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Research Article

Restoring lions Panthera leo to northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: short-term biological and technical success but equivocal long-term conservation

L.T.B. Huntera1 p1 c1, K. Pretoriusa2, L. C. Carlislea2, M. Rickeltona2, C. Walkera2, R. Slotowa3 and J. D. Skinnera1

a1 Mammal Research Institute & Veterinary Wildlife Unit, University of Pretoria, Private Bag X04, Onderstepoort 0110, South Africa

a2 Phinda Private Game Reserve, Private Bag 6001, Hluhluwe 3960, South Africa

a3 School of Biological and Conservation Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College Campus, Durban 4041, South Africa

Abstract

The success of efforts to re-establish mammalian carnivores within their former range is dependent on three key factors: methodological considerations, the biological requirements of the target species, and the involvement of local human communities for whom large carnivores pose a threat. We consider the role of these factors in the first 13 years of an effort to re-establish wild lions in northern KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. We employed soft-release methods to mitigate the characteristic problems associated with restoration of large carnivores. A pre-release captivity period facilitated acclimatization of reintroduced lions and promoted long-term bonding of unfamiliar individuals into cohesive groups. All individuals remained in the release area and established enduring, stable home ranges. Reintroduced lions successfully reproduced and raised 78% of their cubs to independence. Human activity was the cause of all post-release mortality. Despite rapid population growth and the re-establishment of the species at Phinda Private Game Reserve, the population is small and isolated with little prospect for re-colonizing additional areas where the species has been extirpated, or for connecting with other isolated lion populations in the region. Accordingly, although we essentially overcame the short-term technical and biological challenges facing lion reintroduction, the long-term value of the Phinda population for addressing the conservation issues facing the species remains equivocal.

(Received July 20 2005)

(Revised December 08 2005)

(Accepted March 20 2006)

Correspondence:

c1 email: lhunter@wcs.org

p1 Also at: Wildlife Conservation Society, 2300 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, NY 10460, USA.

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