Lion lovers say artificially breeding ‘large felids’ not what big cats need

Local conservation groups were not overjoyed at the news that the first two African lion cubs conceived via non-surgical artificial insemination were born at Ukutula Conservation Centre and Bio­bank in North West Province.

The University of Pretoria said this was achieved as part of a research study by a team of scientists from the university “on the reproductive physiology of the female African lion and development of artificial insemination protocols for this species which could be used as a baseline for other endangered large wild felids”.

University of Pretoria said the cubs were conceived via non-surgical AI using fresh semen collected “from an adult male lion at the same facility”.

But conservation organisations have questioned why such research is even necessary. Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Dr Kelly Marnewick said lions are “declining mainly due to conflict with people, lack of suitable prey, lack of safe spaces and trade in their body parts”.

“In South Africa lions are doing well with a stable population and have recently been classified as ‘Least Concern’ on the Red Data List, but they are conservation dependent.

“Artificial insemination does not address any of the threats that lions face. It does not make sense to focus on breeding when the threats to lions are not addressed. Wild lions are able to breed well and interact socially if they are provided with the appropriate space to do so.

“Captive breeding does not contribute to conservation and the links between captive facilities and ‘canned hunting’ and the bone trade are damaging to conservation of wild lions,” Marnewick said.

Wildlands chairperson Dr Andrew Venter also said the main issues for African lions are habitat loss and dealing with human/animal conflict. “Instead of the breeding, the recognised conservation community is focused on these two principal issues,” Venter said.

The Blood Lions Campaign said that given “there are no conservation concerns about the breeding behaviour of lions in the wild, we would ask the question; why is this necessary?

“We would also ask the University of Pretoria if they condone the exploitation of lion cubs for commercial tourism?”

The university said the purpose of the research was not to help lions breed better in the wild, but rather to have methods established to reproduce endangered cats when their numbers and genetic diversity are getting low.

“We are storing sperm of different males for future purposes. Rather than transporting animals, we can then just transfer semen and get pregnant lions or other cats and breed them back.”

The university said though African lions breed well in captivity “the wild population is highly fragmented and suffers progressively from isolation and inbreeding”.

Their population is estimated to have dropped from just over one million in 1800, to 18 000 in 2018.

The African lion is listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The university said the Ukutula Centre “has a long history and great experience of housing and breeding lion and other African carnivores”.

The university said the animals are used for research and education, within strict rules and their research partners and have contracts in place that guarantee an immediate end of the collaboration, if any criteria are not met.

The university said the cubs and the mother will remain in captivity as they were raised in captivity and are used to humans.