A more natural pride structure
Most reserves would prefer to have a hands-off approach to the management of large predators. However, in the modern day conservation situation where a number of small reserves have introduced lion populations, it is not always possible and these reserves cannot afford a hands-off approach to lion management.
Lions on these reserves normally breed fast, and with a lack of direct competitors in most cases, the survival rate of cubs is high. This results in severe pressure on the prey population, in some cases leading to a sharp decline in the number of certain prey species.
Managers of small reserves need to find a way to manage and control their lion populations to prevent the densities from becoming so high that lions start escaping from the reserve, to prevent their prey populations from declining, and to ensure that large scale inbreeding does not occur.
This is also the case on Welgevonden, and several lions have had to be removed from the reserve in the past to reduce numbers and to protect the prey populations. Translocation to other reserves is the preferred method of reducing lion numbers, but the market for lion is becoming increasingly saturated. Recent changes in legislation and the fact few reserves can accommodate more lion means that other ways of controlling lion numbers are necessary. Reserves are increasingly forced to make controversial decisions on controlling lion numbers, with contraception and culling the only other options currently available. Welgevonden has experimented with contraception in the past, but mixed results have led to this being excluded as a management option.
In natural populations in large areas pride males have a high turnover rate, which means that new males take over prides regularly, and then often kill the cubs of the previous pride male. The result is a sharp decrease in cub survival rate. On small reserves this is normally not the case and pride males stay in control of the prides for several years, as it is mostly young males that are removed from the reserves and very little fighting for control of prides ever takes place. On Welgevonden the percentage of males in the population was allowed to increase to try and recreate a more natural scenario where there is competition for pride control, and in the same time an increase in pressure on cub survival. This scenario worked for a number of years and assisted in creating and maintaining a stronger and a more natural pride structure. In short, by increasing the percentage of males in the population, the lion dynamics should correct to a more natural scenario with population control benefits.
Despite the pressures to reduce lion numbers, it remains necessary from time to time to introduce new individuals into the population so as to prevent genetic inbreeding. The problem with small reserves is that it is unlikely or impossible for unrelated males to migrate into the reserve from other populations due to the presence of fences, or the lack of other lion populations in the area. To prevent inbreeding on Welgevonden, new genes have already been introduced into the population by the introduction of two males that are unrelated to the current population, with further introductions not excluded in the future.
Welgevonden Game Reserve management have been involved in the establishment of the Lion Management Forum (LiMF) which is a group of persons directly involved in lion management a research and who as a collective have been instrumental in developing protocol and procedures to better manage lion populations, primarily, on small reserves. The leading philosophy is to mimic factors that occur naturally in a free ranging lion population that have an influence on population regulation by managing the animals in numerous small reserves as a larger meta-population. Whenever possible Welgevonden contributes and assists in research projects that are aimed at improving all aspects pertaining to lion management.