Panthera blog

Paul Funston, Ph.D.
Southern Africa Regional Director, Lion Program
October 15, 2019

About five years ago, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism undertook an effort to relocate a lioness who had developed a reputation as a livestock killer from Mangetti National Park in Northern Namibia to Bwabwata National Park, a few hours away. Despite her troubled past and challenging conditions for lions in her adoptive home, she became a successful mother and is now the matriarch of a growing extended family—The Buffalo Pride. We will be following the story of the Buffalo Lioness and her pride as part of our series on Prides under Pressure and how understanding changing lion dynamics can help us recover their populations.

FRANCESCA BULLET

The Buffalo Lioness is an example of how relocating lionesses can help spur the creation of brand-new prides.

The Buffalo Lioness is lucky to be alive. As a young adult in Mangetti National Park, she was a troublemaker, frequently killing livestock and angering local communities. Fortunately, the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism took a chance on moving the lioness, saving her from vengeful farmers intent on protecting their livelihoods. After a few attempts to relocate her in nearby Bwabwata National Park, she finally settled in the Buffalo Area in the western region of the park.

It wasn’t long before the Buffalo Lioness, as we call her, attracted the attention of two males, known as the Mahango Coalition. These males had previously held dominion over the Mahango Pride, which sadly had lost all of its females, likely victims of the very kind of human persecution the Buffalo Lioness had escaped. Searching for new females to mate with, they found her just across the Okavango River.

FRANCESCA BULLET

These brothers are known as the Mahango Coalition and come from across the Okavango River.

These days, the Mahango Coalition still swim back and forth across the Okavango courting two females, one on each side of the River. One of the females is the Buffalo Lioness, who successfully produced two cubs three years ago: a male and a female. Six months ago, she had another litter of three cubs, also sired by the Mahango Coalition, that seem to be doing very well under her care.

The older offspring of the Buffalo Lioness and the Mahango Coalition will soon have stories of their own. The male has been hanging around his mother for as long as possible, but is about to be pushed out by his parents. This is typical behavior for male lions of his age, around three years, who always disperse from their birth prides to start prides of their own. These dispersal patterns are critical for lion populations to maintain their genetic diversity.

FRANCESCA BULLET

The Buffalo Lioness’s son is almost old enough to leave their pride and strike out to form one of his own.

However, when lion populations are badly depleted, as they are in the Buffalo area, some atypical but inevitable behaviors develop. The Buffalo Lioness’s older female cub, now mature enough to have cubs of her own, has been seen mating with the Mahango Coalition males, one of which is her biological father. Based on the size of her belly, we think she may well be pregnant already. While this close breeding is not ideal, it should not negatively impact the genetics of the local population, as long as it doesn’t happen too often.

The Buffalo Lioness and her pride have been and will continue to be important study subjects for our lion conservation planning. We are increasingly learning through our studies that without enough breeding lionesses in a specific area, the overall population recovery is not possible, or very slow, even with adjacent source populations. This is because, in general, lionesses don’t move far or fast enough by themselves to colonize new areas. Translocating female lions into these areas of no or low lion density may be the only way for populations to recover. This is why Panthera’s planned reintroduction projects are so important.

FRANCESCA BULLET

The Buffalo Lioness and her pride serve as an inspiration and an example of how relocating lionesses can be successful.

We are preparing to reintroduce lionesses in two locations where lions have nearly blinked out, but the potential to recover them is high, and we have strong government and community cooperation. One of those locations is Batéké National Park in Gabon. Lions were considered extinct in the country until five years ago when a lone male lion was first spotted in a camera trap image. Since then, Panthera has been planning a strategic restoration project in partnership with the Agènce National des Parcs Nationaux that will include relocating two lionesses from northern Botswana into the area. Preparation is now underway for the lionesses’ arrival in 2020.

If we’re successful in reintroducing lions into our new project site in Luengue-Luiana National Park in Angola, we may eventually see several hundred lions in the region. This project is also in the early stages, focusing on community outreach and reducing illegal bushmeat hunting in the park in preparation for bringing lions back in the coming years.

The Buffalo Lioness and the birth of her new pride in an area where lionesses have been badly depleted give us hope. Along with our partner, the Kwando Carnivore Project, we are tracking and monitoring their movement within Bwabwata to better understand the role reintroduction can play in recovering lion populations and what we need to do to promote and protect breeding lionesses. I look forward to keeping you up to date on this evolving story.