in 2009, they had just secured adjacent land for the construction of a Stage 2 release site (ultimately named Ngamo, after a nearby dam). When I returned in 2010 much of the work had been completed, or close to it, and we joined in on working through the final tasks, no longer merely adding our hearts and hands to a beginning, but to a middle, a vindication of that first trip and first stage. Only shortly after I left a pride were released into the newly finished site – a pride of lions made up of cubs who had been walked, many an African sunrise ago, as cubs within Stage 1. Following their progress (and progress it was) in Ngamo from home before returning in 2011 did nothing to encourage major doubt, as the pride fell into recognisable pride roles and hunted the release site game with consistent success. In 2011’s summer months I arrived for my third trip to see a new, young cub, this time born into and within the second stage of the programme, not to human care and voluntourism, but to lions bred and walked and cared for for so long in the purgatory beyond Stage 1 and before Stage 2. A limbo that now appeared, at last, to be not so fruitless and indefinite as it had before.
Interaction between the Alpha and the Super predator is a contentious thing, and is undeniably the biggest draw for ALERT/LE, whether in bringing people for the first time or in bringing them back. There are minor to major horror stories from many places that offer or involve it, based in concern for the treatment and future of the feline, and the safety of the human. From hearing these stories and experiencing ALERT/LE’s approach first-hand, I do believe that the way it was done at the Antelope Park of my trips (I cannot attest to before or since or now, nor to Livingstone or Vic Falls) is the only way that it could be done without the interaction being exploitation or unethical. While, of course, the safety of people was always watched for, the love for the lions from their manager and handlers (their role and attitude absolutely not as their name suggests) made it very apparent that it was only ever the cubs who came first. This was no circus, this was no sedated cat to hug and play with, and there was a genuine and constant looking toward ensuring the cubs gained as much as possible from their time in the bush to provide them with the best hope for a life in the subsequent stages. The lions manager and the lion handlers that I knew: if ever anything to have come of ALERT/LE’s release and reintroduction programme can be said to have been positive, beneficial, and good, it would be because of them.
Across my trips I had seen a programme of huge ambition and roadblocks within roadblocks break somehow through to the near halfway point of its heartfelt mission. The monetary cost and increasing bottleneck of lions unlikely, themselves, to share personally in success was, most always had been, a concern – yet a proud and perfect male now sat within the programme’s semi-wild second stage among his stately lionesses, beside prey after prey brought down by a socially dynamic and functioning pride. Jogging, pouncing, falling between, beneath, and all around them shone a perfectly playful little lioness, herself an African sunrise, and, for most of us, she was the point and purpose of the whole thing thus far.
And there she was; and so it worked.
The Ngamo Stage 2 release site at Antelope Park had been followed and mirrored in its successes and eventual stagnation by a second in the Dambwa Forest of Zambia, near the programme’s Livingstone base. My longest, third, and final volunteering stint, to Zim again, ended near the start of August 2011. Still in love, still in support, still encouraged, I nevertheless anticipated difficulty, misrepresentation among fair criticism by others, as well as potential for mistakes and wrong turns. From 2012 until now – five years on from the final trip and four years on from the dissolution of any lingering naivety with the saddening accession of doubt – the way has been clung to, relinquished, and lost.
The purgatorial nature of life for lions after Stage 1 was not replaced by promotion into Stage 2; it was merely a case of an upgraded room. To be overtly fair would be to allow for the not untrue notions that the next stage of the programme require immense amounts of time, money, planning, and work as justification for the lack of any progress beyond successful pride life for second stage lions: both of those born into and raised through Stage 1, and of those born semi-wild without the experience of human contact in the Stage 2 sites. But the regularity of blatantly costly development in the resort aspect of Antelope Park, the sheer, unhalting turnover in high-paying volunteers heading to Zimbabwe and Zambia, and the upkeep and expansion of largely irrelevant, ancillary projects in many other areas, all suggest that money was not and never will be an issue. What is an issue is that the impressive imitation of wild pride life, that ALERT/LE always maintained would be un-managed, with interference only on rare occasions, betrays its considerable limitations upon the maturing of cubs of both sexes, and with the problem of the lack of migration, individual and genetic, in and out of both the pride itself, and of the game living falsely wild around it.
