So then what does Horseback Africa stand for?

Lion Conservation - Toby

Colin started raising lions some 20 years ago on a recurring request from our aircrew guests to interact with young lions. What started as a purely economic consideration very soon turned into a conservation goal as Colin researched the status of the African lion. As a PhD qualified evolutionary biologist he soon realised the incredibly precarious position lions were facing. For a species to plummet from 250,000 individuals on the whole continent of Africa to a mere 20,000 in a short span of 20 years later should alarm even the village idiot.

Colin was shocked when he discovered (via discussions with fellow students who had embarked on careers in wildlife conservation) that a huge number of lions in the Kruger National Park had bovine tuberculosis. This was for many years denied or brushed aside as insignificant by the Park management and rangers. More disturbing was that an incredibly high incidence (80% in a trial study) of Feline Aids was discovered in the Park’s lion population. This fact was concealed from the general public for some 3 years. In recent years, systematic testing for feline aids in the Park has been done (the fun of having a little bit of inside information) – and I challenge you to find a report documenting these results. Now even our village idiot would have made the connection between an aids compromised immune system and the high incidence of bovine TB. What may elude most laymen is that sitting in the wings are little nasties like distemper. This highly contagious viral disease affects both feline and canine species. In fact in December 2015 all but one of the lions in the Welgevonden private nature reserve in South Africa’s Northwest Province were wiped out by distemper in a very short period. These animals were originally tested to be healthy and free of feline aids when they were introduced to this reserve – so can you imagine the devastation an outbreak of this disease will have on the immune-compromised lions of the Kruger Park. In fact it is not “if” it occurs, but actually “when” it happens. Recently a small isolated pack of wild dog were wiped out in the Kruger by distemper – by some miracle this did not spread further - I rest my case.

Lion Conservation - Toby and Sheila

With the far-reaching knowledge and evolutionary biological insight Colin realised that it was essential to have a small number of captive bred lions with a very broad gene pool (Genetic Diversity Index) to re-populate wildlife areas should a “bad case” scenario occur. Look at it as a type of conservation insurance policy. A genetic study of the few breeding animals of Horseback Africa revealed a Genetic Diversity Index (heterozygosity) of  0.6364, nearly the same as for the whole Kruger Park lion population. Toby, the Horseback Africa pedigree founder pride male, has been documented as being the most handsome lion in Southern Africa. With his full black mane extending over his chest to the start of this stomach, he has all the desired phenotypic characters of a typical African lion.  Since then Colin has introduced the genes of Zulu – the lion from North Africa. There are now 3rd and 4th generation descendants of Zulu in the breeding program. We are now awaiting the latest results of the genetics of our resident breeding lions to get an updated value.

The Department of Environmental Affairs and the Council for Scientific Research (CSIR) recently published a Biodiversity Management Plan for lions with the following Vision : Through the existence of stable, viable and ecologically functional populations of wild and managed wild lions, along with well managed captive populations that have minimal negative conservation inputs, lions will provide key opportunities for biodiversity, conservation, economic development, social benefits and improved management capacity. The high genetic diversity of the Horseback Africa lions, linked to the well managed pedigree breeding program, is 100% in line with this great vision. We are excited about the future prospects of being involved in the stocking initiatives of lions not only in South Africa, but in all of the some 11 countries of Africa that once had free-roaming lions.

According to another scientific study published in the Journal of Heredity 2014 105 (6) that documented the microsatellite markers of populations of wild, managed wild and captive lion populations the following findings are very significant for the Horseback Africa breeding program: “Some captive lion samples were included in this study and a number of unique alleles were found in this population. This suggests that there may be some genetic diversity in the captive populations that has been lost from the wild populations. This warrants further research into captive populations in South Africa to determine if unique diversity has been preserved in these captive populations and could be restored to the wild populations at a later date.” The original and the latest results from Unistel will without doubt confirm the wisdom and scientific value of the Horseback Africa breeding program. This also affirms what Colin and his trained guides have always informed guests about the principle of a “genetic bottleneck”. When a species comes close to extinction the gene pool becomes smaller and smaller, and at a point becomes so restricted that the no matter how much cross breeding takes place, the gene pool is so restricted that the species becomes doomed to extinction. This point is termed the bottleneck and once passed, even if the number of individuals in the population increase dramatically, the lack of sufficient diversity will still not save that species from extinction.  With the present diversity index in the Horseback Africa individuals the lion in Africa is safe from getting anywhere near the genetic bottleneck effect.

Lion Conservation - Female

It is also significant to note that all our lions are also disease free – no Feline Aids, distemper, tuberculosis or any other disease. This is important as these animals could be released into wildlife areas without the risk of introducing communicable diseases.

Many references on social media constantly refer to the fact that captive lions would have no chance of survival if released into a wild setting. The repeated question posed is “who will teach them how to hunt”! In a study published in Mammal Review by Dunstan et al that compared the territorial and hunting behaviour of two captive origin lion prides, whilst monitoring the same behaviours of a wild pride for comparison. This quote comes from their Abstract “ All prides established territories, and core areas corresponded to resource requirements. There was no evidence that pride origin affected territorial or hunting behaviour. Captive-origin prides exhibited behaviours that lead us to be optimistic about each pride’s ability to establish and defend territory successfully, and to hunt, following introduction.”   The story of Sylvester the lion who was the typical example of a “tame” lion can be Googled and you can see that he is now happily living in the Kuzuko Contractual Area of the Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape, where he is fully integrated with the local pride and successfully hunting. Guests doing a lion walk at Horseback Africa clearly observe how incredibly well our captive lions are at hiding in the grass, stalking and pouncing on one another. Guides emphasise how important the walk is in preparing the lions for release. They explore the environment, test their naturally inherited stalking skills and importantly, experiment with and practice the essentials of territorial marking. The walks are enjoyable and educational for guests, but are more important for preparing the lions for release into wildlife areas.

Lion Conservation - Young Male

Finally Horseback Africa has a passion to educate and inform people the world over of the plight of the African lion. Most people tragically rely on social media feeds where any idiot can, most frequently under the cover of a pseudonym, post the most unsubstantiated trash – Fake News. In the past we were spoilt by responsible editors in the main stream media who ensured published articles in newspapers, magazines and on television were well researched, based on verifiable facts and responsibly presented – editorial responsibility which is one of the pillars of a free and fair press. Horseback Africa has the privilege to objectively present guests with the latest scientific facts on the status of the African lion. Guests get to observe many of the natural behaviours of lions, and of any of the other animals present on the tour. This is what holistic education is all about, we all have an inherited curiosity and need to also feel, smell and observe animals in the flesh. At the same time a very positive experience evokes a passion in the observer for the conservation of the species involved.

In conclusion we need to ensure that our children, and their children will still be able to visit wildlife areas set apart and exceptionally well managed on the basis of good scientific knowledge. We know that we will have been part of that global effort and have done our small part to ensure that sound populations of lions with a broad gene pool will be present in these areas for our children to see. Horseback Africa is incredibly proud of our achievement to date. We have had a clear vision of where we were going with our breeding program and know that our lions have been introduced into scientifically managed breeding programs in South Africa, and abroad.