The History of the Lion Release Program

Lion Program History and update November 2020

Our lion release program can trace its origins right back to 1999, where the Conolly family happened to take on a set of orphaned lion cubs.

Having bought a property known as Antelope Park in 1986, Andrew Conolly and his family took over a 3000-acre game park, in the heart of Zimbabwe, just outside a town known as Gweru. Andrew bought the property after breaking away from his family business in engineering, to pursue his passion for Cattle farming.

What he bought was, in those days, considered a wildlife sanctuary, where the previous owners would offer recreational weekend trips to the citizens of Gweru to see some animals.

The land was fenced and had a variety of plains game roaming around, but the real attraction was the various captive species found in enclosures. This consisted of hyena, cheetah, crocodiles, monkeys and so on. There also happened to be 6 lions amongst the captive animals, living in enclosures surrounding what is now the Conolly’s home.

The family pursued the cattle ranching industry with great success in Gweru and even ran a successful butchery for many years. But they also kept the animals and continued to offer the tourism activities that Antelope Park had become known for.

Things changed a bit in the year 1999 when a female lion gave birth to some cubs in her enclosure. This was not the first time that cubs had been born at Antelope Park, but it was the first time that the cubs were rejected by their mother.

It is not uncommon for any mother animal, captive or wild, to abandon some or all of their litter. In this case, and for whatever reason, this female lion rejected her 2 off spring and proceeded to move to the opposite end of the enclosure, not even a little bit perturbed by the squawking newborns on the other end.

Eventually the family, on realizing that these cubs would die without their intervention, proceeded to remove the newborns and attempt to raise them in their home. Something that was not actually that uncommon.

The Conolly family did what many people across the continent have done, they bought lion cubs into their family. The intention, give these little guys a second chance to life, and when old enough return them to an enclosure. At least it’s better than them dying without the care of their mother.

The cubs thrived, and very quickly become a part of their family, living in the house amongst the kids and the dogs and very much at home with their surrogate pride. So much so that they would also often accompany the family on their regular walks around the game park. What was a nice family stroll with the dogs, become a nice family stroll with the dogs and the lions.

It was on these walks that Andrew began to notice the instinctive characteristics of a lion coming through. These “pets” which had been raised up in his home and with no training began to show natural instincts. When on these walk it was common to encounter some of the game that call Antelope Park home, and these young lions, even though they were raised by humans, in a house, showed their natural instinct to hunt.

It’s actually very simple. Anyone that has rescued an orphaned kitten in an alley way will attest to the fact that when that kitten grows up, and given the right opportunities to hone their hunting instincts, will always be a successful hunter.

Sure enough, the more these young lions were taken on walks, and the more they were allowed to practice these instincts the better they got at it. As they got older, they got faster, and eventually they were catching and killing animals. With no training, and just the opportunity to hone their skills.

Over the next 2 years, Andrew saw the success of these lions as they got older and more comfortable with their natural environment and being the visionary that he is, he started to explore the possibility of releasing these lions into the wild. His first thought was to explore where these lions may be needed, and indeed to understand the overall status of lions in Africa.

Very quickly it became apparent to him that wild lion populations were under major threat. In 2002, a continent wide census was conducted specifically focusing on lion. It showed an average of 33,000 lions left in Africa. Down from 250,000 in the 1960’s. A headline he read from a paper in South Africa which said “Krugers Lions Dying like Flies” spurred him further. Current estimates put the African Lion at under 20,000. That’s a 90% reduction in 50 years!!

With his new understanding of the plight of lions, and the experience he was getting with his very successful captive lions, Andrew attended an IUCN summit specifically focusing on the status of the African Lion. After discussion with various industry leaders, advice and guidance was given on how to make this idea he had been formulating into a reputable program, and what was required to do so. This is summarized as follows.

Firstly, it needs to be converted from an idea into a full blown, scientifically proven program, secondly, the world needs to be told about the plight facing the African lion. Finally, the expense and running of the program need to be considered. And sustainable income generation needs to be established.

And so, Andrew and his family embarked on what has become a life long journey for many.

By 2005, Andrew had developed his vision into a program. This was spearheaded by the development of a not for profit organization known as ALERT. ALERT stands for the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust and was developed to take the idea of a lion release program to the world, conduct research and data collection on its viability as well as spread the word about the plight of the African lion. Being a charity, it now also had the opportunity to receive donations towards the cause.

