Leopards in High Places

Many of the big cats are known for climbing trees to escape the heat, flies, to watch for prey or to escape other predators. It is not uncommon to see them taking to heights and, in Africa leopards are commonly seen hanging out in tall trees. Although lions have been known to do the same in certain places they are not exactly designed for tree climbing and come across a little more awkward compared to the fluid and graceful leopard who is naturally at home in the heights where they will stash kills, eat and happily sleep.

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Salt Pan female hangs out and catches a breeze in a large tree – South Luangwa NP. Zambia

During my trip to Africa last year I was fortunate to have many wonderful leopard sightings both on the ground and up high, in fact over a few days all I had to do was look up to see these dappled beauties looking down at me. Of course, that’s when they weren’t busy enjoying a siesta or post-meal nap.

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Kataba the one-eyed legend – Puku Ridge South Luangwa NP, Zambia

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©Tori-Ellen Dileo – Kataba sleeping with a full belly – Puku Ridge South Luangwa NP, Zambia

While leopards are able to climb some very tall trees you might be surprised to know that at least one had made it all the way to the top of Africa’s highest mountain to take in a view that perhaps no other has. In 1926 on Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, a frozen leopard carcass was found along the volcanoes crater rim by Pastor Richard Reusch, a Missionary for the Lutheran Church. The Pastor was supposedly the first to discover the leopard which would later inspire, and be immortalized in, Hemingway’s book The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The Pastor made sure to get proof of his find and cut off an ear as souvenir on a subsequent climb the following year, afterwards the leopards remains were reported to have mysteriously disappeared. No reason was given as to why the leopard would have been that high, approximately 18,500 feet (or 5638.8 meters), close to the western summit at a place that would be christened Leopard point, but Pastor Reusch had hypothesized that the cat had been chasing a goat since he also found the remains of one not far from where the leopard lay. Since there were no remains and no radiocarbon dating, the leopards age along with length of time it remained locked in the once famous snows of Kilimanjaro will also remain a mystery.

Interestingly, there is a reference that notes the first report of a leopard carcass on Kilimanjaro was in 1889 by a German Geologist and Geographer named Hans Meyer who had seen one not far from where Reusch would later spot his. Among some of the theories included the possibility that the leopard could have come from the Kilimanjaro Mountain  Forest Reserve and took a wrong turn, or that the leopard was pursued up to high elevations by local hunters as Meyer had seen a hunting camp nearby. Officially though, nothing has ever been confirmed and to this day there has been no explanation for either Meyer’s or Reusch’s leopard.

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Kilimanjaro stands 5,895 meters high, the leopard was found at about 5638.8 meters – Image – John Reader/Science Photo Library via Earth Touch News

It does seems that leopards had an affinity for the mountains and in 1997 another leopard carcass was discovered on Africa’s second highest mountain, near Tyndall Glacier, Mount Kenya. In this case there were remains, although very decomposed, which turned out to be enough for radiocarbon dating placing the animal at about 900 years old.

There are opportunities to see wildlife during the early stages of a Kilimanjaro climb at lower elevations, but those still hoping to spot a leopard on higher slopes shouldn’t hold their breath. The high altitudes that are reached during climbs are not ones that most wild animals can survive at and if there are any, most will do their best to steer clear of humans.

If you are set on a chance to glimpse a leopard in high places it is probably best to keep your eyes on the trees and maybe, you will be lucky enough to have one of these beautiful cats reveal themselves and all their spotted splendor.


Many years ago on a trip to Kenya I was very fortunate to see a serval on a night drive in Amboseli National Park. The image while grainy reminds me of how beautiful, elegant and perfectly camouflaged this animal is for its environment. It was the cats glowing eyes that gave it away and, as we stopped to watch, he or she turned around and gave one over the shoulder glance before silently padding off into the tall grass under the cover of darkness.

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The name Serval is derived from a  Portuguese word meaning “wolf-deer”  or “deer-like wolf”

Servals (Leptailurus serval) are a medium-sized lesser cat, not to be grouped with the bigger cats even though they have been called miniature cheetahs, weighing between 30 to 40 pounds. Some of their distinguishing characteristics include tawny coats with black strips, splotches, spots, and, large oval ears which enable them to detect the slightest sounds and target small prey animals in the grass or in the ground. They also have the longest legs, which make them excellent acrobatic jumpers and hunters, for body size of any of the cats and are most at home in grassland and moist habitats such as reed beds and marshes, but are found in a variety of habitats throughout Africa except tropical rain forests and the Saharan desert. In North Africa a few isolated populations are said to exist in both Morocco and northern Algeria but it is thought they number less than 250 individuals, isolated in vulnerable sub-populations of fewer than 50. Therefore it is generally recognized that servals are critically endangered north of the Sahara.

If spotting a serval is lucky then catching a glimpse of the very rare melanistic serval is magic and, there are only 4 locations in Eastern Africa where you might be able to have this experience.

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Image © Alison Mees – “Interestingly, the serval spotted by Mees was foraging in the lowlands of  Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park suggesting that either these black cats are moving out of the mountains, or they are spreading their melanistic genes to populations that live at lower elevations. We’ll leave that to the experts to figure out.” via Earth Touch News Network

Melanism is a genetic condition in which an animal has an increased development of black pigmentation in the skin and hair, and even though the cause of  the condition still remains unknown, it is thought that the darker coloration helps retain body heat and provide a type of survival mechanism. Many other feline species, including bobcats, have exhibited melanism and it appears in about 13 of the 37 known feline species worldwide.

