Welgevonden adopts a novel approach to lion management

The African lion is, thanks to Disney and numerous other influential media platforms, commonly referred to as “The King of the Jungle”. Unlike Mufassa, wild lions are not very well educated when it comes to the “circle of life” and where they exist in large numbers within enclosed reserves, their impact on prey species can potentially be catastrophic.

Welgevonden Game Reserve experienced a devastating blow to their lion population in 2015 when both the Southern and Western Prides became infected with a virulent strain of canine distemper- a deadly virus that primarily affects the gastrointestinal, respiratory and neurological systems. Sadly, only one lioness managed to survive the outbreak.

With lions being a favourite tourist attraction and a vital element of the savannah ecosystem, Welgevonden made it a priority to bring lions back to the Reserve once the area was deemed safe in June, 2016. Since then, a total of 5 lions, of various origins, have been introduced onto the Reserve: two sultry sisters from Tswalu Game Reserve and three magnificent males from Tembe Elepant Park, Dinokeng Game Reserve and Venetia Game Reserve respectively.

These lions have done well to repopulate the Reserve since their introduction- perhaps a little too well. The current 11 lions are extremely effective hunters and if management allows the population to continue growing at its current reproductive rate, there is likely to be a dramatic decline in the ungulate population in the near future. If this were to happen, it would put the overall ecological health status of the Reserve at risk, impacting a range of both faunal and floral species as well as the nutrient cycling within the environment.

Controlling wildlife populations is a challenging task for Reserve managers. With little to no opportunity for translocation, wildlife managers across the African continent have previously been forced to depend on strategies such as euthanasia and (to a lesser degree) contraception in an attempt to control their lion populations. However, neither one of these approaches were considered long term options as they interfered with the natural social structure of lion prides and failed to deal with the causal mechanisms that underpin rapid population growth.

Although new and improved methods were under constant investigation, it was only in 2011 that a suitable alternative presented itself.

The female reproductive organs of many mammal species contain two uterine horns. These are situated at the points where the uterus and the Fallopian tubes meet and enable the animal to house large litters. Lions in particular are capable of giving birth to up to six cubs at a time. What’s more is that within confined conservation areas, the likelihood of all these cubs reaching reproductive maturity is extremely high. In order to combat this high reproductive rate, South African veterinarians have pioneered a surgical procedure known as a “unilateral hysterectomy”.

The ground breaking operation has since proven to be extremely effective and involves the removal of a single uterine horn from the lioness’s reproductive system, ultimately reducing the amount of available space for the implantation of fertilised eggs and resulting in the production of one or two cubs as opposed to four or five.

In an attempt to curb the rapid growth rate of the current lion population, Welgevonden management, in association with Dr. Peter Caldwell, conducted this novel procedure earlier this year. Two carefully selected lionesses, one of which was the fierce female that survived the canine distemper outbreak, were darted and brought back to a make-shift “open-air” operating table in the Southern region of the Reserve, and prepped for surgery.

The operation is a simple one, with only a small incision in the abdomen required to access the reproductive organs. Upon the completion of the relatively short procedure, the muscle layers are then neatly stitched back together, and suitable pain killers and vaccines administered. Management then returns the lioness back to the veld where she will awaken with little to no cognizance of the abdominal wound, and swiftly return to her pride.

A unilateral hysterectomy offers a unique opportunity to limit the number of cubs born instead of inhibiting the breeding process entirely. This is highly beneficial from both a tourist and management perspective as it ensures enjoyable game viewing for guests while still reducing the growth rate of populations and keeping pride structures intact.

Stabilizing the lion population will allow various other species to flourish, ultimately maximising the overall biodiversity of the Reserve and promoting a healthy, balanced ecosystem.

The photos below depict the operation undertaken on Tuesday, 27th February 2018. All photo credits go to Wild Revolutions and Jessica Oosthuyse.

Shaving hair offHolding ThuliWashing lion bellywashing belly 2sprayingPrepped and ReadyPeter Preppingfocus2Pip HairThe uterine hornPulling out hornLooking onPeter workingPip holding footFocusLion face covered upLion on surgery tableMdu

References:

Mail, D., 2014. Novel Solution for Lion Pregnancies. [Online]
Available at: https://www.iol.co.za/dailynews/opinion/novel-solution-for-lion-pregnancies-1727192
[Accessed January 2018].

Miller, S. et al., 2013. Management of reintroduced lions in small, fenced reserves in South Africa: an assessment and guidelines. South African Journal of Wildlife Research, Volume 43, pp. 138-154.

Myram, P., Canning, G. & Phillips, S., 2016. Canine Distember Virus on Welgevonden and the Last Lioness, s.l.: Unpublished report.