A detailed explanation of the multi-staged program can be found here

By allowing friends and family, as well as eventually paying customers, Andrew had also found a means of funding such a vison by offering the world’s first commercial lion walking activity. People traveled from far and wide to experience the one of a kind thrill that is walking with lions.

Such an activity also received global support from organizations such as world wildlife fund, who, in 2005 provided a letter of endorsement to the program and walking with lions.

In 2007, the program had its first milestone. On the 27th August we released our first pride of captive bred lions into a 500 hectare semi wild area in the center of Zimbabwe. Having spent a significant amount of money in securing and preparing the area, it was a hugely emotional day. A significant feature was the presence of Sir Ranulph Feinnes, a famous British explorer, who had come across our work and has subsequently become a patron of ALERT.

We had also managed to get a production team from ITV in the UK to the occasion. This semi wild release become part of our first ever documentary, a 3 part program entitled Lion Country.

As this was the first release of its kind anywhere in the world, a lot was left to trial and error. On day 3, the lions check the first major box in a long list of requirements for a successful release. They made their first kill, an adult bull Eland. No small feat given that these are the largest antelope in Africa, and estimates put this bull at just under 1 ton.

For the next 14 months, these lions lived as any lion in the wild. Forming a structured pride, and sustaining themselves. Sadly, and such is life in Africa, the land on which our release site was positioned changed hands, and the new owners where not as supportive as the previous. The very difficult decision was made to pull down the fencing, recapture the lions and find a more secure location to continue our program.

The next 3 years saw us secure an area adjacent to Antelope Park, and the rebuilding of the fence to keep progress going for the lions.

By 2010 we had completed the build and the area was now ready for the lions to be released. On 1st September, in the presences of the Minister of Environment for Zimbabwe and several other dignitaries, our program continued. Part of the 7 females release were 4 from the original release, lions who had experience. They were later joined by a beautiful male, affectionately known as Milo, and have become known as the Ngamo pride. This was followed by the development of another secure release site in Livingstone, Zambia and the subsequent release of a second pride of captive lions in 2011, affectionately known as the Dambwa pride.

At lot had changed over the last 3 or so years, and Captive lions was fast becoming taboo in many people’s eyes. And rightfully so.

With the success we had been having with regards to our commercial lion walks and related volunteering opportunities, inevitably such activities started to crop up at other establishments. Sadly not all of these had the same ethics and purpose.

Most of all the very unethical practice of canned lion hunting. Canned hunting is the breeding of lions purely for the purpose of being shot by a paying hunter. It is a practice that has been going on for many years. As the hunter only wants a mature trophy, the owner had little use for young lions and would often give them to family or friends to raise up as a novelty item, and therefore not have the expense of raising it. Once the lion is old enough he is returned to the owner, who then sells him to a hunter to be shot.

Lion walking and cub petting now gave such owners an opportunity to earn money off the lion while it is young, and still ultimately sell it to a hunter for the final reward.

As not many people in the world will support such a life cycle for a lion, these owners advertised their lion interactions under the banner of conservation and releasing lions into the wild. On several occasions we pursued legal action against establishments who had gone as far as copying and pasting our conservation work and claiming to be part of the same efforts.

Obviously several such operators have been exposed, and at the same time, canned hunting bought into the spotlight, and with it, lion interaction activities. To the point now that anyone who has captive lions is painted with the same brush and must be involved in this very unethical practice. It’s a case of guilty until proven innocent.

Our first accusation of being involved with canned hunting came in 2008. We had an overland group stay at Antelope Park. Unfortunately one of the guests on a walk was jumped on by one of the cubs and sustained some injuries to her head that required stitches. By all accounts it was not a serious incident. The lion in question was under a year old and still had his milk teeth, but an incident none the less. It must be said that our record is impeccable considering we are working with a dangerous animal. In fact we have had just a handful of lion related injuries and 10 times more horse related incidents in our history.

This young lady went home and told her story to anyone that would listen. Fortunately she adapted and exaggerated it so much that it actually began to contradict itself and people began to question the facts. But before that happened the English Times newspaper picked up on it and published a front page story on the incident, and at the same time suggesting that our lions ended up in the canned hunting industry.

We immediately approached the press complaints commission, and upon investigation they ordered the Times to print a retractment. This they did, a small little paragraph on page 6, against a front page article. Needless to say, the damage had been done.

From 2008 until now, we have had a constant uphill battle trying to prove to the world that whilst we work with captive lions, we have never, and will never be associated with the canned hunting industry or any other unethical practices with our animals.