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Image © Christian Boix – Melanistic Serval in Mkomazi National Park, Tanzania via Africa Geographic

Servals are typically a solitary species with pairs only coming together for a few days to mate. The female will give birth to a litter of kittens approximately 74 days later and about a year later she will chase her young from her territory allowing female offspring to stick around a few months longer than the males. Seeing two servals together wouldn’t be surprising if you happen to be at the right place at the right time, however if you happen to witness the meeting of a regular colored serval and a melanistic serval – that would be something truly special and rare.

This is exactly what happened to Jeremy Goss, conservationist and wildlife photographer, while on a night game drive in Kenya. It was unclear if this was a courtship or simply two servals greeting one another, regardless the photographs and video show an unforgettable meeting between the two cats.

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Image © Jeremy Goss – via Africa Geographic

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Image © Jeremy Goss– via Africa Geographic

Servals are listed on CITES II appendix, which prohibits international trade without a permit, and they are currently classified as least concern on the IUCN Red List. While they are not generally considered an endangered species they are suffering like all other of the wild cats.

The primary threats come from the bigger cats like leopards, dogs and most notably the ever-growing human population. Servals are poached for their beautiful coats, which are used for ceremonial and medicinal purposes, and even for their meat which is considered a delicacy by some African tribes. Fragmentation and loss of wetland habitat means loss of main prey sources like rodents, this in addition to the burning of grasslands, overgrazing by livestock and persecution by farmers, who consider them a threat to livestock, are also greatly contributing to their demise. Servals rarely take anything larger than a bird and do not pose a threat to humans but are often wrongly blamed for killing sheep and chickens.

Even though servals are not protected over most of their home range, hunting is prohibited in some of their range countries, there is no conservation plan in place but it is clear that any would be welcome to help better understand and ensure a future for this unique and elegant feline.

Saving Africa’s Dappled Beauty

On my trip to Africa last year I had the amazing fortune and privilege to see a handful of leopards which are unbelievable in person with their relaxed, enigmatic, graceful beauty even in the extreme heat. I will be posting more photos of my trip at a later time but wanted to share this one of a lovely young female from Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park. She had just had her Impala stolen by the famous resident one-eyed male known as Kataba – more on him later as well, who was sitting in a tree not more than five feet from her!

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Right now Panthera pardus needs your help, they have been over-hunted and persecuted to such an extent that South Africa has extended the ban on hunting them into 2017. This means there is a zero quota which has stayed in place since last January. While it doesn’t protect them from illegal hunting, retaliatory killings, poisoning, poaching etc…eliminating at least one form of mortality is a decent step. Leopard numbers are not known and to continue to allow these animals to be killed for sport is just not acceptable.

How you can help

Until midnight on January 30, 2017 the USFWS will be taking comments on leopards. We are asking to protect them from both hunting and the trade in their body parts. What the leopard needs is a reclassification to an Endangered status. If you could take a few minutes to visit the link and leave comments based on the following below.

Please try to modify with your own words but include some of the scientific facts and references as the USFWS will only consider comments if they include this important information. You may leave your comments with your name or as anonymous. Just click the blue ‘Comment Now’ button on the upper right corner! We urgently need more comments before the deadline – please share!

I strongly support the reclassification of the Leopard (Panthera Pardus) to Endangered Species. I support this for the following reasons:

  • First, scientific data shows that leopards are the most persecuted cat species in the world and that there is a major lack of data on the actual number of leopards remaining. Camera trapping surveys conducted during a study period indicate that leopard population in Southern Africa is declining rapidly and at a very concerning rate.
  • One of the major causes of leopard mortality, trophy hunting, can be stopped immediately. It is known that trophy “off take rates” are exceed and that corruption in the release of permits for trophy hunting occurs on a frequent basis making hunting these big cats for sport simply unsustainable.
  • Along with Trophy hunting there is illegal hunting, trapping and snaring, poisoning, killing for skin, legal destruction, farm livestock protection, revenge killings all pushing leopards to the brink of extinction. Leopards are also victims of Climate change and drought, which has an impact and threatens the leopard population worldwide.
  • Leopard habitat has greatly decreased which also threatens the leopard population worldwide; this creates conflict with growing agriculture, livestock farming and urbanization. Fences and fragmentation of the leopard habitat will in turn reduce the reproduction rate of the species.
  • Unreported and illegal killing of leopards is widespread across Southern African countries all of which have inadequate legislation and poor control to persecute illegal killings and manage the leopard population.
  • Another growing problem is the illegal trading of leopard parts – like with other big cats the trade is not adequately punishable or discouraged by the countries where the leopard is an indigenous species.
  • Finally enforcement is weak, incompetent, under-staffed and dysfunctional. Conservation departments are simply unable to monitor a particular elusive species such as leopard.
  • For these many legitimate reasons I am asking that Leopards be immediately reclassified as an Endangered Species and all hunting and trade of this highly imperiled species cease.

