In June of 2018, three Land Cruisers rushed through the sand forest of Mozambique at a rapid clip. I was in the back of the second Cruiser, bracing myself against the side rails, when the vehicle hit a low spot in the two-track road and very nearly threw me facedown into the bed. I managed to stay upright, and that was a good thing. Two lionesses were sleeping at my feet.
Our frantic rush through the forests with the lions was the final step in an ambitious relocation project that had taken five years to complete. It was the largest international wild lion transfer in Africa’s history and involved bringing 24 free-ranging adult cats from game reserves in South Africa to two million acres of the most intact wild country in all of Africa: Mozambique’s Coutada 11 hunting area in the Zambeze Delta. And the entire process was made possible by hunters and the funds generated by hunting.
There is no doubt that the African lion is in need of help, but contrary to what many armchair conservationists believe, lion populations are actually stable in most hunting areas. The two driving forces behind the decline in African lion populations—down from 450,000 in 1940 to about 20,000 today—are retaliatory killings following livestock predation and loss of habitat. As wild Africa shrinks and lions are forced into outlying areas in search of food, the cats frequently turn to eating cattle, which unequivocally results in the lion’s death. Recently, there’s also been an uptick in lion poaching in many areas of Africa (including wildlife sanctuaries) to feed a growing market for lion bones, teeth, paws, and tails for use in traditional medicine in Africa and Asia.
One man who has dedicated much of his life to finding real solutions to Africa’s conservation issues is Ivan Carter. His Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance and Raindrop Initiatives have provided millions of dollars in financial aid to some of Africa’s most effective anti-poaching and relocation efforts across the continent. In 2013, while visiting Mark Haldane at his Mungari Camp in Mozambique, the discussion turned to lions.
“Mark has done great work in Coutada 11,” said Carter. “The only thing missing is the roar of lions.”
Coutada 11 is indeed one of Africa’s most remarkable ecosystems, but that wasn’t always the case. Following the brutal Mozambique Civil War that raged from 1975 to 1992, Coutada 11’s wildlife was largely decimated. Once the hunting grounds of Wally Johnson and Harry Manners, years of unabated and unregulated poaching for sustenance and profit by combatants on both sides of the conflict left the area a virtual wasteland.
Following the war, Mozambique natives returned to the area and found the landscape so denuded of game that they took desperate measures to procure meat, building long fences with periodic openings lined with snares and leg-hold gin traps. Forests were cut down. Poachers burned grassy fields along the floodplain of the nearby Zambezi River, knowing the regrowth would bring the few remaining animals to the area once fresh new grass began to grow. This helped concentrate their trapping efforts—and very nearly extirpated the last remaining herds of game in the area.
In 1994 Haldane was one of the first outsiders to visit Coutada 11. A professional hunter in South Africa and Botswana, Haldane brought a Belgian client into the area on an exploratory safari. At that time the area had been ravaged by the war and was supporting a human population for whom starvation was a real danger. Despite this, Haldane saw promise.
“I fell in love with the area when I first saw it,” said Haldane. “I saw its potential, but I knew it wouldn’t be an easy fix.”
Indeed, it was not, but over the course of the next 20 years, the transformation of Coutada 11 was nothing short of incredible. That’s thanks almost entirely to Haldane’s efforts, which focused on habitat restoration, anti-poaching efforts, limited hunting, and supporting villagers. He spent a great deal of personal money on the recovery projects. As hunters returned to the area, the income they generated provided funding for him to hire local people, and today more than 90 full-time and 50 seasonal workers receive income from his company: Zambeze Delta Safaris.
In the 1990s, Haldane pieced together a small anti-poaching team that has since become a formidable anti-poaching task force everywhere on the continent. A fast-reaction team uses motorcycles to quickly apprehend criminals, and a Robinson helicopter, funded by the Dallas Safari Club, now patrols the area daily looking for signs of illegal hunting.
Haldane also provides meat from hunter-harvested animals free of charge to local families; this amounted to 31 tons of fresh protein last year—or 10 pounds of meat per household per week. Hunter funding has also allowed him to build a school, dig wells, and provide a corn mill for villagers. He also offers an emergency vehicle transport to local people who need to travel to the nearest hospital, which is 35 miles away.
