Timeslive (South Africa)

Image: Supplied

A pride of lions has been set free on a community-owned game reserve in northern Zululand‚ boosting its tourism potential and helping to ensure living space for a species that has disappeared from large parts of Africa in recent decades.

There are only about 2‚000 free-roaming adult wild lions left in South Africa‚ with just 32‚000 remaining in the whole of Africa following a dramatic 43% population decline over the last 22 years.

Earlier this year a small pride of three lions – one male and two females – arrived at their new home in the Somkhanda Community Game Reserve‚ south west of the Jozini/Pongolapoort Dam. They were put into a temporary holding boma after being relocated from the AndBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve‚ near Hluhluwe.

Now the lions have been released from the boma to roam freely in about 12‚000 hectares of the reserve‚ wildlife managers confirmed this week.

“Having lions reintroduced to Somkhanda Game Reserve is a huge achievement for the Gumbi community and the Emvokweni Community Trust‚ who are the owners and custodians of Somkhanda‚” said Dave Gilroy of the Wildlands Conservation Trust. “Somkhanda is now officially a Big Five reserve after methodically introducing endangered species to the reserve over the past 10 years.”

The new lions were doing well and had been seen hunting‚ feeding and mating.

The Gumbi community was evicted from their land in the late 1960s‚ but when their land claim succeeded just over a decade ago‚ they opted to preserve the natural landscape and establish a Big Five game reserve. They have gradually acquired the other four flagship species – elephant‚ rhino‚ buffalo and leopard – along with endangered African wild dogs and a much wider variety of more common game species ranging from giraffe to impala.

Nathi Gumbi‚ a member of the Gumbi community and Wildlands’ manager for community engagement in northern KZN said: “We are very happy about the lions coming to Somkhanda. The community feels privileged that the reserve is now a Big Five 5 reserve. Our dream is a reality. The Gumbi community are pioneers in their own right and this is evidence that community engagement can yield positive and inspiring results.”

Somkhanda is also one of the few community-owned game reserves protecting two critically-endangered species — black rhino and wild dogs.

The Wildlands Trust‚ which has been closely involved in conservation work in the reserve for several years‚ says Somkhanda is one of the last big areas in KZN that can potentially create migratory corridors between neighbouring reserves for large mammals‚ such as critically endangered black rhino‚ as well as African wild dogs that range over large distances.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species‚ lions disappeared from most of Asia within the last 150 years (with a small population surviving in India’s Gir Forest) and became extinct in Europe about 2‚000 years ago.

More recently‚ lion populations in Africa have also plummeted and the species is now confined to about 17% of its former historic range on this continent.

In South Africa‚ it is estimated that there are about 1‚500 free-roaming mature lions in large conservation areas and about 500 more in smaller reserves. Lion breeders also keep about 6‚000 lions in captive breeding facilities‚ mostly for the hunting and lion bone industry.