For your reference I am providing the following references:

  • Kahler & Gore, M.L. 2005, Local Perceptions, Human-Wildlife conflicts in Namibia
  • Minin-Fraser-Slotow-McMillan, Understanding the preference of tourists for big game species. Implication for Conservation, 2013
  • Nadal &Aguaio, A review of the Economic Analysis of wildlife trade, 2014
  • Richardson-Loomis, The total economic value of threatened, endangered and rare species, 2009
  • Ripple-Estes-Beschta, Status and ecological effects of the world’s largest carnivores, 2015
  • St John-Keane, Identifying indicators of carnivore killing, 2012
  • Swanepoel-Lindsey-Somers, Extent and fragmentation of suitable Leopard habitat in South Africa, 2013
  • Thorn-Green-Scott, Characteristics and determinants of human-carnivore conflict in South African farmland, 2013
  • Wilson-Spaeth, Governments are not doing enough to stop wildlife crime, 2017
  • Cameron, Bustling trade in illegal wildlife products at Johannesburg market, 2016
  • EMS Foundation Comments to the Department of Environment Affairs/Leopard Trophy Hunts


Wildlife conservation in Africa, like elsewhere, is vast and complex, as many people are just starting to learn. For those of us who reside outside of the continent it can be confusing, frustrating and at times devastating. The intense scrutiny it has come under lately has exposed us to some of the challenges that must be overcome, as well as showing us we still have lots to learn.

Awareness, with regards to the status of Lions and all Africa’s wildlife, has been steadily building and the call to action has never been stronger but, how do we continue to move forward and, what is it we are not seeing? Even though the movement to change the system is getting stronger it sometimes can feel like it’s one step forward and three steps back. Recent events this year have forced all us to face the demons behind wildlife conservation and by this I mean the corruption; the ties to trophy hunting; that money trumps science and ethics; and, the realization that even though we want the killing to stop it doesn’t look like there is an immediate end in sight. I think for most, including myself, this is one of the toughest pills to swallow. While I have and will always be against sport hunting I have come to understand that it is going to take a collective shift in our way of thinking about wildlife in general and a massive effort by everyone to back that shift up. This also means we will need to get a better grasp of the complexities involved in conservation in Africa by looking more closely at the way it is viewed and operates from the inside. Along with what we are already doing, this could be a useful approach that may help us better understand how to help. Of course it doesn’t mean we are always going to like what we see, or that we will necessarily always agree with the ideologies, but if it enables us to get a better handle on the underlying issues to ultimately do better for Lions, for wildlife (and put a stop the the killing) then maybe it’s something we embrace rather than ignore.

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So with more questions, than answers, floating around in my head I reached out to Safari Guide, Naturalist and Zimbabwe resident Rob Janisch to obtain his insights and opinions on conservation in Zimbabwe and Africa, in a post Cecil world. There are many sentiments you will find familiar, points you may agree with and others you may strongly oppose, either way this is intended to provoke thought by demonstrating that the solutions we are searching for are more complicated than we think.

Q. From the perspective of a resident and Safari Guide, what is the state of wildlife conservation presently like in Zimbabwe and has it changed much over the years? 

RJ Firstly, it is important to give you a bit of background to Zimbabwe.  Whilst the country has hit the headlines in the past 15 years largely as a politically unstable, unsafe and ‘unfriendly’ country, the reality on the ground is very different to the picture portrayed by the media.

Zimbabwe has had some very challenging years since 2000, and has suffered some major economic and political turns. However, as with many aspects of life in Zimbabwe, the results of many decades worth of sound management, excellent legislation, good infrastructural development, and high levels of education prior to 2000, has left the state of wildlife conservation in the country today in a much better state than it could have been given the circumstances.

So, has the state of wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe changed since the heydays in the early 1990s?  The answer is yes, unfortunately, somewhat towards the negative in much the same way as is being witnessed across other countries in Africa, often on a much bigger scale elsewhere. For example the dark cloud of corruption at all levels that is leading to what-once-were good environmental controls, governance and legislation being flouted for ‘the quick solution’ with immediate financial returns.

Having said this, Zimbabwe’s parks and wildlife estate land (protected areas managed by a state-governed authority) is still relatively well-managed on the whole, especially in areas where innovative co-management plans with independent conservation agencies have been put in place such as Gonarezhou National Park, in partnership with Frankfurt Zoological Society.

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Gonarezhou National Park – Image Frankfurt Zoological Society

The main issue facing conservation in Zimbabwe is exactly the same number one issue facing the state of conservation on the continent of Africa as a whole: widespread corruption and poor governance with respect to wildlife and ecological crime, both in the public and the private sector.  However, there is still a semblance of order, legislation and control that exists under the layer of corruption and, if ways were found to eliminate or drastically reduce the corruption it would bode well for Zimbabwe and its wildlife in the long run.

Q. Was the news of Cecil the Lions death really news considering hunters from the US have been taking Lion trophies long before this story broke?

RJ Cecil’s story is an interesting one and, he was just one of the many illegal, unethical and ‘dodgy’ hunts carried out in Africa this season by the sports hunting fraternity. US hunters as well as others from across the world, are involved in this sort of thing on a daily, weekly, monthly basis in many different countries all the way from the US to Mozambique.

In Cecil’s case corruption and bad governance of an industry, which had allowed for an unethical hunt to be carried out in an area where such a hunt is in theory illegal, is directly to blame. Who was responsible in terms of the actual hunters both in the US and in Zimbabwe is not really the issue here, despite social media’s best attempts to point fingers at Palmer or the Zimbabwe professional hunter or whoever else is villain of the month.

