Lions are being re-introduced to Rwanda. There have been no lions living in the small east African country for the past 15 years. In the chaos that resulted from the genocide there in 1994, Rwanda's Akagera National Park, which had a population of lions, went unmanaged. Cattle ranchers and their families moved into the park and poisoned the lions there into extinction.
South Africa has two national parks in its KwaZulu-Natal province with "relatively small, confined reserves," according to African Parks, a conservation group. Due to the small size of these conservation areas and the fact that lions require a fairly large territory to hunt in, these areas currently have a few more lions than they can support. And since Rwanda's Akagera currently has none, African Parks has set up a relocation of seven lions from South Africa, five females and two males, to Rwanda. The loins have been carefully chosen, not just for their future reproductive potential, but also for each lion's ability to contribute to social cohesion amongst the group. Because of that the lions are mixed both in terms of genetic makeup and in terms of age.
African Parks knows that the success of this lion re-introduction program is important. So they have been going slowly, taking every precaution that they can. Last year, in preparation for the lions' reintroduction, Akagera Park employees began an education and sensitisation program in communities bordering the park to educate the public about the importance of the lions to the park's ecosystem, and to do everything possible to allow for a harmonious co-existence between humans and lions.
African Parks is using the same cautious approach in the transportation of the lions. They have already been tranquilized and crated. And, today they will begin a journey by truck and plane that will last about 26 hours, during which, according to African Parks, "They will be continually monitored by a veterinary team with experience in translocations. They will be kept tranquillized to reduce any stress and will have access to fresh water throughout their journey."
Even once the lions arrive at the 433 square mile Akagera, on Rwanda's border with Tanzania, the lions will be quarantined in a 10,764 square foot enclosure with an electrified fence, erected especially for the new lions. They will be kept there for at least two weeks before they are released roam free inside the park.
Even then, "free" will be a relative term. Akagera has a fence around it, and the lions will be outfitted with satellite collars so that park officials will be able to track them and hopefully keep them from straying into areas inhabited by humans. According to African Parks, "The collars have a two-year life, by which time the park team will have evaluated the pride dynamics and only the dominant individuals in each pride will be re-collared."
If it is successful this will be a much needed shot in the arm to lion populations in east Africa, where the species is listed as critically endangered by The International Union for Conservation of Nature. Akagera Park officials will have to email vigilant, as lion bones and other body parts can bring poachers huge sums of money on the black market, due to the fact that they are rumored to have mythic healing abilities by practitioners of traditional medicine both in Africa and Asia.
Even with all of the potential challenges, Peter Fearnhead, chief executive of African Parks, which manages Akagera and seven other national parks on the continent, perhaps best summed up the re-introduction program in saying: "The return of lions to Akagera is a conservation milestone for the park and the country."