All of these efforts have made Coutada 11, once a barren land scarred by one of Africa’s most violent civil conflicts, an unlikely paradise for wildlife. Cape buffalo numbers in the 1990s were as low as 1,200, but today there are more than 25,000 animals in the area, with some herds numbering over 2,000 during certain times of the year. Coutada 11 has become one of the premier destinations for buffalo hunting on the entire continent. Sable antelope populations were once down to just 44 animals, but today Coutada 11 likely has more sable antelope per square mile than any wilderness hunting area in Africa, and it’s not uncommon to see herds of sable bulls that number more than the entire population when the original census was conducted in 1994. Selous zebra, found in a few remote areas of eastern Africa, now number roughly 2,500 in the half-million-acre concession, up from just five animals in 1994. Rebounding wildlife populations have made Coutada 11 one of the greatest conservation success stories in recent memory, and Haldane will be the first to tell you that hunter funding helped make it all happen.
Despite Haldane’s success, moving lions into the area would be a monumental task. The project was aided by one very small and very surprising ally: the tsetse fly. Tsetse flies carry trypanosomiasis, which infects and kills domestic animals, so there has never been any livestock in the Zambeze Delta. Since the majority of lion killings in Africa are retaliation for stock predation, Coutada 11 was ideal lion habitat.
But Haldane was faced with convincing the local population to support lion relocation in the areas surrounding their villages. This would not be an easy task as most of the local Sena people in the area travel on foot and live very close to the wilderness where the lions would be hunting. Haldane’s good relations with the local chiefs and elders eventually won the support of the people.
Dr. Byron du Preez, a biologist who has spent more than a decade working with big cats, was brought in from Zimbabwe to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether lions could survive in the area. After years of research, Dr. du Preez determined there was sufficient evidence to reintroduce lions to the Delta. Additionally, the lions would be satellite collared before their release. This would accomplish two things: first, tracking the movements of the cats would provide a wealth of data about lion behavior; second, the satellite collaring would allow Dr. du Preez to establish GIS fences surrounding human habitations. If lions came near a village, he would receive an immediate notification and would be able to alert the villagers.
The next step in the process was to obtain funding, and the lion transfer would be anything but cheap. But locating funding for important conservation projects in Africa, projects that “move the needle,” is one of the specialties of Ivan Carter’s Wildlife Conservation Alliance. To support the ambitious Zambeze Delta project, Carter turned to a familiar name to hunters: the Cabela Family.
Dick and Mary Cabela established the Cabela Family Foundation to support conservation projects like the Zambeze Delta lion reintroduction, and they provided the financial backing required to begin the lengthy process of obtaining permits and charter flights to move the lions to Mozambique.
Finding lions to relocate was not difficult. As lion populations on private game reserves increase, the cats quickly run out of room, and young lions are killed by pride males or escape onto surrounding properties where they are poisoned, shot, or trapped. But Haldane, Carter, and the Cabela Family wanted lions that were truly wild, capable of finding and killing native prey and surviving outside fenced borders. The cats also had to be genetically dissimilar. Because they were moving 24 lions, there needed to be enough genetic variation in the population to eliminate the risk of inbreeding. The chosen cats were darted with pride mates at various South African game reserves and were flown via jet to Coutada 11.
On June 22, 2018, as the first load of wild lions touched down, I was standing on the grass runway of Haldane’s Mungari Camp in Coutada 11 with about 100 other people, mostly Mozambicans. What may be difficult for many people living outside Africa to comprehend is that very few of the native Sena people gathered had ever seen a lion. When the first of the 10 sedated lionesses was carried to a truck for final inspections before heading to the enclosure where they would spend the next six weeks before their release, an anxious crowd gathered. In the blistering afternoon heat, we carried lions one by one to waiting pickups, and after veterinary inspection, we climbed aboard the trucks to begin the long journey to the newly constructed two-acre lion pens 10 miles deep in the bush.
As the last of the cats was offloaded, the anesthesia began to wear off. Through the fence we watched as the lionesses rose and blinked heavily as they studied their new home. Locking eyes with a wild lion is a moving experience, and each cat looked us over before standing and walking on unstable legs into the long grass at the rear of the pen. There they would rest away the last effects of the drugs, and within 24 hours, all the cats had completely recovered.
Mary Cabela and her son Dan were on-hand for the lion transfer, representing the Cabela Family Foundation, and to inspect a new hospital that they were funding in Coutada 11, the very first modern medical facility ever in the region. The lions would spend six weeks in the fenced boma, and when the gates swung open and they were set free, the cats would wander out into two million acres of the most pristine and productive habitat in southern Africa. There would be no fences, no cattle, no human interference, and plenty of game. Additionally, these lions would never be hunted, a fact every member of the team emphasized because it drives home the point that hunters care about wildlife and that hunter-based conservation is about rebuilding habitats and protecting valuable species.
The Zambeze Delta lions represent new hope for the species. Dr. du Preez estimates that by 2050 these cats could represent upwards of 10 percent of the entire wild lion population in Africa. Their reintroduction has been a victory for the Delta, for hunter-based conservation, and for the African lion as a whole.