Three lion were released into Mountain Zebra National Park outside Cradock in the Eastern Cape for the first time today, becoming the first free-roaming lions in the area after an absence of over 130 years.
The lone lioness was sourced from Karoo National Park outside Beaufort West, while the two males were brought in from Welgevonden Game Reserve in Limpopo. The female has been resident in the Park’s boma since February, while the two males arrived earlier this month – allowing them to acclimatise to their new surroundings, and each other, before their release.
Park Manager, Megan Taplin, says the decision to introduce lion into the Park was mainly for biodiversity reasons. “Lions would have occurred here historically and it is SANParks policy to reintroduce the wildlife species which would have occurred in an area before hunting or habitat loss forced them to local extinction in earlier centuries. They will also occupy the niche of large predator in the ecosystem, keeping the numbers of larger herbivores in the Park in check,” said Taplin.
The three were released from the Park’s boma this morning, as the third predator species in the Park – after the introduction of cheetah in 2007 and brown hyena in 2008. “SANParks took the decision to allow cheetah to first establish themselves in the Park before introducing lion which may compete with the cheetah for food. The numbers of large herbivores such as black wildebeest, red hartebeest, eland and gemsbok have now reached levels deemed sufficient to support lion,” Taplin said.
The lion are collared so that Park Management can monitor them in the first few months or years after release and so that rangers and researchers can observe what habitats they use and which species they prey on. Taplin says this will enable them to measure the lions’ impact on prey species and determine if more should be introduced in future.
Lion often explore the extent of the Park soon after release before establishing themselves in the areas where they have the most success hunting. “On release into a new area, lion often prey on a variety of species before settling down. However, we predict that they will prey mostly on species such as black wildebeest and kudu,” said Taplin.
Cheetah tracking and guided walks will continue, led by the Park’s knowledgeable guides who are trained to walk in Big Five areas. The fencing of the two picnic sites inside the game viewing area was completed in preparation for the lions’ arrival. The Park is already enclosed with predator-proof fencing, which was erected prior to the release of cheetah in 2007.
Apart from their biodiversity value, the introduction of the lion will add to Mountain Zebra’s tourism value – offering visitors a new species to look out for in the Park. “I think it will be wonderful to hear lion roaring at right – nothing beats that sound,” Taplin concluded.