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In Search of the African Lion
by
Roger and Pat de la Harpe
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Lioness. MalaMala Game Reserve. Mpumalanga. South Africa Lion (Panthera leo). Madikwe Game Reserve. North West Province. South Africa Lion. Moremi National Park. Botswana

The project:


There are three components to our African Lion Project.
  • Increase public awareness and knowledge of the African lion by producing a large format, coffee table styled book.
  • Raise funds to help researchers and conservation managers find sustainable solutions to current lion conservation problems. Our book on the African Wild Dog (In Search of the African Wild Dog), which almost sold out within a year of being published, helped raise awareness of the plight of the wild dog. As a direct result of this, Roger’s cousin, Vaughan de la Harpe, along with several other experienced mountaineers, climbed Mt Everest in aid of these endangered animals. They took Frikkie along with them. Frikkie? A fluffy wild dog toy, similar to the one that was given to us by friends when we began work on the wild dog book and that still lives in the back of our 4X4. When the team returned from Everest, Vaughan, with the help of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, organised a fund raising dinner in Johannesburg and raised just under R700 000-00 for wild dog conservation. Frikkie, himself sold for the staggering sum of R125 000-00! We would like to do the same thing for lions at a similar event in conjunction with Sasol and Nikon South Africa.
  • To publish a soft cover children’s book approximately 24 cm square with approximately 30 pages and 30 full colour photographs, similar to the above but obviously targeted at children. It is envisaged that there will be several editions – in English, Afrikaans, Setswana, isiZulu and isiXhosa. For the most part, the coffee table style books that we produce are only available to a select few. The reasons for this are, inter alia, awareness of the book, cost, geographical location and language. A normal print run for this type of book is about 4 000 and even if they all sell it means that only a very small percentage of South Africa’s population has access to the conservation and cultural information contained in them. With the lion book, we intend to change this situation. We aim to get as many books as we can into school libraries and, if possible, a small, children’s edition of the book, in the relevant language, to individual children.


Fifty years ago there were an estimated 450 000 wild lions in Africa. Today there are only around 23 000. This equates to a quarter of the number of seats in South Africa’s premier sports stadium, Soccer City - a truly shocking statistic, particularly because the decline has taken place in so many of our lifetimes.


In contrast, the human population has exploded, creating the need for additional land to grow crops, keep livestock and expand settlements. The continent’s pristine natural environment has also halved in area over the past fifty years and is further diminishing at an alarming rate. The loss of habitat affects the survival of all wildlife, with large carnivores like the lion at the forefront of dwindling numbers of prey.

As human communities and protected areas compete for space, conflict between people and predators becomes inevitable and is a major cause of lion deaths across Africa, as it leads to revenge killings for the loss of livestock.  As lions come increasingly into contact with domestic animals they become vulnerable to diseases like canine distemper, which is known to be a killer of lions, while the long-term effects of bovine tuberculosis on lion populations has yet to be determined. Meanwhile, generous hunting quotas in some countries, as well as slayings for skins and body parts, play a significant role in reducing lion numbers.

The situation in South Africa is, to some extent, different from the rest of the continent. The Kruger and the Kgalagadi parks are large enough to allow, for the most part, the natural processes that govern lion prides to continue without human intervention. But this is not the case in the country’s smaller fenced reserves where lions are to be found, of which there are now about 45. Here, a more active management of the population is necessary to maintain genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding. The natural dynamics that usually keep lion numbers stable appear to partly disintegrate in these small reserves. As a result, managers find themselves with too many lions for the size of the land and the numbers of prey species. There is correspondingly little option of relocating excess numbers to other areas, as these already have sufficient or surplus lions of their own.
 
The recently formed Lion Management Forum (LiMF) is examining a variety of options to deal with these problems. Various contraception methods, DNA mapping and the concept of a metapopulation (which has proved so successful in managing wild dog populations in South Africa) are being investigated.

When we started our journey in search of the African lion, little did we know their story would be so complicated. In the course of our travels through South Africa we came across many amazing people doing essential work in trying to find solutions to the issues of lion survival. We spoke to scientists, ecologists, game rangers, trackers, hunters and those involved in animal rights groups, and were struck by their commitment to lions in various different ways. Our excursions took us to the Kalahari, with its endless red sand dunes and vast skies, the ancient landscapes of the dry northwestern areas, the Kruger National Park and its surrounding private game reserves, and the lush green valleys of northern Zululand in our home province of KwaZulu-Natal.

We spent days and weeks with lions, in conditions that varied from the searing heat of a Lowveld summer to the freezing cold of the Kalahari on winter mornings. Our final afternoon on this project was unforgettable, when a coalition of four adult male lions at Mala Mala in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, used our vehicle as cover to hunt a herd of buffalo. They were unsuccessful but it did not matter, as we were content to just be there, their  potential strength enough to see.

There is no doubt that an African continent without free-ranging lions would be a tragedy beyond words – if future generations got to glimpse these magnificent cats only behind the bars of cages or in the small enclosures of zoos. Indeed, the entire energy of the planet would be diminished in some way – and so would we, without the one other species against which we always have found the measure of ourselves.

Roger and Pat de la Harpe. Howick. 2012.
Lion (Panthera leo) pride drinking. MalaMala Game Reserve. Mpumalanga. South Africa.

Project Partners:

The following organisations supported this project:
  • Sasol
  • Nikon South Africa
  • Endangered Wildlife Trust
  • Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife
  • Tswalu Kalahari Reserve
  • Phinda Private Game Reserve
  • MalaMala Game Reserve
  • Mashatu Game Reserve
  • Jaci's Safari Lodges

Please Support our Project Partners
We sell and use Nikon Cameras and Lenses. Contact is for competetive pricing. Sasol
Phinda Private Game Reserve EWT - Endangered Wildlife Trust Ezemvelo KZN Wildlifehttp://www.kznwildlife.com/
Tswalu Kalahari Reserve MalaMala
Mashatu
Jaci's Lodges Lexar Memory Cards




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