A pride male will not reign forever. While he does reign, his male cubs will not be tolerated forever, nor his daughters seen as such. With a pride of lions nature has developed a very effective solution for increased genetic strength and sustained social unity, and for the reduction of inbreeding – whether pride male to daughters or male cubs to mothers and aunts – and in order for a pride to continue on in success beyond a few years it requires, as a matter of necessity, the replacement, banishment, immigration, emigration, and competition of and between pride individuals and foreign-born lions. Stage 2 of the programme can do nothing of the sort without regular, considerable interference if there is no Stage 3 and 4 already set up to alleviate the pressures of crowding, and the growing presence of sexually mature male and female cubs. The issue here being not that ALERT/LE’s Stage 1 and 2 do not work together: they quite clearly do. They have shown that cubs born into human interaction can, very quickly, fall into natural behaviours and attitudes and form a hunting, breeding pride with a suspicion and aversion toward any humans they might see. While I believe some rare cubs never shake off the bond and memory of humans, if you had met, even for a few moments, the male of Ngamo, either pre- or post-release, you would not have believed he had ever walked peacefully along with people; nor would time at Ngamo make you fear that any of the pride members would ever be drawn to approach humans after a full, into the wild release because of their origin. The issue here is the reality of implementing a complex and convoluted staged reintroduction programme with such a socially and ecologically elaborate animal.
Contraceptives, removals, and other puppeteering have been the recourse many a time throughout the existence of the second stage sites, and more of that is certain in a way that the next stage never has been. This is a significant and deep failure of the programme’s promise. While the staged nature of the reintroduction programme looked to be successfully tackling issues involved with reintroducing to the wild a dangerous predator that has had a past with humans, the we’ll-tackle-that-when-we-get-there approach to essentially everything has resulted in an apparently unscalable wall, and an interference requirement.
The soap opera blogs and minimal scientifically valid research emanating from the two release sites since their founding are not in and of themselves a negative, nor evidence, necessarily, of failure. However, they have done nothing to justify the continuation of the project in the face of crowding, complication, stagnation, and bottleneck at large, nor has ALERT/LE’s expansion into other causes and areas that drain what had always been their core focus of funding and attention. Other projects, in fact, has seemingly been one of only two areas of progress since the initial success of the two second stage sites at Ngamo and Dambwa.
The many other projects that have appeared and grown over time are, of themselves, laudable, and have met with reasonable success. The holistic approach of branching into forest management, ecological research on the flora and fauna beyond lions within ALERT/LE and on wild lions outside the programme, as well as the engagement of local people, the mitigation of wildlife conflict, and the education of children, is a superb model of conservation. But that was never the justification for ALERT/LE and their core programme. Successfully engaging in all types of conservation except the novel idea which they were bringing to the table is not something that can be pointed to as countering criticism of their programme. The redirection of money, time, effort, and focus to all these other projects suggests a discreet giving up on the staged reintroduction programme and final, wild release – the only reason any of it, particularly Stage 1, was ever arguably justifiable. One can easily see a time soon when any reintroduction to the wild has been quietly given up on, and the pretence put forward that Stage 1 and 2 were all there was ever meant to be, merely one project among all their other generic conservation endeavours. If the rehabilitation, release, and reintroduction of lions into the wild is not achieved, then no amount of success in research or education and community development can stand as validation.
Business Success, Fracture, and the Spectre of Cruelty
Besides their expansion into other conservation areas, the only other success and development has been in the entertainment and business aspects of ALERT/LE. With this has come a subtle yet conscious distancing of one from the other, frustrating further what little potential survived for the project becoming the compliment to established lion conservation that they had sought to be.
I called the interaction with lions the biggest draw – thus making the volunteers a significant source of money, and placing cubs of interaction age (one to eighteen months) at high demand. Guests and many volunteers will pay to walk with these cubs, not for the conservation goals of ALERT but for the Lion Encounter experience, and this is where the fracture of ALERT/LE comes in. On one side, massively successful business and entertainment on the part of Lion Encounter at Antelope Park and Vic Falls, with them bringing in more and more cubs – ostensibly into the staged programme, in reality to match the more and more volunteers and guests expecting the promised cub contact. On the other, ALERT at Livingstone at least attempting to address the issue of taking on more cubs when there is nowhere for them to go, and in the process losing the assured generation of the funds crucial to the programmes hopes of ever getting past their current state.
