His royal tribal emblem is a lion, but traditional leader Mabhudu Israel Tembe of Maputaland's 150 000-strong Tembe people had until recently never seen the king of the jungle, except on television.

Now he has four, a gift this weekend from the North West Parks and Tourism Board, which manages the Pilanesberg National Park.

On Saturday the lions, two males and two females, were darted and flown by cargo aircraft to KwaZulu-Natal's Tembe Elephant Park.

The Tembe leader helped load the first lion and offload it at the other end.

The male lions have been named Mabhudu, after the traditional leader, and Mzimba, after his father who died 11 years ago and who set aside the 30 013 hectares of community land that became the Tembe Elephant Park in 1983.

Lions that may have wandered down from Kruger Park through Mozambique were last seen there in the 1950s.

The introduction of lions to Tembe will make it KwaZulu's second Big Five provincial game reserve, after the Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park.

Said Tembe: "I am very, very happy and excited. The lions will make the park more attractive to tourists and persuade them to come to Maputaland.

"We are also currently committed to joining 4 000 hectares of our tribal land to the park, forming a community reserve in the south. Tourism is the only source of jobs for our people, otherwise they have to go all over the country."

The lion introduction has not been without controversy. Said Khulani Mkhize, the chief executive officer of KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, which manages the park: "Some concern was expressed by the Mozambican government because of the proposed Transfrontier Park (TFP), that some of their people are still living in the protected area.

"Our stance is that the TFP is a long-term thing in years to come, and we need to elevate Tembe and put it on the tourism map.

"When it was formed our commitment was to producing economic returns for the community. The introduction of lions is part of this."

Said Wayne Matthews, a regional ecologist: "The primary objective is to stimulate ecotourism and make Tembe a genuine Big Five destination.

"Lions are part of the savannah ecosystem and contribute to this. For example they remove sick and infirm herbivores; they also produce carcasses used by a range of scavengers.

"The electric fence around Tembe has been upgraded at a cost of R100 000. The money was contributed by the Wildlands Trust. The park is surrounded by communities and a primary concern is to ensure that the lions do not leave.

"They will be held in a boma for about four months and fitted with radio telemetry collars, allowing for constant monitoring after their release.

"We will consider bringing a second pair of females and possibly a second pair of males into a different part of the park to increase tourist sightings."