The first wild Lions in 15 years will finally be seen roaming Akagera National Park, located in the north-east of Rwanda along the border with Tanzania, once again.
Lions were wiped out when numbers of the species were poisoned by cattle herders in the years following the 1994 genocide when the park was unmanaged. Now a ground breaking conservation project with the Rwanda Development Board and African Parks has brought back these majestic predators. African Parks was asked to help manage the project and work on restoring the parks wildlife, infrastructure and tourism.
It took over two years to find Lions that would be relocated and released into the park Jes Gruner, the Park Manager of Akagera tells National Geographic.com. They tried to “source from east Africa, but could not get permission from neighboring Kenya. We searched far and wide—Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Zambia. Eventually, South Africa was the only country willing to help.” The males came from Etosha National Park in Namibia, and the females have a mix of genes from Kruger National Park, Kgalagadi National Park, and Etosha.
The Lions are genetically different than ones found in East Africa leading to some criticism about the reintroduction, however after over a year trying to obtain East African Lions the decided to move forward not wanting to delay the project any longer than necessary.
On June 4 the seven Lions made the over 45 hour journey to the park, this is said to be the longest wild Lion translocation in conservation history. There is a 10-year-old mother and her one year old daughter, a single five-year old female and two three-year old sisters. The males are three and four years old and are unrelated.
After arriving at Akagera the Lions were first released into a quarantine boma, for just under a month, to temporarily acclimatize them to their new environment. They were finally released into the park at the end of June. A waterbuck carcass was placed outside the gates to encourage the Lions to step out, the first female poked her nose out of the gates within a few minutes followed by three other females, who looked around curiously for a while, unconvinced about their new-found freedom. The youngest lioness was last of the females to emerge and nervously kept her distance in nearby bushes. The two males were much more cautious and did not emerge from the boma while the park and press vehicles were there.
All seven Lions are fitted with GPS collars so their movements can be tracked to see if they stay together or split up, it will also enable the Akagera park management team to monitor their movements and reduce the risk of the Lions breaking out into neighboring community areas. As an additional precautionary measure the park fence has also been predator-proofed. The collars have a two year life by which time the park team will have evaluated the pride dynamics and can determine whether it is prudent to re-collar any of the animals.
It already has been reported that the Lions had made their first kill a week after their release which is a positive sign they are doing well.
Update May 12, 2016 – Friends of Akagera National Park on Facebook have reported the birth of the first lion cubs! “Three lion cubs, estimated to be around six weeks old, were spotted with their mother, Shema, yesterday. Their arrival has been eagerly anticipated and brings the total number of lions in Akagera, and Rwanda, to ten.“