Unlike the trade in illegal ivory or rhino horn, the sport hunting world is not a case of demand driving supply. For example, the total number of Lions that the sports hunting trade puts on quota (i.e. allowed to be hunted, whether the permit was attained legally or not) across Africa per year is not a very significant number when compared to the number of Lions lost through habitat destruction due to land turned to agriculture, or the number lost to snares aimed at more appealing bush-meat (protein) source, or even the number of Lions lost to diseases linked to human interference, such as domestic dogs and cattle-borne diseases.

Bottom line is the news of Cecil’s death due to an unethical sports hunt was not the real issue.  Neither was the hatred and vitriol that arose due to the ‘crime’ being committed by an American dentist.  No, the issue really doesn’t even extend just to the sports hunting fraternity although, obviously the system there does need some serious re-structuring as we are seeing in countries like Botswana and Kenya to great effect.

The issue that should be raised and shouted from the rooftops as a result of Cecil-gate, is that Lions in Africa, and almost all other species within the continent, are under huge threat from the impacts and negative effects of too many people; poor education programs; not enough governance and control; and, unchecked corruption at almost every level of the ‘protected areas’ authority in Africa – an authority that also happens to include the sports hunting trade as one of its constituents.

Q. The death of Cecil seemed to be a wake up call for many people around the world, in terms of local reaction was it business as usual?

I think locally it might have actually had an opposite effect, I think people in Africa were perplexed that so much energy and noise was created in the naming and shaming of the dentist for his role in the Cecil killing with little regard for the bigger conservation picture that a story like this could have helped focus our collective lenses on.  In Africa, we don’t get to see mass consciousness at work that often, like we saw with the social and mainstream media response to Cecil.  It’s a pity that this mass-energy could not have unlocked the message that really did need to get out.  Instead of the ‘hang the lion killer from our own backyard’ response, I guess we were hoping more for a headline that read “Cecil’s death is just the beginning of a universal movement towards better understanding of and, action against conservation issues across Africa”. Business as usual will continue with respect of wildlife crime and ecological degradation in Africa as well as across the world, as long as the world is not actively aware of it and, vehemently and incorruptibly against it.

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Cecil and his pride in Hwange National Park in November 2012 – Image The Telegraph

Q. What do you see as some of the key issues facing wildlife in reserves/parks in Zimbabwe and Africa?

RJ Some of the key issues facing wildlife in Zimbabwe and other areas of Africa are mostly not very new or different from those we have seen in the past. This includes the massive slaughter and trade in both wildlife parts of species alive or dead, unchecked bush fires, over-fishing and illegal logging. The weather, in the form of climate change, is another factor damaging ecosystems across Africa, and off its shores, in the form of unscheduled periods of drought, floods and rising temperatures.  Areas we used to know as very wet are now semi-arid, and many of the exquisite coral reefs off Africa’s east coast are showing signs of ‘over-heating’ due to higher sea temperatures. The human species, who gives very little back to the planet we rely on for our entire existence, has a hand in contributing  to all of the above by way of our ever growing population. I will refer to a few examples of this:

  • Early on the demand for Ivory and rhino horn in China and SE Asia was still high, but not at the levels it is now with more people ascending to the middle class wanting items of status such as ivory in their homes.
  • In the 1800s and early 1900s when European hunters traipsed through Africa killing anything that moved but, we were still only talking about a couple of hundred people, at most, with basic muzzle-loaded weapons leading the sharp-end of the species slaughter wedge.
  • Rising populations later meant a need for more meat for protein to feed everyone, more space required for agriculture to grow crops, more water required, more fires, more fishing, more mining, more of everything that directly affects wildlife conservation in the continent.
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A government official picks up an ivory tusk to crush it at a confiscated ivory destruction ceremony in Beijing, China, May 29, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

  • Before a reserve like Hwange, Cecil’s home ground, was first set aside and protected not 100 years ago, there were very few people living in the immediate area and so wildlife was free to move from neighboring Botswana to the waterways of the Zambezi during the dry season, pretty much as they pleased.  Huge herds of elephants for example made the migratory journey of several hundreds of miles every year to find water and food which helped to reduce the impact the huge populations had in the region.
  • Interestingly, as human population grew around the area in the first half of the 20th Century, the Hwange reserve was proclaimed and the wardens went with a system of artificial water wells to try to entice the animals, especially the elephants, to stay in the reserve. This was done to encourage the elephants not to wander out towards the Zambezi looking for water or to graze and risk being killed or bumping into the ever-expanding communities of people and their crops nearby. In time, all the animals, including thousands of elephants, made the reserve their home but, over 50 to 60 years we have seen massive devastation of vegetation around these artificial water points due to an overpopulation of mega-herbivores. Basically one area is having to cope with the density and impacts that was previously spread over an area four or five times the size.
  • As communities grew, reserves and parks were now having to be set aside to keep wild animals safe from humans complete with the myriad of challenges that this creates in itself like access to water, anti-poaching, fire, etc…Any of those ‘protected’ animals who wandered out of the park boundaries faced the risk of either being illegally poached for meat and the likelihood of bumping into a ‘legitimate’ sports hunter who wanted a trophy.

So it is a double-edged sword all borne from the fact that there are too many people and not enough wild spaces to cope with them all. Ironically, these same communities surrounding the national parks and reserves like Hwange, were subsequently given hunting quotas, to benefit from (mostly), as part of an innovative natural resource management program named CAMPFIRE. Unfortunately it was the unethical trading of such quotas that resulted in the unlikely scenario that a Lion could be hunted where it was when Dr. Palmer arranged his hunt earlier in the year.

