In August, an 18-month trial of tests by scientists researching the reproductive system of female African lions at the University of Pretoria resulted in world’s first lion cubs born by non-surgical artificial insemination at the Ukutula Conservation Center and Biobank in South Africa’s North West province.
“These are the first ever lion cubs to be born by means of artificial insemination – the first such pair anywhere in the world,” announced the University of Pretoria, whose scientists are researching the reproductive system of female African lions, in a world first achievement. The findings are part of research being done by Isabel Callealta, a Spanish veterinarian and PhD student at the University of Pretoria.
The breakthrough is crucial for big cat conservation efforts and scientists hope the technique can be used to save other endangered big cats as the technique can be repeated to grow populations. The new technique would let breeders to simply transport the sperm to receptive females as is done with the captive elephant population in Northern America and Europe.
While African lions breed quite well in captivity, the wild population has suffered from isolation and inbreeding according to the scientists. In a high profile trophy-hunting case in 2015, a US dentist killed Cecil, a Zimbabwean a white-maned lion that was one of Hwange National Park’s main attractions. Years of indiscriminate killing, habitat loss, prey depletion, poaching and trophy hunting, have resulted in the African lion population estimated to have fallen to 1.2 million in 1800 to about 25 000 in 2016, and 18 000 in 2018. This equivalent to a 98% decrease over 220 years. Extinct in 26 African countries, African lions are now designated as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
We collected sperm from a healthy lion,” Andre Ganswindt, the director of the University of Pretoria’s mammal research institute told Agence France-Presse. Then when the lioness’ hormone levels were found to be viable, she was inseminated artificially. And luckily it was successful,” said Andre Ganswindt, adding that “there were several attempts, but surprisingly it didn’t take too much effort.”
But animal welfare organizations are less enthused. “The captive lion breeding industry in South Africa is exploitative and profit-driven,” said Mark Jones of the Born Free Foundation acc to AFP. According to AFP, a group comprised of 18 African and international conservation organizations wrote a letter addressed to the UP and UCC scientists citing concerns that the technique will be used to breed captive lions for tourism. but did acknowledge artificial insemination could help other imperiled wild cats like the cheetah.