TRANSLOCATING LIONESSES

lions: on the brink of extinction

When thinking of Africa, we automatically conjure the image of the mighty lion. These cats are the biggest in Africa, second in the world only to the Siberian Tiger. They’re at the top of the predator list, and I’m assuming on top of most people’s Safari bucket list too. Symbolically, lions represent nobility, royalty, strength, stateliness, valour, and most commonly, bravery; the King of all beasts.

And yet, they’re on the brink of extinction. Just 50 years ago, 450,000 lions roamed the African savannahs. Almost a decade ago, the IUCN Red List listed the African lion as ‘Critically Endangered’ with their last report in 2014 suggesting lion numbers had dropped to 121,000 mature individuals. While researching this topic, I found that specialists don’t agree on the exact numbers (lions outside of reserves are difficult to count), but that the estimates range from 20,000 to an optimistic 24,000 wild lions left in the world as of 2022. In South Africa, it’s estimated that there are 13,000 lions left, and only 2,300 truly wild lions in the country.

For context, according to Databox Benchmark Groups, the median value for average Instagram followers was 2,240 in April this year, which means that if everyone who followed you was a lion, you’d probably know almost all of them.

When it comes to lions, there are a number of issues surrounding their not-at-all-gradual demise. Habitat loss, competition with livestock, farmers protecting livestock, illegal poaching for meat and animal products, and retribution killing for human-wildlife conflict are at the top of the list, but tuberculosis imperils, legal hunting, canned hunting, and the captive lion industry have contributed to the many concerns. Climate change is also a factor, seeing more droughts and delayed rainy seasons impacting the availability of prey. In short, lions may be the kings of the beasts, but their fate rests in our hands.

South Africa has no fence-free lion-friendly wildernesses left. The sad reality is that our country’s wildlife is all managed to a certain degree, varying from the Kruger’s hands-off approach (minus fences and necessary human interventions) to protecting their 1600 lions (the largest number in the country) to sizable enclosures on private reserves that allow lions to live almost as they should.

Lions on reserves need enough prey to sustain themselves (often prey species have to be replenished), enough suitable territory to hunt in and contraceptives to keep pride numbers down, as well as limit inbreeding opportunities and territorial male takeovers, because… cats.

In a natural system, without fences, coming-of-age male lions would leave the safety of the pride and seek out new territories and mates. When this isn’t possible, both male and female individuals are translocated to different areas to ensure as much gene diversity as possible to help bolster the population.

TRANSLOCATING LIONESSES

lions: on the brink of extinction

When thinking of Africa, we automatically conjure the image of the mighty lion. These cats are the biggest in Africa, second in the world only to the Siberian Tiger. They’re at the top of the predator list, and I’m assuming on top of most people’s Safari bucket list too. Symbolically, lions represent nobility, royalty, strength, stateliness, valour, and most commonly, bravery; the King of all beasts.

And yet, they’re on the brink of extinction. Just 50 years ago, 450,000 lions roamed the African savannahs. Almost a decade ago, the IUCN Red List listed the African lion as ‘Critically Endangered’ with their last report in 2014 suggesting lion numbers had dropped to 121,000 mature individuals. While researching this topic, I found that specialists don’t agree on the exact numbers (lions outside of reserves are difficult to count), but that the estimates range from 20,000 to an optimistic 24,000 wild lions left in the world as of 2022. In South Africa, it’s estimated that there are 13,000 lions left, and only 2,300 truly wild lions in the country.

For context, according to Databox Benchmark Groups, the median value for average Instagram followers was 2,240 in April this year, which means that if everyone who followed you was a lion, you’d probably know almost all of them.

When it comes to lions, there are a number of issues surrounding their not-at-all-gradual demise. Habitat loss, competition with livestock, farmers protecting livestock, illegal poaching for meat and animal products, and retribution killing for human-wildlife conflict are at the top of the list, but tuberculosis imperils, legal hunting, canned hunting, and the captive lion industry have contributed to the many concerns. Climate change is also a factor, seeing more droughts and delayed rainy seasons impacting the availability of prey. In short, lions may be the kings of the beasts, but their fate rests in our hands.

