The Zambezi river forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe in the southwest of the country. Meandering gently south, the river comes to an abrupt fall of 355 feet and forming one of the largest—and perhaps the most famous—waterfalls in the world. Discovered by the intrepid Scottish explorer David Livingstone in November 1855, the falls, named The Smoke That Thunders in the local dialect, were dubbed Victoria Falls after the contemporary English queen. Forming the largest falling sheet of water in the world, at over a mile in width, the falls were particularly impressive when we viewed them at high water.
On our way through Zimbabwe, we took a few days to stop at Antelope Park, a private game reserve with a twist. Years ago, Antelope Park was a hunting reserve where a trigger-happy westerner could pay for the opportunity to hunt one of a number of antelope species. Nowadays the park is more conservation-focused, with a special focus on Africa’s most famous mammal, the Lion.
Over the past thirty years, African Lions have suffered from a decline of approximately 80%. Because numbers throughout Africa currently stand at around 25,000—which sounds like a lot to anyone—people don’t usually consider that lions are a threatened species. A few decades ago, however, their numbers were in the hundreds of thousands.
The major threat to African Lions is habitat loss. As with almost every other wild species in Africa, as populations throughout the continent grow and require more living space and farmland, natural habitat is often sacrificed to make ends meet. In addition to habitat loss, the island effect created by national parks is particularly damaging to lion populations.
Hundreds of years ago, when human populations in Africa were sparse and well dispersed, wild animals could roam freely without fear of being killed by humans, hit by a car, or simply coming across a fence line with no end. Indeed, many species require emigration when their populations get too large. For lions, when a pride gets too big or a young male begins to threaten the dominant male, the natural response is for bachelors to wander off and establish their own pride elsewhere. This coming and going of lions from different populations provided valuable genetic flow which maintained the genetic diversity of lion populations, keeping them robust and healthy. When lions, and any other animals, are trapped inside national parks (the numerous benefits of protection aside) this emigration and genetic flow is not possible. As a result, lion prides are often subject to inbreeding, reducing the viability and health of the population. The effects of inbreeding caused by restricted populations are starting to show up in lion populations throughout Africa, and many experts fear that they could be as damaging as habitat loss.
At Antelope Park, a novel experiment is being tested to address the problems of declining lion numbers and inbreeding within populations. The African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) has begun a four-stage breeding and wild release program in an effort to raise public awareness about the challenges lion populations face in Africa, and of course provide wild prides with fresh genes to keep populations healthy.
Captive lions at the park (either captive-bred or rescued wild lions) are entered into a breeding program to produce healthy and potentially successful young lions—breeding pairs are often selected for their hunting prowess and dominance. These young lions then spend about a year in tourist interaction programs for education and awareness purposes. During that time and beyond, they’re regularly released into a controlled game reserve with prey species to build their hunting and stalking skills. Amazingly, by about 13 months they’re already able to hunt independently and successfully.
For stage two, the lions that have showed the greatest success in the reserve are chosen for a semi-wild pride. A dominant male and several females are released into a 500-acre enclosure, and interaction with humans is completely restricted, apart from the research vehicle that monitors them daily. The cubs produced by this semi-wild pride will be raised without human interaction and will learn to hunt and survive in the bush as though they were born into a wild pride. So far, as a result of funding restrictions, Stage 2 is the farthest that ALERT has come with their breeding program, and we spent a day with the researchers monitoring the Stage 2 lion pride.
When Stage 3 hopefully comes around, the lions in Stage 2 will be released into a 10,000-acre reserve that more closely resembles a true wild habitat. There will be competitive predators such as hyena, and the lions will not be able to use the small size of their previous enclosure to their advantage while hunting. Provided the pride does well in this situation, the cubs born in the wild that have had no human interaction will be released into wild populations across the continent (Stage 4).
The 4-stage breeding and release program has attracted quite a bit of attention, much of it criticism from lion experts who question its viability and its benefit to the health of the African Lion population. My personal view is that the mission of the program is admirable and well intentioned, but the goals may be too ambitious. To give an idea of the scale of funding required, Stage 2 cost one million US dollars to release one pride, and stage three will cost thirteen million. These costs would likely result in just a handful of lions being released every three or four years, and I can’t say I’m optimistic that these sorts of numbers will make a significant impact in the health of wild populations. Given unlimited funding and resources, the program could well make a significant impact, but only time will tell whether or not this breeding scheme will be successful.
The Chimanimani Mountains of Eastern Zimbabwe stand jagged above rolling grassy meadows. Stunned by the natural aesthetic, we took the day to enjoy a breathtaking (if not steep) mountain trek.
“Zimbabwe” literally means “big house of stone.” After cruising through the country’s rocky terrain, it’s clear just how appropriate the name. Massive boulder structures and balancing rocks riddle the landscape. Picture dozens of natural Stone Henges dotting the countryside. Even the country’s heritage is rooted in stone. High atop a natural granite escarpment, we visited Great Zimbabwe, the palace ruins of generations of African royalty between the 13th and 17th centuries. The dry-stone construction is reminiscent of early medieval Europe, although the only contact with the outside world that the ancient Zimbabweans had was with Arab traders.
Now that we’ve got a bit of time, how about a funky throwback to the Giraffe Sanctuary that we visited in Kenya just under a month ago? At the Sanctuary, endangered Rothschild Giraffes are born in captivity, raised to adulthood and released into national parks within their native range. We were lucky enough to see wild Rothschild Giraffes in Nakuru National Park, one of the few locations where they can be seen.
One of the most anticipated portions of our trip was traveling to the incredibly varied but highly interconnected ecosystems of Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti—all awarded either national park or conservation area status by the Tanzanian government. The lush rainforests surrounding Lake Manyara boasted herds of elephants and an array of birdlife, while Ngorongoro crater afforded stunning views, open plains and everything from wildebeest to giraffe and cheetah. The Serengeti in the wet season was very different to the dry wastelands often seen in television programs, and with water readily available the grazing animals were widely dispersed. Following their prey, predators like big cats and hyenas were similarly few and far between as opposed to congregated around watering holes. Nonetheless, the park’s wildlife lived up to its reputation and the endless green plains were a sight to behold.