Q Tourism has been proven to bring in more money than trophy hunting, however there are many organizations and individuals that still support it as a means of managing land and helping local communities. Why do you think this is still the case?

RJ Sports/trophy hunting is an incredible tool for managing large areas of land that are not as appealing or attractive to tourism… IF it is carried out ethically and under strict management and monitoring. An example of this is in one of the bigger conservancies in south-central Zimbabwe which has one of the highest wildlife densities, including rare and endangered animals such as rhino and sable, in Africa.  The area is operated by a handful of professional hunters with decades of experience and who seem to have a sound conservation and land management ethic.  Due to its high wildlife numbers, such an area could also be used for non-hunting (photographic) tourism. However this is generally the exception to the rule.

Most hunting blocks are large areas of mostly low-density wildlife and, if hunting were to stop on these (by legislation, public pressure, low demand), it is doubtful the areas would be suitable as tourism areas as, access to pretty scenery and good relaxed wildlife is essential for the latter.

There are good examples of former hunting areas turned to tourism and eventually paying for themselves and doing a great job at creating a sustainable conservation management system such as Great Plains’ Selinda Concession in northern Botswana, and Lugenda Wilderness in northern Mozambique but again, these are sadly the exceptions as they require massive investment and a long time frame before the tourism is able to cover the operating costs of the block.

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Just encouraging more and more people to travel for photos, not hunting trophies, to Africa is not going to cut it sadly. There needs to be a healthy, long-term and significant investment in the land if it is to be transferred from hunting to tourism, AND THEN the need for a higher demand in tourists traveling to these places.

As an example, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe itself does not receive enough tourists annually to fill all its tourism camps, let alone raise enough money, as a national park body, to support the ongoing operations within the park.  So the neighboring hunting blocks (like the one Cecil was hunted on) are never going to be able to attract the tourism required or raise the funds necessary to manage these areas as tourism conservation areas without hunting currently. Until that time the funds and governance are in place to move more hunting blocks away from hunting and towards tourism, sports hunting – if well-managed, controlled and ethically conducted – is one of the better options still available to manage these blocks.

So the focus should not be on removing all hunting, but rather on cutting out all corruption and bad-ethics from the industry to promote a cleaner, fairer, more sustainable system where special animals, like the large tusked old elephant bull recently shot in southern Zimbabwe by a German sports hunter, and other species like Lions or black rhino for example, can be awarded specially protected species status and not be able to be hunted.

The theory behind cleaning up and making the sports hunting industry more sustainable with better conservation practices is not as difficult as it seems.  Certainly not as difficult as the thought of stopping or removing hunting all together and then watching as these large tracts of wild land are invaded by people for farming, tree cutting, burning, poaching of wild animals that are then replaced with domestic ones, etc… If there was enough money and demand, I would be all in favor of turning all these areas to tourism or just plain conservation areas, but that simply is not viable or possible at this stage.

Q Predators like Lions have proven benefits to ecosystems so losing them can have major consequences ecologically speaking. How do Safari guides like yourself engage and educate people about the value of protecting wildlife like Lions?

RJ You’re so right about lions – they are a keystone species in the ecosystem that hold significance if removed, would have major and devastating impacts on the rest of the ecosystem.  The same can be said of most of the apex predators such as sharks, lions, tigers, jaguars, hyenas and polar bears. As a guide and naturalist, the issue of engaging people and educating them about the importance and value of protecting Lions, and other wildlife, has to be a 3-pronged approach.

Firstly, we have to engage with the people on the ground, the communities, those most likely to come into contact with Lions as well as other wildlife, in conflict and in fear.  They need to be educated on the importance of Lions in the greater system, secondly we need to engage with the people of influence in the world – tourists, hunters, anyone who is able to use their money to influence Lion conservation for the greater good. The key here is tourists who take guided safaris with me whose visit to see the Lions, and to take photos of them, will fund the ongoing protection of the land and species themselves.

Finally we have to engage with the local authorities which include the government, and parks bodies, and chiefs and all who have influence over decision-making regarding land use, management of wild lands and wildlife.

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Q What do you think guides and tour companies based in Africa can do better to support wildlife and help local communities who are directly linked to the survival of the animals?

RJ Educate. Educate.  Educate.  It’s the old adage: give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day.  TEACH a man to fish sustainability, and in line with the planetary limits, and to reduce the number of mouths to feed in his family through careful family planning, and his kids’ kids will eat forever. Also, they need to lobby more as a unified group against the corruption and bad governance at the higher authority level. After all, it is taxes and revenue from these tourism streams that is paying those same authorities’ salaries.

Q What organizations in Africa stand out to you as helping by encouraging local communities to co-exist with wildlife?

RJ There are a couple here, but the best community-based conservation project I have come across in all my travels across Africa is the Niassa Lion Project or Mariri Education Centre in Niassa Reserve, northern Mozambique.  The Kenyan conservancy approach is a brilliant and proved method of combing indigenous practices, socio-economic support and wildlife conservation.  Great Plains Conservation have a very interesting model and one that seems to be getting good results, especially in Botswana.  Finally, African Parks and its various partners such as WCS and Frankfurt Zoological Society, are doing a brilliant job at bringing back wild places and trying to conserve those few remaining biological hot spots.

Q The face of tourism, along with Africa is likely to change in the coming decades, how do you see your role as a guide changing?

