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Friday, 25th January 2019

Lions successfully released to roam within Samara Private Game Reserve. A key milestone reached for lion conservation in South Africa. In December 2018, Samara Private Game Reserve became home to a founder pride of lions – relatives of the majestic Cape lion that roamed the Great Karoo more than 180 years ago. 

As part of a pioneering project to return the Karoo to the state of true biodiversity it once enjoyed, the lions were initially kept in an enclosure on Samara to ensure their wellbeing and to bond them together as a pride. On 15 January 2019, they were successfully released into the reserve – marking a major milestone not only for Samara, but also for South African wildlife conservation.

Samara Lions

Image: Marnus Osche

According to Samara founders, Mark and Sarah Tompkins, the lions’ movement, feeding and breeding patterns will be monitored through satellite technology and by researchers on the ground. The reintroduction of lion will transform Samara into a ‘Big Five’ game reserve, as elephant, buffalo, black rhino and leopard are already present.

Beyond this, the reintroduction is critical for several reasons. Firstly, there is an urgent need for conservation initiatives targeting lions: the species has dwindled by 43% in the past 20 years, so that current lion populations are estimated at between 20 000 and 30 000.

Major threats to the species

Threats to the species include conflict with humans, depletion of their prey base due to habitat loss and the bushmeat trade, and the illegal trade in lion bones for traditional medicine in the Far East.  

In South Africa, the greatest challenge is arguably posed by the ‘canned lion’ industry, whereby cubs are bred in captivity, often hand-reared, only to later be shot by trophy hunters in small enclosures. These lions have no conservation value. This emphasises the need to create well-managed meta-populations – in other words, spatially separate groups that allow for translocations to ensure genetic diversity and to establish founder populations in areas where lions once thrived, but have since been wiped out. Samara is a case in point: Historical records indicate that the last wild lion in the area was seen in 1840.

Restoring real biodiversity

From the reserve’s perspective, the project also advances the Samara vision: to transform the area into a fully restored and functional Great Karoo ecosystem.

“The land on which Samara was established 21 years ago is made up of 11 old livestock farms in one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots,” Sarah Tompkins explains. “Already, much has been done to return this land to its former state: vegetation communities have improved significantly; antelope species have been re-introduced and the first wild cheetah made its return to the area, after 130 years, in 2004. More recently, the re-introduction of elephants, including two large bulls, has restored megaherbivore ecosystem processes.”

Notably, the new lion population means that the ecosystem has an apex predator, and positions Samara one step closer to achieving its ultimate goal of establishing a series of ecological corridors and public-private partnerships and to establish conservation as a viable land-use.

Professor Graham Kerley, Director: Centre for African Conservation Ecology and Distinguished Professor of Zoology at the Nelson Mandela University comments: “The reintroduction of lion boosts Samara’s conservation effectiveness to another level: lion are in need of conservation as a species, but also bring with them their role as the apex African predator. This will trigger a cascading series of responses in their prey species that will in turn affect other ecological process. Increasingly, we are learning that conservation areas without apex predators are only conserving part of the system. In addition, for humans, lions bring back a true feeling of wildness.”

"The successful reintroduction of lions gives us the opportunity to study what happens when a top predator returns to an ecosystem. Besides that, we can't wait to hear their roars echoing through our valleys!” concludes Sarah Tompkins.


Local residents' Big Five Game Drive Special: R550pp including two-course lunch and game drive (3-4 hours). Children over eight years are permitted and drinks are excluded. Minimum four people and maximum eight people per drive. Contact: 031 262 0324 or 


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