© Pete Oxford
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Lions in Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia are making a come-back in this beautiful 3,660km2 landscape, famous for its once only single lioness, Lady Liuwa, as well as hosting the second largest wildebeest migration in all of Africa. In September, a male lion was introduced to Liuwa, a park which is managed by African Parks in partnership with the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife and the Barotse Royal Establishment. The only surviving breeding male present in the park prior to this introduction was related to the current females, so a re-introduction in order to help grow the genetic base and aid in the long-term future of the species in Liuwa was needed.

The resident Liuwa male lion rests next to his two cubs ©Thomas Orr
The resident Liuwa male lion rests next to his two cubs ©Thomas Orr

Stretching across north-west Zambia, Liuwa’s vast grassland is key lion habitat, but like so many other places on the continent, decades of excessive hunting and lion control afterhuman-wildlife conflict had driven the species down to the edge of local extinction. Lady Liuwa roamed these grasslands as the sole surviving member of her species, until African Parks took over Liuwa’s management and undertook the first introduction of two males in 2009 followed by two females in 2011 to begin the process of repopulating the park. Liuwa has been carefully managing the recovery of this small pride for years, and the introduction of this new male serves as an essential next step in contributing necessary genetic diversity to secure a future for the pride.

 

A suitably aged lion was identified with the help of the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP) and the Mushingashi Conservancy management, captured and translocated from Mushingashi Conservancy next to Kafue National Park and brought to Liuwa to be bonded with the resident lion. The bonding process consisted of having both lions kept in a large “boma” or enclosure, for seven weeks so they could acclimate to one another, reinforce the social bonding process that is so important in any coalition and allow the females time to bond to a certain degree to the new lion through the fence, which they did on most nights throughout the seven weeks. It was critical for this to work so that upon release the Kafue male would follow the experienced Liuwa male, and learn to avoid areas of conflict within the park given the movement of resident people in this unique landscape.

 

The successful capture process was overseen by Liuwa’s Park Manager, Mr. Robert Reid, and experienced vet, Dr. Ian Parsons. The operation went smoothly with both lions being relocated into the boma on the 2nd of October. The first few days saw the lions interact without any aggression and within the week they were following each other around the boma, lying next to one another and head rubbing. After a few more weeks in the boma together, the two lions started to truly bond. All the resident lionesses visited the lion boma on multiple occasions, often sleeping just outside the boma and then moving a short distance away in the day. 

 

On the 15th November, while the males were still in the boma, we received the additional news that Sepo (a lioness introduced in 2011) had given birth to two beautiful cubs, offspring from her son. Although not ideal in the long run, lions can mate with their offspring and this often happens in small isolated populations. We had suspicions she had given birth due to her rather secretive behavior and separation from the rest of the pride, but official confirmation was made when she was seen with Lady Liuwa and her new cubs who appeared to be around eight-weeks old. This is a wonderful beginning given the start of the wet season. The iconic rains in this landscape brings the concentrations of wildebeest around Matiamanene, and they serve as a critical prey base for Liuwa’s famous carnivores, increasing all of their chances of survival. Mortality in lion cubs in the first year is common but we hope Sepo, with the assistance of her daughters and Lady, will be able to raise these new additions to adulthood.

 

Following this good news of the new cubs being born within the park, on the 22nd of November, after seven weeks in captivity, the boma gates were opened and after a few hours the Liuwa male casually walked out of the boma with the Kafue lion following close behind. They strode off onto the plains, and within a day had made contact with all of Liuwa’s resident females: Lady Liuwa, Sepo, the other two females and the cubs. The initial contacts and interactions have very been positive, and we hope that all eight animals will form strong bonds over the next few months, and serve as an important foundation in growing Liuwa’s pride, and having lions roam these plains once again. There is of course the risk that the new lion might kill the cubs given that he was not part of the coalition when the Liuwa lion fathered them however since release this seems not to be the case.