Lions were released in Karoo National Park near Beaufort West on November 10, 2010 freely setting foot on the Karoo soil for the first time after an absence of almost 170 years.
According to historical records, the last wild lion was shot at the nearby settlement of Leeu-Gamka in 1842. Historical evidence of lion occurrence in the area includes farm and river names based on the word "leeu" or lion and the fact that the two main rivers draining the central karoo mountains – the Leeurivier and Gamka River – derive from the Afrikaans and San words for lion respectively.
The two male lions, two lionesses and four cubs were released from the boma in Karoo National Park, becoming the first wild, free-ranging lions in the Great Karoo.
The eight lions have been resident in the park bomas since late September to allow them to acclimatise to the new surroundings before their release. The lions were translocated from Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape, where the establishment of a lion population has been very successful following their introduction in 2003.
The Addo lions were originally introduced from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park stock, chosen for its genetic similarity to the Cape lions which would historically have occurred in the area and for their disease-free status. Lions can suffer from diseases such as tuberculosis and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) which can be transmitted to other species.
South African National Parks (SANParks) took the decision to introduce lions to the Karoo National Park in a bid to restore the natural functioning of the predator-prey balance in the ecosystem as well as to ensure that all historically-occurring species are once again conserved in the park.
It is expected that the lions will prey mainly on the larger herbivores of the Park including gemsbok, which number over 1500 animals, red hartebeest (1400 animals) and eland (about 400 animals) as well as kudu (700 animals) and ostrich (600 birds).
"Apart from their biodiversity value, the introduction of lions will have great tourism value for the Karoo National Park and for the Great Karoo Region," said regional general manager, Lucius Moolman. Moolman said that visitors would now be able to experience both the unique atmosphere and tranquillity of the Karoo as well as the thrill of spotting lions in the wild.
"Karoo National Park has traditionally always been used by visitors as a one-night stopover between Cape Town and the interior but we believe that the introduction of lions as well as the recent new developments in infrastructure and activities such as 4x4 trails will transform this Park and the surrounding area into a two or three night destination," Moolman continued.
Prior to the release of the lions, the rest camp area, reception complex, camping grounds, swimming pool and popular fossil trail have been fenced in with low-level electrified fencing. This will ensure that visitors can walk between accommodation and facilities. Visitors will still be able to experience the Park on foot as hiking trails such as the Pointer and Bossie Trails will be run as guided hikes, at no extra cost, departing at various times of the day.
Predator-proof fencing has been completed around the 176-kilometre perimeter of the almost 90 000 hectare-Karoo National Park to minimise the risk of lions exiting the Park onto neighbouring properties. SANParks will initially monitor the lions closely with the aid of tracking collars fitted before their release to check what habitats the lions use, what prey species they target as well as to record their movements.
The carrying capacity for lions in the Karoo National Park has been set conservatively at between 15 and 20 lions, depending on the conditions in the Park and availability of prey species.