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Do test tube lions help conserve wild lions?

Lion experts dispute conservation value of test tube lions questioning whether this merely supports lion breeders’ claims that they contribute to the conservation of lions.

“World’s first test tube lion raising hopes to save big cats from extinction” and “IVF success for the King of the Jungle” read headlines, when in late August two lion cubs were born through artificial insemination (AI) under the auspices of the University of Pretoria (UP) at the Ukutula Conservation Centre (ICC), which still allows cub petting.

However, a group of 19 of the world’s leading lion conservation and research organisations dispute these claims in a letter to UP saying “…we do not support the captive breeding of lions, whether assisted or not, because it does not contribute to biodiversity conservation or address the main threats to wild lion conservation”.

The UP study states that their research efforts into the assisted reproduction of lions “opens new opportunities to improve breeding of captive and free ranging lion populations, and thereby assisting conservation efforts on this species”.

“The lack of ability to breed is not a recognized conservation threat to the wild lion. In fact, managers of reintroduced lion populations in small reserves in South Africa are challenged by high rates of population increase and how best to control them, often resorting to contraceptive methods”, the letter continues

Even in captivity, lions reproduce relatively easily, as our massive captive population of 8,000+ lions is testament to.

“Therefore, the breeding of lions is not in question or of concern, and AI is not a prime conservation requirement for the species”, the letter claims.

None of the IUCN recognised major conservation threats to wild lion populations, i.e. habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, prey depletion, use of lion bones and body parts for traditional medicine, and trophy hunting, are addressed in the UP study.

UP research was undertaken in cooperation with UCC, part of the Ukutula group. The Ukutula facility houses at least 15 white and tawny lions producing 4-12 cubs per year, 20 cheetahs, and various other predators.

Through this project UP links itself with an organisation that still facilitates dozens of international volunteers to act as surrogate mothers for “orphaned” lion cubs and to clean enclosures. Jobs that South Africa can ill-afford to give to unskilled and untrained youngsters from overseas, who pay Ukutula for the privilege (around ZAR 22,000 for the first 2 weeks and ZAR 9,000 per additional week).

Ross Harvey (South African Institute of International Affairs) states in his report on the “Economics of Captive Predator Breeding in South Africa” that as many as 84 full time jobs are currently undertaken by volunteers in the industry that would otherwise be available to local job-seekers.

Utukulu still offers cub petting and lion walks to paying visitors. Lions that become redundant at an age of 2-3 years old, as they become too dangerous, and are sold to other captive facilities or zoos.

“Links between captive lion breeding facilities, their associated spin-off industries, including cub-petting and lions walks, canned trophy hunting and the lion bone trade, are well documented”, the letter states.

The group of concerned conservation and animal welfare organisations asked UP and the Mammal Research Institute to:

  1. Publicly distance itself from captive lion breeding facilities;
  2. Review its Ethic’s Approval for this study as the artificial insemination cubs will remain at the facility and may be subjected to the same exploitative cycles outlined herein;
  3. Stop all research in the artificial insemination of lions, as this does not benefit the conservation of wild lions.

The group includes the IUCN African Lion Working Group, Blood Lions, Panthera, and Wildlands Conservation Trust, as well as representatives from animal welfare and protection groups, including Born Free Foundation, Four Paws, and Humane Society International.

So far, they have received no response from UP.