Stefan Fouché

Back in 2018, I reported on the untold success story of the so-called Waterberg lions. These five adult, captive-bred lions were released in 2016, not only surviving but thriving in the 33 000+ ha environment they share with the remaining four of the Big Five. This story continues and it is our duty to keep telling it as it is often much easier to turn a blind eye to difficult situations and controversial issues instead of trying to tackle them head-on and face the facts.
One of my best mates, Coenie Meyer, and I were close to Steenbokpan in Limpopo Province, South Africa. We were hunting with Tienie Bamberger, owner of Warthog Safaris. Tienie played a huge role in putting together the Waterberg lion project. While hunting with him on his property, he invited us to take part in a very interesting exercise later that week, which would involve the same pride of lions.

Just to recap for those who missed the article in the October 2018 issue of GAME & HUNT (for an electronic copy of the article please e-mail Tienie and fellow lion breeder, Nico Breedt, donated a male and four female lions to be released onto a massive 33 000 ha game reserve. Although many individuals and institutions (on both the pro- and anti-hunting sides) had their gravest doubts about whether these cats would survive in the wild after being bred and raised in captivity, the contrary was proved. Not only did they survive, they formed a pride and reproduced, and within two years a total of 13 cubs were born. All the cubs survived and they are now 18 months old.

Now in 2019, this project is a victim of its own success. With a total of 18 fully grown lions, the damage they are doing to the game numbers in the reserve is unthinkable and definitely not sustainable. To try and put a rand or dollar value to it is almost impossible, but six digits before the .00 would be a fair guess as to what these cats consume in one year. Even a huge piece of land like this therefore has the same problem in that no one is willing to host (or capable of doing so) this number of large predators on their property. Habitat availability definitely is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to large predators, especially lions.
The aim was to capture and relocate at least eight of the young lions. One of the farm managers is currently studying for his doctorate and is doing his thesis on this same pride of lions. The capture would thus be of great value to him, as he has been documenting the project since its inception in 2016. He would now be able to weigh and measure all the captured cats for data purposes.

The lions’ eyes are covered and the guys quickly take the measurements of the teeth and whole body before loading them into the trailers.

The guys measuring the captured lions for data purposes. Tienie from Warthog Safaris is helping out.

One of the captured lions on the back of a Hilux

This is where this story gets complicated. Where to now with these fully grown lions, some of them almost passing the 200 kg mark, and that at just 18 months? We are actually back to where we have started. Nobody has space or money to accommodate these six youngsters. For this system to be sustainable, lions have to have a value, period. And the only worthwhile value is from hunting. There is no tourist or photo attraction profitable enough to make it feasible to keep lions on a property. With continuous habitat loss, which is a stark reality in Africa, how else can we ensure that there will still be lions in, let’s say, ten, 30 or 80 years to come? Like so many other success stories of numerous species with a value attached to them in countries all over Africa, our lions will have to be protected and looked after. This is where hunting plays a huge and important role.

In short, I believe that these lions played a huge part in silencing a large number of anti-lion-hunting factions. Personally, I cannot bring myself to give preference to one species over another, treating it differently to the rest, based purely on emotion. For me hunting is a way of life. Either you agree with that way or you don’t. There is nothing ethical about shooting and killing something with a rifle or bow and arrow. However, considering what happens with the hunter’s dollars, it is the only sustainable way to manage wildlife in Africa. If you do not agree with what we hunters do, please feel free to discuss this issue and to disagree in a civilised manner. I will not try and convince you in any way that what we are doing should be acceptable to all mankind. But I will, in a grown-up and straightforward way, try and explain why we hunt in terms of management and conservation considerations. We have our own reasons for being passionate about hunting, but that does not form part of this discussion.

To Tienie and all the anonymous participants in the Waterberg lion project, thank you for your tireless efforts to ensure the future of the African lion on our great continent.

The author helping to keep an eye on the lions after the vet has darted them from the blue helicopter below

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