The Lion King Returns after 44 years!

18 Dec 2013

In 2001, President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela said “iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the world’s oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale).” Today after 44 years of absence it also has lions.

The addition of lions affords the park Big 7 status, with all of the key terrestrial animals present plus whales and sharks in the marine section. Include turtles and the myriad life on our coral reefs into the package, and iSimangaliso can proudly state that it is truly the most diverse park in Africa.

iSimangaliso lioness
“The iSimangaliso Authority dedicates the historic reintroductions of lion into iSimangaliso, to the memory of our leader and former President Tata Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela” – Mavuso Msimang, iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority Board Chairman.

In 1999 iSimangaliso Wetland Park was strategically nominated and listed as South Africa’s first world heritage site as South Africa’s foremost natural wonder, along with Robben Island and the Cradle of Humankind, under Tata’s Presidency.

“Before becoming South Africa’s first democratically elected President, Mr Mandela and half a million other South Africans had signed the petition opposing the mining of Lake St Lucia’s dunes in the early ’90s. This was followed by the most important decision in the establishment of iSimangaliso and its listing as South Africa’s first world heritage site – the vision and decision in 1996 by President Mandela and his cabinet to disallow mining in favour of conservation and eco-tourism,” said iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis.

iSimangaliso Mandela-Buthelezi
“Tourism has been described as a peace industry – one that promotes contact between peoples and cultures. It has the capacity to play a strategic role in development and in enriching the peace which we now enjoy” – President Nelson Mandela, Durban – May 1998, at the launch of the Lubombo Spatial Development Initiative. The photo shows then President Mandela and Minister MG Buthelezi at the sod turning for the Lubombo SDI Road in 1998 (and is reproduced with the permission of The Independent on Saturday). iSimangaliso is the anchor project in this SDI.

In choosing eco-tourism as a core driver of upliftment in the area the South African government placed responsibility on the iSimangaliso Authority to unlock the Park’s potential to provide and carefully balance this with the conservation of its world heritage values. Under the Park’s mandate of ‘development to conserve’, the Park Authority is accomplishing this task. iSimangaliso is providing significant and sustained employment and community upliftment via its land care, craft, SMME and entrepreneurship programmes, infrastructure contracts, sustainable agriculture and natural resource use policies, and its tourism, leadership, environmental education, art and cultural heritage training. Under iSimangaliso’s watch tourism businesses in and around the Park have grown by over 80% in the last 10 years with average bed occupancies going from below the national average to above at the same time as the number of beds having grown by over 40%, creating thousands of direct jobs.

In his speech at the release of elephants into iSimangaliso after 100 years of absence, President Mandela said: “There can be no better icon for the holistic approach we are taking to conservation and development of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. This re-introduction is an almost spiritual form of restitution. It is an attempt to recreate the wholeness of nature so that we can live in harmony with its creator’s magnificence… so that the descendants of the elders of Maputaland, the generations of the future, too can experience this grandeur.” And now, many years later, this sentiment could be repeated as lions re-enter the Park.

The first family of four lions – of a planned three groups – were released to the uMkhuze section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The animals, an adult female and three sub-adult offspring (a male and two females), are the first of a total of eight planned for this section of the park. The lions were translocated from Tembe Elephant Park and had spent five weeks in a purpose-built boma to acclimatise them to their new environment before being released.

Lions were last seen in uMkhuze some 44 years ago. Two more females and a coalition of two males (brothers) will follow to form the base of the new iSimangaliso lion population.

iSimangaliso bona lions
Adult lions are fitted with satellite collars to monitor their movements for biological and safety reasons.

“This historic introduction of lions brings iSimangaliso closer to achieving its conservation vision – the full restoration of eco-systems functioning, and the re-establishment of the migratory patterns of historically occurring animal populations from the top of the Lebombo mountains to the sea as they occurred in the times of Shaka and before fencing fragmented the landscape and constrained animal movements”, commented Andrew Zaloumis during the release.

iSimangaliso board Big 5 sign
Several of iSimangaliso Authority’s Board members and staff inspected the uMkhuze section shortly before the lion release. Seen here with a new “Big 5” sign (that has already been strength-tested by an elephant) are from left to right, back row: Mr Ilan Lax (Board Member), Mr Mavuso Msimang (Board Chair), Mr Sizo Sibiya (iSimangaliso Tourism Operations Manager), iNkosi ZT Gumede (Board Member), Ms Karin Mathebula (Board Member), Mr Herbert Mthembu (iSimangaliso Park Operations Director) Front: Mr Andrew Zaloumis (iSimangaliso Chief Executive Officer) and Ms Terri Castis (iSimangaliso Chief Financial Officer/Director Commercial Development).

Several thousand heads of game have been translocated into iSimangaliso since 2000. All the game that historically occurred in the region (including oribi, tsessebe, black and white rhino, elephant, wild dog, cheetah, buffalo, waterbuck and blue wildebeest) with the exception of eland, have now been re-introduced by iSimangaliso and its conservation partners Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Eland are currently being sourced for an April/May 2014 introduction. Hyaena and jackal have returned on their own and populations are flourishing.

This is the result of 13 years of hard work by iSimangaliso staff settling land claims, removing thousands of hectares of plantations and erecting over 350km of “Big 5” fencing. Much of this work has been undertaken by community SMMEs creating significant employment in an area marked by unemployment and poverty. Fencing was done with the support of communities, involving negotiated agreements with seven traditional council chiefs and dozens of isigodi’s. Community leadership see the introduction of lions as a boost to tourism in the medium term and along with this, more opportunities for their residents.

Renowned conservationist Dr Ian Player is also highly supportive of the iSimangaliso’s efforts at restoration of the original animal populations and biodiversity. “This is a great day for conservation. iSimangaliso has shown us that at a time when conservation budgets are at their lowest and there are so many other priorities globally, parks can still prevail. I applaud iSimangaliso on realising our conservation vision for iSimangaliso, something I did not dream achievable in my lifetime!” he said.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first world heritage site, is 332 000ha and comprises 9% of South Africa’s coastline. It encompasses five major ecosystems ranging from marine, coastal, wetland, estuarine, and terrestrial environments. These largely unspoilt ecosystems include diverse coral reefs, long sandy beaches, extensive coastal dunes, estuarine and freshwater lake systems, inland dry savanna and woodlands and wetlands of international importance. The species lists for the Park are the longest in the region. Of the species listed in the Park 108 are endemic to South Africa and 467 are listed as threatened and endangered in South Africa. The Park also has 4 RAMSAR sites (wetlands of international importance). The natural values, in terms of which the Park was inscribed on the World Heritage list, include outstanding examples of ecological processes, superlative natural phenomena and scenic beauty, and exceptional biodiversity and threatened species. The Park has thus received recognition under three of four natural criteria recognised by the World Heritage Convention.

For photos and enquiries contact Lindy Duffield at lindy@isimangaliso.com.