South Africa has no fence-free lion-friendly wildernesses left. The sad reality is that our country’s wildlife is all managed to a certain degree, varying from the Kruger’s hands-off approach (minus fences and necessary human interventions) to protecting their 1600 lions (the largest number in the country) to sizable enclosures on private reserves that allow lions to live almost as they should.

Lions on reserves need enough prey to sustain themselves (often prey species have to be replenished), enough suitable territory to hunt in and contraceptives to keep pride numbers down, as well as limit inbreeding opportunities and territorial male takeovers, because… cats.

In a natural system, without fences, coming-of-age male lions would leave the safety of the pride and seek out new territories and mates. When this isn’t possible, both male and female individuals are translocated to different areas to ensure as much gene diversity as possible to help bolster the population.

day one: nora

Moving lions is logistically challenging and quite costly, so to make sure the Mount Camdeboo’s Nora and Kibibi were easy to find, they were put into a boma a few days before. Nick Lincoln from the Bateleurs was scheduled to land at Asanta Sana’s airstrip, the neighbouring reserve, at 9.30am, giving the team just enough time to get the lionesses on his plane and to Babanango before the sunset, but the weather wasn’t playing ball.

The wind pumped relentlessly, so Nick had to land in Graaff Reinet, an hour’s drive away! By the time Nick and wildlife vet Dr Ryan van Deventer arrived at Mount Camdeboo, the race was on. And then, to complicate things, there was a weight limit on the aircraft to ensure that they wouldn’t run out of fuel before reaching their final destination. We assumed that Nora and Kibibi, both being quite young, were much lighter than they really were, so only Nora would be making the flight that day.

Ryan kept her sedated, gave her a health check, fitted a tracking collar (used to help find her in Babanango) and because we were going to be driving through town, loaded her into the back of the Quantum after removing some seats. It took several people to load her into Nick’s plane (it had also had seats removed) and off she went. Nora arrived in Babanango and put into a boma awaiting her sister. For the first time in her life, she had a meal she didn’t have to share too.

day two: kibibi

A couple of days later, the wind died down and Nick flew into Asanta Sana, like originally planned. As Kibibi had been weighed at the same time as Nora, she was sedated and loaded onto the Land Cruiser and driven to the airstrip. Kibibi’s collar was replaced with a new one so that the team at Babanango would be able to find her once released onto their reserve.

Just out of interest, in the photos and in the video you can see Kibibi with a blindfold and cottonwool in her ears. This is because the sedation has to be as light as possible. Even unconscious, lion instincts can kick in, so the team works as quickly, calmly, and quietly as possible. Every now and then, Kibibi would let out a little growl and we were reminded just how seriously we should take the situation.

Kibibi weighs 150kg and is around 3 years old. Her Kalahari lion genes, and maybe even her pride’s preference for buffalos, make her 30kg heavier than the average for a fully-grown lioness.

Kibibi was loaded up into Nick’s plane and flown the nearly 1000km to Babanango where she was reunited with her little sister. Word has it that they were overjoyed to be back together. I’m thrilled that once settled, they’ll be able to meet up with the new Babanango male and have their own offspring and create a pride of their own. I have no doubt they’ll thrive.

day one: nora

Moving lions is logistically challenging and quite costly, so to make sure the Mount Camdeboo’s Nora and Kibibi were easy to find, they were put into a boma a few days before. Nick Lincoln from the Bateleurs was scheduled to land at Asanta Sana’s airstrip, the neighbouring reserve, at 9.30am, giving the team just enough time to get the lionesses on his plane and to Babanango before the sunset, but the weather wasn’t playing ball.

