Durban - Three lions have been released into Mountain Zebra National Park in the Eastern Cape, becoming the first free-roaming lions in the area after an absence of more than 130 years.
The introduction of the king of the beasts is even more remarkable considering the park contained only six mountain zebras 75 years ago, when it was set up specifically to save this unique zebra species from extinction.
Since then the park’s boundaries have been expanded considerably and now contain more than 750 mountain zebra, which have different stripe patterns and facial colour from those of the more common Burchell’s zebra.
The new predator arrivals, a single lioness from the Karoo National Park and two males from Limpopo, were released into the 28 000 hectare park last week.
Park manager Megan Taplin said the decision to introduce lion was based on the fact that lions had occupied the area in earlier centuries. It would also help to keep the large number of herbivores in check.
Lions are the third predator species brought back into the park following the reintroduction of cheetahs and brown hyenas about five years ago.
The numbers of large herbivores such as black wildebeest, red hartebeest, eland and gemsbok had now reached levels deemed sufficient to support lion, said Taplin.
The lions have been collared so park managers can monitor them in the first few months or years after release, and to check what habitats they use and which species they prey on.
“On release into a new area, lion often prey on a variety of species before settling down. However, we predict that they will prey mostly on species such as black wildebeest and kudu,” said Taplin.
The park is already enclosed with predator-proof fencing, and two public picnic sites have been fenced off.
Apart from their value as natural predators, the introduction of the lion will add to the park’s tourism value.
“I think it will be wonderful to hear lion roaring at right – nothing beats that sound,” said Taplin.
When it was set up in 1937, the park boundaries covered only 17km2 and contained only six mountain zebras – five stallions and one mare. Private neighbours donated another 17 of these rare animals over the years, and by 1975 park managers were able to start moving surplus zebra to surrounding parks. - The Mercury