Walking with lions: why there is no role for captive-origin lions Panthera leo in species restoration

Luke T.B. Huntera1 c1, Paula Whitea2, Philipp Henschela1, Laurence Franka1, Cole Burtona3, Andrew Loveridgea4, Guy Balmea1, Christine Breitenmosera5 and Urs Breitenmosera5

a1 Panthera, 8 West 40th Street, 18th Floor, New York, NY 10018, USA.

a2 Center for Tropical Research, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

a3 Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

a4 Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Zoology Department, Oxford University, UK

a5 Co-Chairs, IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group, c/o KORA, Muri, Switzerland


Despite formidable challenges and few successes in reintroducing large cats from captivity to the wild, the release of captives has widespread support from the general public and local governments, and continues to occur ad hoc. Commercial so-called lion Panthera leo encounter operations in Africa exemplify the issue, in which the captive breeding of the lion is linked to claims of reintroduction and broader conservation outcomes. In this article we assess the capacity of such programmes to contribute to in situ lion conservation. By highlighting the availability of wild founders, the unsuitability of captive lions for release and the evidence-based success of wild–wild lion translocations, we show that captive-origin lions have no role in species restoration. We also argue that approaches to reintroduction exemplified by the lion encounter industry do not address the reasons for the decline of lions in situ, nor do they represent a model that can be widely applied to restoration of threatened felids elsewhere.

(Received December 14 2011)

(Revised May 11 2012)

(Accepted May 18 2012)

(Online publication July 31 2012)


  • Africa;
  • captive breeding;
  • Felidae ;
  • lion;
  • Panthera leo ;
  • reintroduction;
  • restoration;
  • translocation


c1 (Corresponding author) E-mail lhunter@panthera.org