RJ I already have seen it change in the past 15 years as the world moves along at an exponentially rapid pace. Social media and the internet has driven this into a new realm. Safari camps and lodges must look at, and in many cases are, changing their approach from one of high profit business for the benefit of the principals of that particular business, to a conservation tourism model that sees any and all funds raised through tourism or donations being put back into conservation projects and initiatives.

So too, the safari guides of today are not just “jeep jockeys” showing folks from overseas local wildlife to get photos, and hopefully a good tip at the end. No, the safari guide of today is the ambassador, a role model, who can influence and inspire. Often guides are also the conservators themselves, as in the Kenyan conservancy model, within the world of wildlife conservation.

I already see more of guides these days presenting talks to influential audiences across the globe on important conservation topics – not simply to attract people to travel with us, but because I think we realize that we have to be a major part of the conservation revolution that seeks motivation, funds and support to protect and conserve all wild places, for without these places there will be no “we” to worry about.

Q What are your personal recommendations to help first time or return visitors to Africa get the most out of their trip while still contributing in a good way?

RJ This question is a little like the topical “green” question.  Sure you can use local guides, places, products and travel less to countries that have unethical conservation practices and corruption, however, if we are to make a REAL difference in wildlife conservation ultimately we have to somehow be part of the greater movement that attacks the root causes of the problem and not just fights the symptoms with seemingly quick and easy wins.

If that visitor is planning a safari to Africa – book with someone who will at least expose you to the realities of conservation in Africa, amazing and tragic. Make sure you visit innovative projects and operations that are trying to address the bigger picture and not just ‘green-washing’ with a few Facebook posts and empty promises.  Most of all, expose and inspire your kids and young people to the natural world as it should be, not as it is heading.

Q What do you hope for the future of wildlife in Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa?

RJ That it survives… seriously.  But also that people might soon discover, on mass, that they are not the top-dog in a human centric hierarchy in Nature, but are in fact a rather fragile primate that is hanging out on a very wobbly branch in the greater tree of life. Only then will wildlife anywhere be able to continue along its way up the branches of the same tree of life.

Q As a father what values are you trying to instill in your children for wildlife and places?

RJ If my little girls are a) exposed to wonderful wild places and things, b) brought up to care for, respect and be passionate about them, c) understand the bigger picture of the genius of Nature with her cycles, life lessons and inspiration, and, d) able to inspire others around them to have the same passion and care for their planet… then I will feel we’ve done a good job at instilling conservation and planet-friendly values in them.

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Q Any Final thoughts on Lions or other wildlife that you would like to address?

RJ I think what is critical with all these sorts of things is to not focus on individual species like Lions or rhinos, or individual conservation cases only like Cecil.  We will never get anywhere like this. Activism demands a holistic approach to exposing the masses and the authorities to the issues at hand.  I think it is key for us all to realize that the concept of cause and effect is huge here, like a small butterfly wing flutter that can have huge ripple effects down the activism chain.

As such, I really would encourage anyone who cares deeply for the planet to think carefully before diving into this or that petition, social media frenzy or similar response to any one conservation issue. Fundamentalism has yet to work as a system. Tipping mass consciousness is what is required, and this requires lots of hands involved in the bigger picture – reducing human impact on the environment through cutting back on our population and the methods we employ to live on this planet.

The current models we use will not see us surviving much beyond the Lions and elephants on this planet, we all need to change our ways. That is more important than chasing down oddball dentists from Minnesota.

A huge thank you to Rob Janisch for contributing to this piece and sharing his insight and thoughts on wildlife conservation in Africa. Rob is a specialist nature guide, a co-trainer with biomimicrySA and he operates private guided Safaris in Africa, Into the Wild with Rob Janisch. Rob can be contacted directly at www.robjanisch.com.


It has been said the only difference between a hunter and a poacher is a piece of paper. It is with that piece of paper that the Walter Palmer’s of the world operate, with very little to no consequences for their actions. They also seem to be protected by the law, which is a strange and disturbing concept to most of us.

Emotions ran high again after the news broke that there would be no charges against Palmer in the death of Cecil the Lion but, should we really should be shocked about the outcome? Not at all and, if anything this teaches us that by holding the proper permits, one is entitled to legally hunt and kill a Lion.

Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri said: “We approached the police and then the Prosecutor General, and it turned out that Palmer came to Zimbabwe because all the papers were in order.”

Unlike Palmer, Zimbabwean hunter Theo Bronkhorst who set up the hunt, was not so lucky. He is accused of failing to stop an illegal hunt when he helped Palmer kill Cecil. Accused by the same government who said they would not charge Palmer because he had obtained legal authority to conduct the hunt. Bronkhorst’s professional hunter license was also taken away and when asked if he was innocent he said yes “I believe our permits were in order … and I still think we are gonna be vindicated.” Bronkhorst has also said collared lions were shot in Zimbabwe every year, adding that five such big cats had been killed in 2015. So was the hunt legal or illegal? Zimbabwe decides who it wants to prosecute and seems to be sending some very confusing messages on where it stands on this case.

Cecil’s head is set to be presented in court as evidence after it was discovered by the police in the city of Bulawayo where it was being prepped for shipment to Palmer in the United States.