The wind pumped relentlessly, so Nick had to land in Graaff Reinet, an hour’s drive away! By the time Nick and wildlife vet Dr Ryan van Deventer arrived at Mount Camdeboo, the race was on. And then, to complicate things, there was a weight limit on the aircraft to ensure that they wouldn’t run out of fuel before reaching their final destination. We assumed that Nora and Kibibi, both being quite young, were much lighter than they really were, so only Nora would be making the flight that day.

Ryan kept her sedated, gave her a health check, fitted a tracking collar (used to help find her in Babanango) and because we were going to be driving through town, loaded her into the back of the Quantum after removing some seats. It took several people to load her into Nick’s plane (it had also had seats removed) and off she went. Nora arrived in Babanango and put into a boma awaiting her sister. For the first time in her life, she had a meal she didn’t have to share too.

day two: kibibi

A couple of days later, the wind died down and Nick flew into Asanta Sana, like originally planned. As Kibibi had been weighed at the same time as Nora, she was sedated and loaded onto the Land Cruiser and driven to the airstrip. Kibibi’s collar was replaced with a new one so that the team at Babanango would be able to find her once released onto their reserve.

Just out of interest, in the photos and in the video you can see Kibibi with a blindfold and cottonwool in her ears. This is because the sedation has to be as light as possible. Even unconscious, lion instincts can kick in, so the team works as quickly, calmly, and quietly as possible. Every now and then, Kibibi would let out a little growl and we were reminded just how seriously we should take the situation.

Kibibi weighs 150kg and is around 3 years old. Her Kalahari lion genes, and maybe even her pride’s preference for buffalos, make her 30kg heavier than the average for a fully-grown lioness.

Kibibi was loaded up into Nick’s plane and flown the nearly 1000km to Babanango where she was reunited with her little sister. Word has it that they were overjoyed to be back together. I’m thrilled that once settled, they’ll be able to meet up with the new Babanango male and have their own offspring and create a pride of their own. I have no doubt they’ll thrive.

the bateleurs

The Bateleurs is a unique non-profit organisation of volunteer pilot members who give their aviation skills, the use of their privately-owned aircraft, and their time for free in support of conservation and the environment in Africa.

The Bateleurs’ goal is to provide a free-of-charge aerial service to beneficiary organisations that require either an aerial perspective on environmental issues to enable sound decision-making or aerial assistance towards conserving beleaguered and/or endangered species.

babanango game reserve

Over the last five years, the Babanango Gamer Reserve has embarked on one of the largest game translocation projects in the country, selectively sourcing over 3,000 large mammal species and sensitively reintroducing them back to wilderness areas where once such species roamed freely. The reserve has successfully reintroduced a wide variety of endemic species, including endangered black rhino, and rare antelope such as oribi and klipspringer and in June 2023, the reserve reintroduced elephants, completing the ‘Big 5’. 

We’re volunteering our skills, time & passion to help tell worthy South African wildlife conservation stories free of charge. We’ll help support your cause with videography, photography & copywriting.

We’re volunteering our skills, time & passion to help tell worthy South African wildlife conservation stories free of charge. We’ll help support your cause with videography, photography & copywriting.

the bateleurs

The Bateleurs is a unique non-profit organisation of volunteer pilot members who give their aviation skills, the use of their privately-owned aircraft, and their time for free in support of conservation and the environment in Africa.

The Bateleurs’ goal is to provide a free-of-charge aerial service to beneficiary organisations that require either an aerial perspective on environmental issues to enable sound decision-making or aerial assistance towards conserving beleaguered and/or endangered species.

babanango game reserve

Over the last five years, the Babanango Gamer Reserve has embarked on one of the largest game translocation projects in the country, selectively sourcing over 3,000 large mammal species and sensitively reintroducing them back to wilderness areas where once such species roamed freely. The reserve has successfully reintroduced a wide variety of endemic species, including endangered black rhino, and rare antelope such as oribi and klipspringer and in June 2023, the reserve reintroduced elephants, completing the ‘Big 5’.