I have already talked of the bottleneck in the latter parts of Stage 1 and in the Stage 2 sites. The conservation end of the project does not function without the entertainment/business end of it, due to the engagement of most with ALERT/LE beginning with the lure of interaction, and that bottleneck has and will only worsen with the almost exponential turnover in guests, volunteers, and lion cubs. Of equal concern with this fracture and this catering to people and their money over lions and their freedom, is that the focal point and bias falls ever more heavily on the wrong side.
There has never been anything to convince me to suggest, much less emphatically state as fact as some people do, that an ALERT or LE lion has ever been betrayed into canned hunting – another common horror story from other places with human-lion interaction. Yet it has been shown that they have purchased and imported lions into their projects from places highly suspect with regard to their own breeding of lions for the purpose of selling them as hunting trophies.
The best possible spin one may put on this (and spin though it is, it may be the truth of the matter) is that this was undertaken by ALERT/LE as a naive attempt at rescuing a few lion cubs from an appalling situation and a certain future. Nevertheless, the result was money being put directly into the canned hunting industry. As unpleasant a notion as it undoubtedly is, paying to take those few cubs out of that situation to merely the potential of future release may have been far worse for morality and far better for the awful industry than leaving them in there and your money out of it. There are less generous spins that may be put on these transactions, such as simply needing more cubs to bring in more volunteers and not being too concerned over where they came from, and they may be the truth of the matter. While it is important to make the distinction whenever this conversation arises, between what has happened and the act of actually selling lions of any age either into the industry or directly to hunters, it is still a major issue. The recourse of selling surplus lions to the industry or to hunters as a means of generating funds and for assuaging bottleneck is an ever-patient spectre for those in the situation that ALERT and LE are in now and have been in for years. I do not believe it has happened, and is plainly as unstomachable to so many of those within ALERT and LE as it is to those outside. However, without Stages 3 and 4 ready or forthcoming, and with a history of transactions in the less immediately evil direction, it only becomes likelier.
Chorus at Dusk
And there she still is; and so it hasn’t worked.
As two of its sites look only toward being a resort and a business, with lions a star attraction, and as the other masks its core failure with generic and ancillary success, ALERT and Lion Encounter’s status as a project for the conservation of the African lion and the notion of the continued presence of, interaction with, and further breeding of captive lions within the programme, become less and less defensible. There is no regret for me over past personal involvement, support, and defence; it is too great a part of my self, too crucial and forming an experience, and was, at that time, a certainly reasonable if not totally assured position to take. But not any longer. Not for a while.
With no reason, in all these years since that tangible progress into Stage 2, provided us by ALERT/LE to believe the repeated claim that the successful endgame is approaching or is even still feasible, and with many a reason to stoke grave concern, a trusting, unreasonable faith is now the only way of mustering optimism on the likelihood and possibility of the achievement of their original goal. If, one day soon or far into the future, a socially strong pride of lions or a genetically fit coalition of males were released into the wilds of a national park to the benefit of that ecosystem, then, after all the money misspent, all the time misused, and all the individual lost lion lives it required – playful cubs, lazy fathers, perfect hunters – all equally deserving of a chance at wildness, just to set finally free four or six or eight… I cannot say that it was worth it.
I’m afraid the reasonable position currently for anyone versed in the subject and scientifically- and open-minded is total doubt, and a dedication instead to programmes such as Lion Guardians and Panthera. The African Lion & Environmental Research Trust’s Rehabilitation & Release Into The Wild programme was an extremely ambitious, plausible, well intentioned, and novel approach to procuring generational freedom and conservation from a group of lions born into captivity, and for a short while it was attempted nobly. But when confidence in the success and necessity of a wildlife conservation programme begins to hinge exclusively on blind faith and naive hope over evidence and reasoned optimism, that is when it becomes time to let it go.