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Image – CBC

Meanwhile Pennsylvania Dr. Jan Seski, another American trophy hunter who made news around the same time as Palmer for allegedly killing a Lion in an illegal hunt in Zimbabwe, flew under the radar. Seski also insisted he had all the ‘papers in order’ and his attorney released a statement saying that he “had engaged in a lawfully permitted hunt”. The Zimbabwe government said no charges have been sought against him, though an investigation was continuing. I bet you can guess what will happened with that. Like Palmer Seski, also a bow hunter, has killed his fair share of wildlife.

With the collective anger focused on one particular man and maybe because Seski’s Lion didn’t have a name, he got off relatively easy, or so it seems.  A quick search shows he is suffering some backlash, although not as prominently as Palmer.

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Regardless, Palmer has helped expose the dark, corrupt, greedy and brutal world of trophy hunting to the masses like never before. His name will not likely fade from our collective memory any time soon. UK-based Charity LionAid commented that they were not surprised at the verdict and reiterated that he “was only one of many hundreds of trophy hunters before him who hunted at the thin edge of the law.” They also hint as to why he was not prosecuted, and why Seski would not be either, “If Zimbabwe had decided to prosecute Walter Palmer it would have established a procedure by which future Walter Palmer’s could be prosecuted. That would not benefit Zimbabwe’s hunting operator income streams. “

As long as we have opposing schools of thought on wildlife conservation, the value of wildlife (dead or alive) and, as long as there is money to be made ethics and science seem to be thrown out the window.

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Cecil in 2012 – Image The Dodo (Shutterstock)

“Whenever people say “We mustn’t be sentimental,” you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add “We must be realistic,” they mean they are going to make money out of it.” – Brigid Brophy

The claim that African Countries make large sums of money off trophy hunting, even though research has proved only 3% off the earnings from hunting companies go to the local communities, continues to come up as a reason why we should allow the killing of wildlife for sport. US hunting groups and hunter of the endangered black rhino, Corey Knowlton have even filed a lawsuit against Delta Airlines for its ban on transporting big game hunting trophies stating that the ban hurts conservation “Tourist hunting revenue is the backbone of anti-poaching in Africa.”

This myth however continues to be debunked and  Emmaual Fundira  who heads the Safari operators in Zimbabwe tells CBS News that the industry is full of corruption. “Americans like Palmer make up the majority of Zimbabwe’s trophy hunters, and part of the huge hunting fees they pay is supposed to go to conservation and community projects…it rarely does.” When asked how much money the government gives to the parks, Fundira replied nothing. “In most cases, you find that the bureaucratic nature of organizations, most of that money may be consumed to a large extent through administration costs and does not necessarily filter directly to conservation.”

An article published in 2011 by Wildlife Extra looked at both sides of big game hunting in Africa with some interesting findings. The study clarified, with an emphasis on West Africa, big game hunting according to conservation, socioeconomic and good governance criteria. I have noted some quick takeaways here:

  • The economic results of big game hunting are low. Land used for hunting generates much smaller returns than that used for agriculture or livestock breeding.
  • Hunting contributions to GDP and States national budgets are insignificant, especially when considering the size of the areas concerned.
  • Returns for local populations, even when managed by community projects are insignificant, and cannot prompt them to change their behavior regarding poaching and agricultural encroachment.
  • The hunting sector uses up a lot of space without generating corresponding socio-economic benefits.
  • Good governance is also absent from almost the entire big game hunting sector in many countries. Those who currently have control of the system are not prepared to share that power and undertake adjustments that would mean relinquishing control.
  • Hunting used to have, and still has, a key role to play in African conservation. It is not certain that the conditions will remain the same. Hunting does not however play a significant economic or social role and does not contribute at all to good governance.
  • Tourist hunters kill around 105,000 animals per year, including around 640 elephants, 3,800 buffalo, 600 lions and 800 leopards. Such quantities are not necessarily reasonable. It can be noted for example, that killing 600 lions out of a total population of around 25,000 (i.e. 2.4%) is not sustainable. A hunting trip usually lasts from one to three weeks, during which time each hunter kills an average of two to ten animals, depending on the country.

Trophy Hunting has been marketed as a ‘sustainable’ money maker and for the most part governments, individuals and some organizations seem to have bought it no questions asked. What happens when those animals are gone, or are so rapidly declining like the Lion that there is almost nothing left to hunt? I guess that’s when you start shooting collard Lions around protected parks…

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the African Lion as vulnerable with the West African sub-populations listed as “critically endangered” due to over-hunting and dwindling prey. Under the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) African Lions fall under Appendix II meaning as a species they can be commercially traded with restrictions. They are also considered less vulnerable even though they are not threatened with extinction but, may become so unless strict regulations are implemented.

Along with being declared endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the African Lion would benefit from being listed on CITES Appendix I, whereby trade in a species is extremely strict and commercial trade is prohibited.

While trophy hunters come from all over, the USA remains a major player because they continue to be the number 1 importer (over 50%) of Lion trophies. The flip side to this is that they also have an ability to help Lions by listing them as ‘endangered’ under the ESA, thus enacting a ban on imports of Lions parts and Lion trophies into the country.  This would make it less appealing to spend money on killing an animal that you can’t take home and put on display.

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In 2011 a number of US-based conservation organizations petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for an endangered listing for the African Lion. In 2012 the USFWS came back with a Threatened listing, after reviewing all of the ‘best scientific and commercial’ information. They did not find sport hunting to be a threat to Lions, currently.

