Tagged trio get taste of freedom

2016-10-21 11:13
Playing ‘cat and mouse’ with the vet wanting to dart him.

Playing ‘cat and mouse’ with the vet wanting to dart him. (Ian Carbutt)

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Pietermaritzburg - It was a poignant moment for conservation when three male lions took their first tentative steps to freedom in the uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park this week.

Excitement was palpable as the darted, newly-collared and branded lions shook their heads groggily and got to their feet in semi-darkness, free for the first time after several months in bomas.

The dim lighting — used to avoid causing the animals stress or damaging their eyesight — gave the lions a ghostly appearance as they staggered up to inspect the vehicles in which human onlookers waited holding their breath.

Several times the huge shapes “bumped” the vehicle the Witness reporter and photographer were in, and maned heads peered through closed windows.

The brothers’ affection for one another was apparent as the closely bonded group periodically joined up for mutual grooming sessions as they recovered from the tranquillisers that had to be administered so they could be collared and branded for identification.

Earlier the term “playing cat and mouse” took on new meaning as one of the males played hide and seek with uMkhuze­ conservation manager Eduard Goosen and veterinary surgeon Dr Jaques Flamand, waiting to dart it from the back of a bakkie. After seeing his two brothers fall to the dartgun, the male had no intention of following suit and sly tactics had to be employed before he was successfully darted.

The trio carry on their hefty shoulders hope for the future survival of lions in the iSimangaliso area and the responsibility of introducing a new bloodline into the pride of 16 lions currently resident in uMkhuze.

The sub-adult brothers were flown in from Tswalu Kalahari private reserve on September 9, and had been held in a boma since then to acclimatise them to their new home.

They will be closely monitored (by park staff and Wildlife ACT volunteers) for their own protection as well as communities surrounding the reserve.

One of two male lions previously introduced tragically died of injuries from fighting its rival, and the other fell victim to poachers, being caught in a snare.

Snaring, though largely under control in the now fully fenced uMkhuze reserve, remains one of the challenges facing the conservation authority.

The trio’s release is part of the plan to bring lions back to iSimangaliso after 47 years, iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis said.

He explained that the last known lion in the area was shot 47 years ago as a “rogue” after getting out of the park, which at that time was unfenced.

Isimangaliso has embarked on a project to reintroduce many game species — as well as marine life — that went extinct in the area prior to it being declared a world heritage site.

Fifteen years of hard work by iSimangaliso and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has seen the settling of several land claims, removal of thousands of hectares of commercial eucalyptus and pine plantations and the construction of more than 350 km of Big Five fencing.

The first family of four lions, which were brought in from Tembe Elephant Park, were released in uMkhuze in December 2013. They comprised an adult lioness and three sub-adult offspring.

Zaloumis said the arrival of these lions at the time “catapulted iSimangaliso to Big 7 status”. The initial pride was bolstered by the introduction of two males and three lionesses during 2014, but the birth of cubs has since swelled the numbers to the existing figure of 16.

Zaloumis said because of the size of the area and the fact that lions breed prolifically, it was necessary to slow down the breeding rate of the lions. For that reason the lionesses have undergone partial hysterectomies. This is the removal of one horn of the uterus.

It is hoped that this will halve the number of litters of cubs.

Apart from ecological benefits, the introduction of lions had boosted tourism to the uMkhuze section and the pride is regularly seen by visitors along with the sought-after “painted (wild) dogs”.

Zaloumis said thousands of head of game have been translocated to iSimangaliso since 2000, and all the game that historically occurred, such as oribi, tsessebe, black and white rhino, elephant, wild dog, cheetah, buffalo, water buck and blue wildebeest, have been reintroduced.

Plans are afoot to still introduce eland and Zaloumis said hyenas and jackal had also returned to the area of their own accord and their numbers are increasing.

Zaloumis thanked the many stakeholders involved in the lion project, including Tswalu for donating the lions, the Bateleur Society for aircraft and flights, Pretoria couple Anton and Sue van Langelaar for a donation for fuel and members of Ezemvelo and Wildlife ACT.

The tracking collars and tranquillisers were paid for from iSimangaliso’s “rare and endangered” fund.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  good news  |  wildlife  |  animals

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