"The lion population is spread out fairly evenly throughout the whole of the Kruger National Park (KNP). You get adult males that control a certain area and a pride, with females and the youngsters. When the youngsters grow to three years of age, the young males are forcibly evicted from the pride. They then have to find another place," head of the scientific unit at SANParks, Danie Pienaar, told journalists in Pretoria.
"In the Kruger National Park, all the lion habitats are saturated so those young male lions are the ones that tend to go out of the park. If they were to stay, most likely they would get killed. When other male coalitions take over a pride, they evict the pride males. It's a normally violent affair. The older males that get evicted also have to find a place to live as well. They would be probably hurt in the fight."
He said sometimes female lions with young cubs also preferred leaving the KNP, to ensure their cubs' safety. Last week, five lions escaped from the KNP, sparking fear and panic amongst some communities located along the edges of the park.
News of the escape dominated social media networks and news headlines. Four of the big cats were later captured.
"The message you should have gotten from this is that animals that leave the park are lions that are pretty vulnerable and that is why they leave. The park is a pretty dangerous place for them. All animals in the KNP die. They die what we would probably consider a pretty violent death. You know what happens when male lions fight ... they break the back of the animal and leave them so we have these paralysed lions in the bush. They die a slow death or get eaten by hyenas and vultures," he said.
"So one can understand why these animals would want to find areas which are a little bit safer. That is why they tend to leave the park." Pienaar explained that lions escaping from the KNP was not a new phenomenon.
"This last specific case got attention because it was quite visible. They were next to the N4 from what I understand. When these animals go out, each of these cases are dealt with on merit. We have a good understanding with our provincial conservation colleagues who manage the areas outside the park. They get in contact with the park rangers and they go out and investigate the situation and deal with the case on its merits," said Pienaar.
He also said from the reaction of the lions which escaped last week, it was evident that they were used to human beings and vehicles. He said another theory asserted that the group of lions got out of the park "inquisitively", just wandering around.
Lions which leave the park are assessed and marked to help rangers determine if the cats become "habitual offenders". The cats which constantly escape the park eventually get put down. Regarding the unaccounted for fifth lion, Pienaar said chances are it might be back in the KNP already.
"It's likely that he would just walk back. Where they [the captured lions] were on the N4 is literally a stone's throw from the Kruger Park so he probably just walked back. He might have heard his mates roaring on the inside. So in all likelihood, he found his way back."
SANParks spokesperson Rey Thakhuli said so far there had been false alarms from individuals alleging that they had spotted the fifth lion.
Thakhuli also said when communities around the KNP proved that their livestock has been attacked by lions, SANParks had a compensation policy in place.
"There has been a confirmation that one cow was killed. A carcass of that particular cow was also discovered. We do have a policy to compensate. It's called the 'damage causing animal policy'. If the owner of an animal can positively state that their animal fell victim to another animal that came from Kruger, we certainly compensate," said Thakhuli.African News Agency