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Image – IFAW

The public comment period on the USFWS proposal closed January 27, 2015 and a decision is still forthcoming. If finalized the threatened status allows for a loophole, Rule 4 (d), which requires import permits for Lion trophies (parts) from African countries that have ‘scientifically sound’ management plans for Lions. The proposed rule is intended to promote additional conservation efforts by authorizing only activities that would provide a direct or indirect benefit to lions in the wild. There are problems with this rule being that no accurate scientific and independent studies have been completed to determine what Lion numbers are, in either the protected areas or the areas where Lions are hunted. Therefore it can’t be determined what a ‘scientifically sound’ management plans is with no numbers to back it up. Sadly the trend seems to be to ignore science altogether and if that’s the case, actual numbers won’t matter.

While the governing bodies fall pretty short on protecting Lions, and an endangered designations isn’t full proof, it will still afford better protection than what we currently have. Hopefully it would provide Lions with some relief and also give conservation organizations a chance to address the other factors contributing to their decline such as habitat loss, poaching, human wildlife conflict and disease.

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Lion numbers are estimated to be at around 20,000, however LionAid actually puts estimates even lower at 15,000, across all of Africa. No matter how trophy hunters spin it they are not helping Lions. The proof is in the numbers, killing Lions doesn’t contribute to saving them.

Currently Australia has put a ban on importation of Lion trophies as part of a crackdown on canned hunting and the EU has suspended trophies from West Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Ethiopia) but failed to pass a ban on trophies from East and South Africa (Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe). This was very disappointing considering the mass of scientific evidence to back up that Lions in all countries, are in deep trouble.

Trophy hunters for the most part I believe, will not be swayed by the compassionate conservation argument, or by the evidence that predators play a key role in maintaining Eco-systems, or that ultimately sport hunting does nothing to protect wildlife or keep local communities afloat. This means it will be up to the rest of us to try to convince our governments and conservation organizations to do what is both morally right and scientifically sound. We must continue to make our voice heard by signing petitions, writing to government, organizations, attending rallies, donating to charities/organizations working to preserve Lions (wildlife) and educating others.

In the meantime LionAid has put together a proposed strategy on how to conserve Lions that should get us thinking on where we go from here. This is the summary for wild Lions, please click on the link above for the full article which also includes a proposal for the captive bred (canned hunting) Lion crisis.

1. Cease all trophy hunting of wild lions. “Sustainable” utilization of lions has been the biggest failure of any “conservation” programme proposed to ensure the survival of any endangered mammal.

2. Count lions via independent scientists. Cease all reliance on vested interest group or range state estimates of their lion populations to further justify trophy hunting off take. Cease any reliance on “indirect” counts and “extrapolations”.

3. If lions are to be considered by any stretch of imagination as a species available for “sustainable off take” let’s do some lion counts where such counts count. In other words in the hunting areas. There has been not ONE such survey in trophy hunting areas. Justifying off take as sustainable is therefore a nonsense.

4. If rural communities are expected to live with lions, implement compensation programmes that are both durable, reliable and sustainable. Any programme that continuously relies on donor input or “tolerance” will fail in the long-term. Government compensation programmes will fail because of an abundance of bureaucracy and an abundance of reluctance to pay.

5. Do better research. A much better assessment of the disease risks that challenge the survival of the few remaining large lion populations is overdue.

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Image –Nick Brandt – Lion Trophy – Across the Ravaged Land

The more you delve into the world of trophy hunting the more you see the subtle and not so subtle connections to wildlife conservation. Whether we like this connection or not, for now it seems it’s here to stay. Ultimately this may leave us with more questions than answers on how to work most effectively to save Lions and other wildlife.

World Heritage Species

I am big believer in petitions and sign more than I can count, and while I understand that not every petition works, some do surpass their intended outcome. One benefit, regardless of the perceived success, is that they can be good vehicles for creating awareness. In some cases they may even be a catalyst for changing laws and the way business is done. For the few minutes or seconds it takes you to sign and share a petition, change can already be underway.

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The first of its kind, this particular petition is asking to establish a “World Heritage Species” program. This would be similar to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites initiative, but would extend to recognize and protect wildlife. The petition also asks that the first species listed in this program is the Lion.

The Change.org petition is circulating around the world, should you wish to sign and share it can be found here.

Brent Stapelkamp, field researcher with Oxford University’s WILDCRU, who had been following Cecil the Lion for nine years speaks about this very petition.

It is interesting to note that Brent in a previous BBC interview said that while he is against hunting, more about that in my piece In The Wind, he doesn’t want it banned. Is he having a change of heart? Maybe I’d like to believe that we can find alternatives to protecting wildlife that doesn’t involve killing, while helping to stop poaching and the other factors driving species to extinction.

Will raising the status of the Lion and addressing the crisis we are facing it in this manner helps us save the species? I don’t think it hurts the cause to try. Ideally I would also like to see this type of recognition be extended to include all of the big cats (wildlife) who are also threatened or close to extinction.

Lions of Akagera

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.

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One of the lions reintroduced to Akagera National Park in Rwanda
Photograph by Jes Gruner – All images via National Geographic.com unless otherwise stated

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.

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One of the lions reintroduced to Akagera National Park – Photograph by Sarah Hall

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.

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A crew prepares a lion for the move from South Africa to Rwanda.
Photograph by Cynthia Walley

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.

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© Sarah Hall/ African Parks – Image Africa Geographic

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.

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Tourists are now able to view the Lions © Sarah Hall/ African Parks –
– Image Africa Geographic

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, 2016Friends 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.