This fluffy duo might be small, but they spell some very good news from lions and other big cats struggling in the wild.
The handsome pair were born on the August 25 at the Ukutula Conservation Center & Biobank in the North West Province of South Africa. They were conceived using non-surgical artificial insemination using fresh semen collected from an adult male lion by an international team of veterinarians led by Dr Isabel Callealta from the University of Pretoria – the first time such a feat has ever been mastered.
In honor of Dr Callealta and her fiance, the cubs have been named Isabel and Victor.
African lions (Panthera leo) typically don’t have too much trouble breeding in captivity. However, it’s often a different story in the wild. The African lion is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction on the IUCN Red List. Over the past 220 years, there’s been a 98 percent drop in the wild population of African lions. Between 1993 to 2014, there was a 43 percent decline. Even between 2016 and 2018, their numbers fell from 25,000 to 18,000. As you might have guessed, this is mainly caused by humans through poaching, trophy hunting, habitat loss, and prey depletion.
What’s left of African lions in the wild are small secluded, fragmented populations, which can lead to inbreeding. The use of artificial insemination in lions could help address the problem by broadening the genetic distribution. In turn, this will lead to a reduction of disease transmission and a healthier population.
Certain subpopulations of lions are even more at risk, such as the West African lion, which is considered “critically endangered” and the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), which is listed as “endangered.” Now this hurdle is cleared, the researchers hope that this technique could be used on these rarer subpopulations of lions and even other endangered big cats.
This experimental first has also provided new data on African lions' reproductive physiology. “This, together with the success of the AI [artificial insemination] births of the lion cubs, not only celebrates a world first achievement, but has laid the foundation for effective non-surgical AI protocols for this species, using both fresh and frozen-thawed sperm,” Dr Callealta said in a statement.
“We are grateful to the team of scientists who continue working relentlessly in pursuit of this key element in preserving future generations,” added Willi Jacobs, owner of Ukutula and founder of the UCC & Biobank.
“There can be little doubt that wildlife conservation through education and ethical scientific research is the most suitable long-term solution for our planet’s conservation challenges and dwindling wildlife populations.”
Conservationists are increasingly turning to artificial insemination as a means for the long-term conservation of endangered animals. Last year, the first Mexican wolf pup was successfully born from frozen sperm.