Whilst we completely agree with what the world feels regarding the unethical practices around captive lions, it has been a real struggle to break ourselves away from that negativity and not be tarnished by the same brush.

We have hired PR companies, flown experts in to get a firsthand experience of our work, published academic material in support of our vision, featured in numerous documentaries spreading the word of the plight of the African Lion as well as what our vision is.

We have our lion stub book available online for anyone to access and see where any one of our lions are at any time. Each lion has been microchipped with a specific identity number, again published alongside their name online. At any point, anyone with concern is able to ask to see a specific lion. We try to be as transparent as possible.

In the end, the only thing that will separate us in the eyes of the world would be a completion of our program and our first release of lions into the wild.

By 2015, we were now ready to test this model that we had been developing over the last 10 years. We finally had the next generation, wild born cubs. Born to the Ngamo pride in 2011, and now reaching maturity and ready for release.

We approached the Wildlife Authorities of Zimbabwe who are well versed with our program and advised of our readiness to test the model and release 4 lionesses.

They suggested a National Park in northern Zimbabwe known as Chizarira. One of Zimbabwe’s most beautiful National Parks, covering an area of around 2000km squared.

Our first visit to this area in mid 2015 completely blew us away, and not all in a good way. Whilst the beauty and splendor was obvious so was the tolls of an extended economic meltdown being experienced by Zimbabwe. This National park is not renowned for its tourism, and as such little travelers venture into the area. Meaning that the resources available to the Authorities to successfully manage such a vast area are not there, and the level of dilapidation is obvious.

After initial assessments to gauge the potential capacity for the area to sustain extra lions we invested in a total area census. This census was conducted along IUCN guidelines, and include ground surveys looking at prey availability, as well as an understanding current predator populations in the area. It also involved the hiring of a light aircraft to conduct aerial surveys for the larger mammals.

By the end of 2015, a feasibility study was presented to the Authorities, indicating that there was enough prey, and space to support the presence of 4 more lions in the area.

The whole year of 2016 was spent back and forth with the authorities building a memorandum of understanding. In January 2017, and with much celebration we signed the MOU allowing us to release our first lot of lions, and complete the program for the first time, and against all odds.

Whilst our main objective with this was to release lions, the MOU was only about 10% releasing lions and 90% general Park management and assistance to the authority. Something we are happy to take on.

The remainder of 2017 was spent getting to know the area, better understanding existing pride movements and territories, and generally coming to grips with working in such a vast, undeveloped area. Roads that should be there had overgrown and had to be reopened to allow us access to the area, and much of our work was to be done of foot.

The start of 2018 was a big one for us, as we had decided that this would be the year we released lions. Our aim, conduct the release at the beginning of the dry season so that we have undisturbed access to most of the park. A holding boma was developed on the outskirts of an existing wild pride territory and our hope was that the resident dominant male would be attracted to these new lionesses in his area and keep them within his extended territory.

The date decided on was the 10th August, also known as World Lion day, a day we founded back in 2011.

Sadly, in June that year, we received a letter for suspension from the wildlife authorities regarding our release. Obviously this was a major set-back as we had invested so much time and effort into getting to this point. Our understanding is that some of our detractors had put pressure on the authority to not let us release.  Unfortunately, and as mentioned above. The negativity that had grown over the last few year around lion interactions had also affected the progression of our program.

What the suspension did do for us internally is it made us reevaluate our operations and our core products. We have always been happy to continue to breed and walk with lions whilst our vision for release was clear. The funds raised and awareness generated through these activities all continued to push towards that ultimate goal of releasing lions. With the announcement of the suspension, we too made a call to no longer breed lions, and as such phase out the walking with lions activity we had become known for.

We are very proud to say that none of our various brands breed lions anymore, and no longer offers lion interaction activities. But we are equally proud of where this program and our lions have allowed us to grow to in the last 15 years.

Obviously this is a massive move for us, and completely alters our main income streams being activities centered round lion interactions. This does not just affect the lion release program, but also affects the multitude of other conservation and community development initiatives we have grown over the last 15 years.

With a multi-disciplined approach we have interests in everything from rural health care, teaching assistance, medical work, human wildlife conflict, conservation education, anti-poaching, wildlife research and national park restoration. All being funded and paid for by the income generated through our lion interaction activities. Whilst our aim is to continue the extensive welfare work we do outside of the lion release program, efforts are centered round developing other income generating products around our lions that does not involve breeding or interactions.

Our efforts are ongoing to have the suspension reversed by the Authorities, as we feel our model is a potential continent wide solution to the still rapidly declining lion numbers.