Public rallies to save Sylvester the lion

Sylvester the Karoo lion in its boma at the Karoo National Park on Thursday, June 23, 2015. Photo by Gabrielle Venter South African National Parks

Sylvester the Karoo lion in its boma at the Karoo National Park on Thursday, June 23, 2015. Photo by Gabrielle Venter South African National Parks

The lion escaped his enclosure earlier this week, and for the second time, escaped the park.

Plans by the South African National Parks (SANParks) to euthanise the Karoo National Parks serial escape artist Sylvester the lion have met with international opposition.

The lion escaped his 100m x 100m enclosure inside the Karoo National Park in the Eastern Province earlier this week, and for the second time, escaped the park.

SANParks spokesperson Fayroush Ludick said last year the group of lions were originally all from Kgalagadi or offspring of the original group of Kgalagadi lions introduced to Addo in 2003.

“They settled very well into the Karoo Park and two cubs were born in November 2012. A number of movements of lions have taken place since, with the current population of lion in Karoo now standing at 11.”

The young Sylvester captured the imagination after he was believed to have been chased away by older lions and escaped from the Park on June 5.

A boundary fence destroyed by a mudslide caused by heavy rain gave the apex predator an easy out and it soon began making a meal of local farmer’s sheep before it was recaptured and taken home in disgrace.

According to reports, Sylvester may have killed about 15 sheep in total. He evaded capture for a period of three weeks.

And now he’s at it again.

According to a source, there is a high degree of fear Sylvester may kill someone if cornered, which led to the initial decision of euthanasia.

However since news broke, anger over the decision has been virtually tangible with many calling for SANParks CEO Fundisile Mketeni’s head.

Yet experts have warned simply relocating the recalcitrant animal was not as easy as it sounds.

John Varty is a name synonymous with wildlife conservation in Africa.

“He’s not a territorial male, obviously he’s taking pressure from bigger or more powerful males, and once he is under pressure, no fence is going to hold that lion, he is going to break that fence, jump through it, jump over it, whatever it takes,” Varty told The Citizen.

“To try and take him back to that park is not an option. To put him in a park where there are other lions, where there is already a coalition of other lions is also not an option; he will just be killed, so he has to have an area where he has his own territory.

“I would make a large area for him, where he is the dominant male, and then he will have no incentive to break out.”

There’s a catch however.

“To do that I would have to build an area of nearly 2 000 ha which would have to be stocked with game and I would have to introduce him to the area and which would cost more than R2 million, which I would have to raise through my foundation, Tigris Julie.

“So while I’m raising that money he would sit in captivity in about a 3ha boma which is the downside of my offer.

“So if there is someone with a big game ranch where he can become the dominant male, their offer would probably be better than mine,” said Varty, whose offer is one of many SANParks is weighing up right now.

Minuette Heuser of Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary said as a sanctuary, she would only be able to house the lion for a short while until such time as suitable place could be found for him.

“It would only be a temporary place to stay so he doesn’t get killed at least. From there we would have to work with SANParks to relocate him to a reserve. He is a wild lion; he belongs in the wild, not in the sanctuary.

“We have made the offer and now we must wait. I know he caused havoc the first time he escaped, and something is obviously driving him to escape. One, he knows he can escape, and two, there must be something driving him to move, to find his own territory,” Heuser said.

On the SANParks Facebook page, Zania Collin shared a post from Francois Collin on some of the issues facing SANParks, which is still in a meeting.

Francois noted:

“Basically, the rules for euthanising runaways are not set in concrete, but some brief guidelines are:

– if a lion escapes from a conservation area and it is captured, it is most often reintroduced to the area from which it escaped.

– if the lion kills agricultural animals or domestic animals while on the run, it is labelled as a potential problem animal, but when captured it is given a second chance, and it is reintroduced to where it escaped from.

– if the lion escapes again and kills livestock, the theory that it has become a problem animal is confirmed, and it is highly likely that the lion will escape again. Livestock are easy prey when compared with faster wild animals. It will most likely be euthanised.

– if the lion kills or injures a human while on the run, it is considered a man-killer and therefore a problem animal that represents a high level of risk to humans, even within the conservation area, so it is euthanised.

Now getting to the topic of relocation to a larger conservation area:

– how big is big enough? Lions have territories.

– if you introduce a large dominant male into an enclosed area where the boys have carved out their territories, and staked their claim on the female prides, you introduce a level of territorial conflict.

– the new male will attempt to claim a territory.

– the new male will attempt to mate.

– the existing males will retaliate.

– instead of euthanising one male, you may end up with a full-scale lion war, in which several unintended consequences may result.

– you could lose one or several male lions as a result of battles for dominance. (They may be old, young, or in their prime). There could be debilitating injuries that will lead to eventual death.

– you could lose a whole generation of cubs if the newly introduced male conquers the territory of an existing male/male coalition. In order to be accepted by the females after conquering the males, he will need to get rid of their existing cubs.

– in the process of killing the cubs, it is normal for the females to defend their young. This could result in injury or death of females.

So … reintroduction is not as straightforward as locating a larger reserve and placing the runaway in there.

Any such, exercise needs to be very carefully considered. It is not a light decision made out of hand with no consideration of all the available options.

Escaping through porous fences is indeed a problem, but creating an impenetrable fence is not always as easy as it sounds.

Fences are subject to failure created by uneven terrain, rivers, drainage lines, rockfalls, erosion of ground layers by rainfall, animals such as hyenas and warthogs that dig under … And then you introduce the human factor … Poachers that break in and out … Etc …”

When the lion was first recaptured last year, it was skittish at best when the open game viewing vehicle (OSV) drove up to the isolated boma, and bolted to the furthest corner and promptly lay down behind tall grass, frustrating photographers’ attempts for a picture of the lion known as Sylvester, or Spook (ghost).

“It is still very aggressive, it is mock charging when he sees people, especially on foot, and when it sees an OSV it scares the lion off. There’s a level of aggression we’re not comfortable with and we want it to settle a bit more before it is either released into this park or another one,” said Ludick at the time.

Park ranger Melissa du Toit had only just started working at the Karoo National Park when the three-year-old lion escaped due to a fence which had been broken due to a mudslide.

“The public called it Sylvester, we called it Spook because we would track it for hours then the tracks would simply vanish,” said Du Toit, who was involved in the first week of the search.

Even the near mythical tracking abilities of Khomani San trackers employed to look after the local population of black rhino were put the test as the lion evaded capture for nearly a month.

Sylvester led the search party on a merry chase of more than 300 km – 150 km at his furthest point – over the Nuweveld Mountains and at one stage had crossed over from the Western Cape into the Northern Cape. It was while the lion was returning to the park he was finally caught, darted, and returned to the Karoo National Park.

The lion has had a cushy life since then, being fed every two to three days with ostrich, zebra, and other antelope.

However, even the introduction of another lion to the boma in an effort for Sylvester to make “friends” has proved fruitless.

SANParks said it will make a statement later today.

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