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A triumph for ecosystem restoration as lion settles in Zinave

A camera trap recently captured the first known image of a male lion in Mozambique’s Zinave National Park for several decades. The lion, which was drawn to the prey-rich habitat of the 18 600 ha sanctuary that has been established within the park, has since settled in the sanctuary, signifying how the remarkable restoration of this once-silent wilderness has led to the establishment of healthy ecosystems that are naturally attracting Africa’s top predator.

Over the past 10 years, Zinave, which was decimated by decades of human impacts in Mozambique, has been the focus of intensive restoration and rewilding efforts, which have seen more than 2 300 game animals, including 200 elephants, from 14 mammal species being reintroduced into the sanctuary. With the assistance of a number of different donors, the programme has been accelerated under a 20 year co-management agreement signed in 2015 between Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas (ANAC) and Peace Parks Foundation, with an eventual goal of rewilding the entire 408 000 ha park and developing it to sustain its own operating costs through ecotourism.

The populations of reintroduced herbivores have already blossomed to more than 9 000 animals, rapidly restoring the ecological balance in the park and attracting the first lions to spontaneously arrive. In addition to the male, a lioness had also been wandering the fencelines of the sanctuary for several months.

“This is an extremely exciting moment for Zinave and for conservation in Mozambique as a whole. The extensive efforts that ANAC and Peace Parks Foundation have directed into restoring and managing the park have led to some incredible outcomes, and the presence of lions is another clear indicator of the ecological health of Zinave,” says Maria Cidália Mahumane, Coordinator of the General Directorate of ANAC.

The photographed lion is a young adult male estimated at between 4 to 5 years of age. Male lions will generally be pushed out of a pride at between 2 and 3 years old, becoming nomadic and attempting to establish their own territories and prides. The image was taken on a camera trap set up alongside the fence close to one of the sanctuary’s entry gates, by Zinave Park Warden for ANAC, Antonio Abacar. Momentarily startled by the flash, the lion charged the source of the disturbance and broke the camera, but fortunately the memory card remained intact so that the photograph could be retrieved. The lion has since settled into the sanctuary, with park staff coming across killed prey.

Bernard van Lente, Peace Parks Foundation’s Project Manager for Zinave National Park, explains that:

“Destabilisation and lack of prey in an ecosystem are the main reasons for the absence of large carnivores in an area. Since the park started animal reintroductions, and because of successful protection efforts, the game numbers have grown rapidly and the ecosystem has stabilised sufficiently to host apex predators once more.”
Predators come roaring back

Incidentally, the lion photograph was captured in the midst of an exciting new phase in Zinave’s translocation programme, during which a variety of predators are being reintroduced. A clan of four spotted hyena were settled into the park at the end of 2020, and have already produced two cubs. Two leopards, a male and a female, were successfully introduced in late 2021.

“With the abundant prey and safe environment available, the fact that the park is able to sustain large carnivores is very encouraging, and it will not be too surprising if more lions, leopard, wild dog and cheetah start to make sporadic appearances, over and above the carnivores that are set to be reintroduced into the park over the coming years,” Van Lente says.

Zinave National Park is the easternmost anchor park of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA), which also comprises Banhine and Limpopo national parks in Mozambique, Kruger National Park in South Africa, Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and various other state and privately-owned conservation areas across the three countries. Wildlife monitoring has shown that various species, including lions, elephants and wild dogs, are using this crucial cross-border migration route to access water, food and breeding grounds through the ecological corridors that connect the different conservation areas.

In another indicator that lions are traversing this crucially important wildlife corridor, tracks and scat have also been discovered in the Banhine National Park, another park in Mozambique where Peace Parks is a co-management partner for ANAC, and a critical link between Zinave and the Limpopo and Kruger national parks. The 725 000 ha park has also been the focus of rehabilitation and protection efforts under a co-management agreement between ANAC and Peace Parks Foundation, resulting in the steady growth of wildlife populations.

Peace Parks Foundation CEO Werner Myburgh says that these occurrences are particularly significant in achieving the objectives of the Treaty that was signed to establish the GLTFCA. “One of the stated objectives was to enhance ecosystem integrity and natural ecological processes and remove artificial barriers impeding natural movement of wildlife. With the continued rewilding and steady development of the three national parks in the Mozambique component, it was only a matter of time for wildlife to start moving naturally between these protected areas, but to see this happening now in reality, is a momentous conservation milestone.”

Protecting lion strongholds

Over the last hundred years, lions have disappeared from 95% of their historic range. Over 200 000 lions once roamed across Africa’s wild places. Now, only an estimated 23 000 to 39 000 remain, due to habitat destruction, human-wildlife conflict, poaching and poisoning.

Last year, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, ANAC, Peace Parks and South African National Parks, with funding from the UK Government, through the International Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, embarked on a partnership to understand and protect lions in the GLTFCA.

Zoning in on the key lion populations found in Limpopo and Kruger national parks, the project is gathering valuable data – using GPS satellite collars and other methods – to understand the threats and drivers of population declines and to enhance lion protection efforts at a large landscape level through the development of the transfrontier conservation area.

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